Gene R. Summers was born in 1928 in San Antonio, Texas. He studied architecture at Texas A & M, where he received his bachelor's degree, and at the Illinois Institute of Technology under Mies van der Rohe, where he received his master's degree in 1951. From 1950 until 1966 Summers served as project architect for Mies van der Rohe, working on important commissions such as the Seagram Building in New York City and the National Gallery in Berlin. In 1967 he became partner in charge of design in the Chicago architectural firm of C. F. Murphy Associates, where he remained until 1973. His best-known project from that time, the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, was completed in 1970. From 1973 until 1985 Summers, in association with Phyllis Lambert, worked as a real estate developer in California, where they restored, among other projects, several industrial parks, the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and the Newporter Resort Hotel in Newport Beach. In 1985 Summers moved to France but returned to Chicago in 1989 to become dean of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a position he held until 1993. Summers was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1972, and later relocated to Healdsburg, California. Summers died on December 12, 2011 in Sebastopol, California at the age of 83.
Summers speaks about his architectural education at Texas A & M and at the Illinois Institute of Technology; the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois; working in Mies's office; military service in the United States Corps of Engineers during the Korean War; the Seagram Building in New York City; Phyllis Bronfman Lambert's involvement with the Seagram Building; Mies's plan for the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology; the Federal Center in Chicago; leaving Mies's office; joining C.F. Murphy Associates as a design partner; McCormick Place; starting a development company with Phyllis Lambert; relocating in France; the relationship between Richard J. Daley and Charles F. Murphy Sr.; Summers's art collection.
Gene Summers for C. F. Murphy Associates, McCormick Place; Chicago, 1969. Rendering by Helmut Jacoby. Department of Architecture, The Art Institute of Chicago.
"[In Mies's office] it was different early on because there really were fewer jobs and there were, of course, fewer people. There were six people in the office, I think, counting myself, when I first went in, probably not counting Mr. Bonnet. Felix Bonnet was the office manager/secretary, the whole works. He was a European. He took care of business. There were a few jobs and there was just a feeling in the office that everything we were doing was important....Even then, though, while [Mies] would sit down at your desk and look at what you were doing, he would make a few sketches, but he's not one of those people that I would have to deal with later in my career as an architect who would tell you where to go and how to do it. He would simply look at it and say, 'Work on it, work on it some more.' It got done. Although he wouldn't do a lot of the stuff himself, he was able to clearly make the decisions by either drawings or by models. In the early years there was a distinct difference between the way we worked. We worked with sketches a lot.... He insisted that we just sketch a lot, make three-dimensional sketches of details of parts of the building. Later it developed, and it was somewhat of a crutch on his part, that he would want a model of the thing. It was always easier, instead of looking at a drawing and saying, 'That's okay,' to make a model of it. He had no interest in or even the slightest, remotest thought of efficiency of the office as far as getting a job done. That just didn't enter his mind. He was only interested in getting this thing done in the right manner, not any kind of speed." (p. 24)
Funding for this oral history was provided by The Art Institute of Chicago and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.