Symphony of designers, architects collaborated on Northwestern Mutual

Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons

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Designing Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s new $450 million, 32-story office tower was truly a team effort.

As the architect of record for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project, Kendall/Heaton Associates Inc. was tasked with keeping the 37 design businesses working on the project moving forward.

OJB Landscape Architecture designed the gardens at the Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons.

“We had a large team of consultants and it was challenging at times, but everyone pulled together and did their part to create this magnificent building,” said Pat Ankney, a principal with Houston-based Kendall-Heaton.

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New Haven, Connecticut-based Pickard Chilton was the building’s design architect, while Chicago-based Valerio Dewalt Train Associates served as interior architect.

Project developer Hines brought Kendall-Heaton on board to spearhead the design and architect coordination. Communication was key in bringing the project to fruition, Ankney said.

“We would have meetings every two weeks with members of the design team and work on the plan and keep it moving forward,” he said. “We are proud of how it turned out.”

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Jon Pickard, a principal at Pickard Chilton, said his company worked with Northwestern Mutual and others involved in the project to develop a design that met the Milwaukee company’s needs.

“I viewed our role as a symphony conductor, bringing everyone together in a collaborative partnership,” he said. “We wanted to do our best to utilize the campus space and the great view of the lake while developing a look that fit with the city’s skyline. We wanted the architecture to reflect the elegance, quality and authenticity that Northwestern Mutual represents.”

Incorporating local businesses into the design work was vital, Ankney said. More than two dozen Milwaukee- and Wisconsin-based businesses were used in the project to meet the city’s requirement (part of the tax incremental financing subsidy) that Northwestern Mutual use small business enterprises for 25 percent of the project’s costs.

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Rinka Chung Architecture Inc. was one of those locally-owned businesses, providing its design skills in the commons area, including the Northwestern Mutual Credit Union. The firm used its financial institution design expertise to create what principal Matt Rinka said is an example of leading edge design for credit unions and banks.

As part of the design, bankers work from teller pods that open to the lobby, allowing for easy interaction with members. There is also a technology kiosk that displays current promotions, with demonstration areas for online member resources.

“The location within the commons area, with its full glass walls and connection to the tower lobby, provides a spectacular space for both members and bankers,” Rinka said.

Chad Griswold, principal at Rinka Chung, said interacting with world-class design firms, including Valerio Dewalt, was an amazing experience.

“We have always placed high importance on doing great design work in our hometown, so we’re proud to have been involved in this landmark project for the city,” he said. “The scale and significance of the project is unprecedented.”

When architect Pickard steps back and looks at the project as a whole, the design of the commons area stands out.

“It’s three stories tall and really brings the staff of Northwestern Mutual and the community together,” he said. “There are places to eat and meet, or people can walk out to the garden. It is a feeling that you may find on a university campus.”

The project’s innovative design and architecture doesn’t end when leaving the building. Outside, OJB Landscape Architecture worked on the Northwestern Mutual Gardens, which covers three acres and provides both employees and community members with plenty of green space, flowers and walkways to enjoy.

Jim Burnett, president of OJB, said a vital part of the project was making the incline from the street level to the building “not too overwhelming.”

Nathan Elliott, a principal at OJB, said the team worked hard to link the exterior spaces to the tower’s interior. That included the atrium, which connects the historic office building to the new building.

“It is an interior space for events that is simple and elegant, with a water feature and palms,” he said.

Elliott said landscapers worked with construction crews to preserve as many large trees on site as possible. “We had to carefully choose what (plants) to include since you want it to look nice 12 months of the year, not just in summer,” he said. “We were lucky that the southern side of the building has great sun exposure.”

Northwestern Mutual was also “interested in the story behind the story,” Burnett said. That meant they wanted a garden that did not use a lot of water or fertilizer. “The garden can also be a guide to help visitors figure out what to plant during the different seasons,” he said.

Pickard said the project’s main players – Kendall-Heaton, Valerio Dewalt and his own firm – have worked together on other buildings, which helped in making the Northwestern Mutual building a success.

“There is a level of trust between us that helped us share more openly our ideas as we moved forward,” he said.

See the rest of the Special Section on the Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons here.

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