This year's Chicagoan of the Year in architecture was consistently ahead of the curve in a career that ended much too soon.
Doug Garofalo, who died at age 52 in July, five years after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, belonged to a new generation of architects who injected fresh energy into Chicago's architectural scene.
Others in that generation include two previous Chicagoans of the Year who had notable achievements in 2011 -- Jeanne Gang, who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and John Ronan, who designed the elegantly layered, new Poetry Foundation headquarters.
But Garofalo was the first of the trio to emerge, and he did so as a leader of the so-called "design digiterati," using the computer to conceptualize and construct some fabulously exuberant buildings.
He will long be remembered for his role in the renovation of a Korean Presbyterian church in New York City, a job he got in the mid-1990s through one of his employees, a Korean, whose brother belonged to the church.
Aware of his limited resources and the difficulty of designing a project that was hundreds of miles away, the young Chicagoan teamed up with two other up-and-comers, Greg Lynn of New Jersey (now Venice, Calif.) and Michael McInturf of Cincinnati. Together, they worked out a revolutionary design process.
Not only did the three link their computers so they could work on the church simultaneously despite the fact that they were in different cities. They "sketched" the church entirely on the computer, using the machine¿s powerful calculating ability to figure out how they could build the church¿s unorthodox shapes, most notably, a series of angled scallops on one of its flanks.
"They didn¿t stand over drawings," the architect Stanley Tigerman recalled after Garofalo's death last summer. "It was an entirely new day in terms of architecture."
But this technical innovation would have meant little if it weren't hitched to a special aesthetic sensibility. As his one-man show at the Art Institute of Chicago made plain in 2006, Garofalo used the computer to compose fluid, biomorphic shapes called "blobs."
In the Manilow house in Spring Prairie, Wis., he wrapped a rambling old farmhouse and a new wing in a spectacular undulating roof structure covered in titanium. In the Nothstine house in Green Bay, Wis., reflecting the owners' interest in slot car racing, he wove a bright yellow band of fiberglass through the house, sculpting its outside and shaping rooms that are, literally and figuratively, groovy.
In retrospect, these houses reflect a particular moment in time, when the computer had liberated architects to break out of the box as never before and a booming economy allowed clients to indulge such formal experimentation.
Even before the 2008 financial crisis, however, Garofalo demonstrated in another renovation what he could accomplish on a limited budget and with a more sober geometry. This one turned an old university press storage building into the vibrant Hyde Park Art Center.
To bring light into the massive building, Garofalo cut precisely detailed, diorama-like windows into the facade. Inside, he carefully arranged galleries, art studios, a library, offices and a cafe so they would feed on each other's energy, creating what the center's former executive director, Charles Thurow, calls "a creative community."
A visit last week showed that the five-year-old art center is lived in -- and loved -- by its community. A shortage of funds prevented such flourishes as perforated metal panels from completing the exterior, but the outcome remains a model of architectural recycling. We can still celebrate this and other Garofalo achievements even as we mourn his loss and wonder what other gifts he might have bequeathed us. -- Blair Kamin