Conversations in Design: Finding the Beauty with Keith Campbell and Katie Sprague

Clare Sausen November 30, 2021

Conversations in Design is a series from CRTKL in which design thinkers from around the firm come together to discuss critical topics facing the AEC industry.

Today, we’re sitting down with CRTKL’s Keith Campbell, Principal in CRTKL’s Chicago office and Katie Sprague, Principal in CRTKL’s Los Angeles office to reflect on the legacies of their decades-long careers in the architecture and design worlds as they approach their retirements at the end of this year.

Keith Campbell is known for his well-honed ability to design solutions that enhance his clients’ highest development and commercial aspirations. He is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and a LEED AP licensed architect in fifteen states and Ontario, Canada.

Keith began with CRTKL in January of 1997. In his twenty-five-year career with the firm, he has focused his professional career on mixed-use architectural and urban design solutions that transform and energize neighborhoods and cities — breathing new life into undervalued, underserved and blighted environments. Locally, he is a Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) and the Chicago Loop Alliance member.

With more than three decades of experience, Keith is an expert at creating memorable spaces and experiences within his mixed-use projects, focusing on the optimal mix of office, retail, entertainment, hotel and residential spaces. His work received awards from the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, the Urban Land Institute, the Congress for New Urbanism and ICSC.

Katie Sprague is the leader, innovator, and now, torch-passer for branding and Experience Design at CRTKL. She attended Loyola Marymount University and ArtCenter College of Design for degrees in Fine Arts and Graphic Design.

Katie started with CRTKL in July of 1991. As a brand strategist, Katie brings complementary components to the traditional CRTKL architectural design process — focusing on research, analysis and the human experience. She uses a collaborative approach that begins with her clients’ vision and mission, adding in user research and then translating those intangible assets into the built environment.

Her international, award-winning branding projects span all the project types in CRTKL’s portfolio — from retail and hospitality to residential and healthcare. She was part of the team that created the Happiness by Design program at CRTKL and authored Happiness: Now More Than Ever, a primer about the importance of designing for mental health and human-centric happiness.

Katie worked on the team for Guadalajara Airport Terminal 2

Let’s start broad and go back to the beginning: tell me a bit about how you got started in architecture and design.

Katie Sprague: My story goes all the way back to my father, who was an architect himself, and he always shared his unique view of the world. As you may imagine, that meant many family vacations that were a bit different from the other families – while my friends got to go places like Disneyland, my Dad would pack our family in the car and drive us around to look at buildings. One year we went to San Francisco, jumped out of the car and we’re at the Hyatt Regency – the site of the first inverted atrium in a hotel, designed by John Portman in 1973. While we were confused, my Dad stood there, beaming – this WAS the destination. Even if we didn’t quite understand it, this was beauty as he saw it.

That was my upbringing. My Dad taught us to look for beauty in the world – which, for him, was found in the built environment. That will always be a part of who I am and how I see things. I didn’t necessarily want to be an architect, but I knew my career would have something to do with design in the world around us.

For my undergrad, I went to Loyola Marymount University to study Fine Art, and the job prospects weren’t great when I got out. I then moved to Colorado to become a ski instructor. During that time, I was always doing design and eventually started working for a firm in Boulder called Communication Arts. They were pioneers in placemaking, and I learned so much from hanging out with those guys. Richard Foy and Henry Beer helped me see the intersection of graphics and architecture as a viable career.

They also helped me realize the value of a formal design education. In my late twenties, I went back to school at Art Center in Pasadena to learn about design. When I was graduating, I interviewed with Phil Engelke from RTKL, who would later become my longtime boss and mentor. He told me they were looking to start an environmental graphics department in Los Angeles. Thirty years later, here I am, getting ready to wrap it all up.

Keith Campbell: Besides the ski instructor part, my story is not too dissimilar. I always liked to draw as a kid – I drew early and often. Although my Dad wasn’t an architect, my parents built our family home in 1955, and one day I found the renderings and construction drawings of the house in my Dad’s home office.  I even have those framed now. The design bug bit me young. By the time I was ready to go to college, I knew I wanted to be surrounded by design. So, I went to Rhode Island School of Design and fully immersed myself in it – it was nice not having to worry about my calculus grade and focus on my passion.

Keith worked on the team for North Hills Innovation District

What were some significant turning points in your careers? Any moments you would never have expected?

KS: That question in itself is a good lesson, actually: you can have a plan, but be ready to be taken off course – that’s when the real journey starts. Many years ago, when I was still early in my career at CRTKL, the CEO asked me to give a branding presentation to senior leadership. At that time, “branding” was just a concept – it wasn’t a service being bought or sold, and people were confused about what it was

But the clients seemed to get it – what we often presented times gave them insight into their own companies. And so that moment  – the CEO’s request – gave me the confidence to create a group and pitch it as something we could sell. That was a huge turning point for me – I focused my career and built a group around branding the built environment. From there, we’ve expanded into experience design – a big part of the PXD approach we’ve been using for many years.  That presentation was a tiny seed that grew into my whole career path. I learned that, at CRTKL, if you see an opportunity, give it a shot – if it’s a good idea that’s also good for the company, you will have support.

KC: I think my most significant turning point was learning the value of mentorship. When we first started the Chicago office in 1997, we landed one of my first big projects – the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds masterplan with Paul Jacob (PJ) and Bob Smith. We then had a charette and all drew together and talked through everything and did what we said we did best. PJ became a strong mentor for me through so much time working together, which made a massive difference in my career at CRTKL. I always remember that day and its influence on my thinking about supporting the people around me.

The second moment that comes to mind was a few years later. I went to New Jersey, and we did the same thing with Roseland Property Company – spent the day talking, drawing, conceptualizing, ideating with John Gosling – and that charette ended up turning into a 25-year relationship. We’ve now done nine commissions for them in four different New Jersey communities. There is so much value in supporting and mentoring those around you to create meaningful relationships. I never expected anything from the meeting that day, but it turned out to be really important for CRTKL. They don’t say much about the importance of relationships in design school, but it’s a critical part of what we do.

KS: We’ve learned – during the pandemic, especially — the value of flexible work and trusting people, which are both great and will transform the way we work for many years to come. But what working from home doesn’t provide is the opportunity for mentorship. When Keith and I talked about how we got our start, mentorship was tantamount. So much of that connection happens in informal ways – getting lunch together, sitting next to one another, even saying, “goodnight” as you head to the car. It’s tough to emulate that casual connection with a scheduled video conference. I hope that the future of work maintains the importance of mentorship and human connection.

Katie worked on the team for Chadstone Shopping Center 

How have you felt the impact of each other’s work in your practices?

KC: I’ve known Katie for 25 years, but we haven’t worked specifically on the same project as much as I would’ve liked. We have worked on the Design Leadership Council (DLC) together, where Katie was a sponsor and we helped create much important work, but what always stood out to me was Katie’s ability to lead. She was not only the most intelligent person in the room but the best communicator – I think she’s the best communicator at CRTKL, period.

KS: That’s very kind, Keith, thank you. In the DLC, we wanted to make sure that design was part of the daily conversation in the firm and the twelve of us took the responsibility seriously. Keith was always one of the guys who had the most potent vision in the room. As he mentioned, our paths have not crossed as much as I wished they would have, but, knowing each other, I’ve always looked at him as the consummate ‘Gentleman’s Architect.’ Keith has always been so calm, intellectual and focused, but still so passionate in an incredibly gracious way. I’ve always admired that.

Just as my Dad taught me to look for beauty globally, I’ve also learned where to find beauty in the firm. I’ve never had to look far beyond Keith to see some of the most beautiful work that we do. His work is just breathtaking – Pinecrest, Port Imperial, and lately the Innovation District in Raleigh with Kane Realty – it’s all so inspiring. Keith’s vibe is to make modern and elegant mixed-use environments blended with a touch of homespun coolness. He’s leaving CRTKL a remarkable legacy — not just buildings, but how to maintain the highest standard of design – all while being a nice person. Talent doesn’t have to come with a side dish of bad attitude.

KC: Thank you so much, Katie – I think I’m going to have to steal “homespun coolness” for my resume.

Keith worked on the team for Pinecrest

Well, that’s a great lead-in to my next question: what are some of the most memorable projects of your career?

KS: I think I have two favorites – one is built, and one never was. The unbuilt project struck an emotional chord for me. I was working with Todd Lundgren (Principal in CRTKL’s London office) many years ago on Failaka Island off the coast of Kuwait City. The island was decimated during the Gulf War, and they wanted to bring life back to it. We received an invite to a global competition to create a master plan for what they called the “anti-Dubai.” We had an international team with people from many different countries and ran into some challenges trying to unite our vision. We tried, and failed, many times – the client wasn’t getting it. Finally, they said, “Could you tell it to us in the form of a story?” In the Middle East, storytelling is much more accepted than here – where often perceived as childish, especially in a professional setting.

A rendering for the Failaka Island project Katie worked on

I wrote a story loosely inspired by The 7th Voyages of Sinbad wherein our main character was a treasure hunting ne’er-do-well sailor that rescued a drowning man from the sea. The man said, “I owe you my life! I’ll give you seven keys to seven treasures, good luck!” His voyage to find the seven treasures leads him to seven towers – the seven developments we were set to build and design. Instead of gold, he found seven treasures in each of these cities that had nothing to do with money. Instead, he found the gift of health in the wellness resort. The gift of a simple abode in affordable yet beautiful housing. The gift of the stars in a glamping experience. The power of the breeze in the wind farm, the sun’s energy in a sustainability institute, and the love of friends and family in the rebuilt town village. He came away realizing that even without riches, he was wealthy in a much more meaningful way.

So, we went to Kuwait, and I told my little story as a prelude to our design presentation. The room was full of hundreds of people sitting with arms folded and brows furrowed. There was dead silence until I finished with the message that, even with no money, our hero understood that he was indeed a wealthy man. Little by little, the room broke into applause. That process — the story as the unifying device and the reaction we got from the owners – it was incredible. But I’m sad to say that the project wasn’t realized.

Katie worked on the team for L.A. Live

My favorite built project is significant to me for so many reasons: L.A. Live. I’m a native Angeleno, so I’m proud to have had a small role in creating this iconic project and, really, a turning point in history for the city. L.A. Live and the Staples Center changed the whole trajectory of downtown. I remember working with Ted Tanner from AEG, and he brought us about 300 pages of an unbound document, saying, “I know there’s a project in here. Can you help me tell the city council what it is?” So, I helped tell the story, and even though it was a project that broke many of the rules of the day, the council voted to approve it.

KC: It must feel amazing to be a part of that. L.A. Live is such an important urban project nationwide.

KS: I had a small role, but it did feel good to showcase the importance of communication and how you tell a story. Three hundred pages of statistics and figures may not have been as compelling to the city council. And what about you, Keith?

KC: Well, the ones you mentioned earlier are most of my favorite projects, but I would also reiterate the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds – it was such a fun collaboration and helped me find my footing as a newbie at CRTKL. Port Imperial was important to me as well – much built work came out from a really dramatic site across from midtown Manhattan and it was amazing to see how it affected such crucial real estate on the Hudson. Pinecrest is a bright spot for sure, and all three of these share the common thread that they incorporated lots of public space. We’re designing not just the buildings but the spaces between the buildings – and Pinecrest shows that better than anything. We designed the streets, the buildings, the sidewalks, it was a holistic design approach. To experience its evolution from a tiny community to ample public space while being embraced by the community was very special.

Keith worked on the team for Wisconsin State Fairgrounds

It goes to show the importance of really understanding for whom we’re designing. You both are pretty involved in giving back to our local communities – why is that work so important to you?

KC: I think that being a part of an urban community is in my blood. I’m a committed urbanist, I’ve always lived downtown and never had any desire for the suburbs, so I look for ways to help Chicago – a city that I love deeply, but one that has many problems. For us, as a family that has spent their entire lives here, we see disadvantaged communities every day and communities that have been affected by systemic racism and disinvestment for generations. It hurts to see people in your community suffer.

I was proud to be a part of writing the RFP for a redevelopment project for the 79th Street Corridor, which has been negatively affected by disinvestment for years. We worked with the city to develop a rebuilding plan and create this infrastructure development as a part of Mayor Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West strategy to divert funds from more affluent to less affluent communities. Based on our RFP, there is now a scheme that the city approved and will use the city’s funds to build and help provide hope for Chicagoans who haven’t had much hope.

KS: For much of my career, I was out of the country and out of LA — busy in Asia and whichever other direction was pulling me. As I got older, I had a stronger desire—and a duty, even—to give back to my native city. I’ve worked with a few Los Angeles organizations over the years, but I wanted more hands-on opportunities —something with actual, tangible results.

My favorite gig was a year-long project for the Downtown Central BID. DCBID has tremendous aspirations to bring life, energy and business vitality to the heart of downtown, but they don’t have a significant working budget. We got involved in offering a long-range view of downtown LA, and how we could help define a strategy for placemaking. The challenge was, we won that project in February 2020 — a month before COVID hit.

We ended up having to do the entire project from home – including a crazy virtual audit on ArcGIS that covered the entire downtown. We came up with about three hundred potential ideas for placemaking, which we narrowed down to our top 15. A few examples are The Bunker Hill Bridge Series – a redesign of the undersides of downtown bridges, similar to what’s happening in DUMBO in New York City. 7th and Dine – a street fully devoted to outdoor dining, Pedways and Pathways – sprucing up the hidden system of elevated pedestrian pathways that very few people in LA even know exists. It’s a moment of pride to look at my city with the lens that CRTKL will have had a hand in helping downtown L.A. reimagine itself.

Keith worked on the team for Port Imperial

Do you have any advice for young people looking to become architects and designers today?

KC: I would give the same advice that I’ve given to many people recently — especially in light of my retirement, there are so many ways in architecture and design to find fulfillment, and the only way to do it is your way. Shape your career to your interests and skills, and if you’re not getting that, speak up and redirect in a way that feels right.

KS: I so agree with that, Keith – my biggest piece of advice is to advocate for yourself. If you’re passionate about it and you can make a business case for it, create your path.

KC: That’s been especially true for us here — CRTKL has given both of so much opportunity for growth.

KS: Absolutely. There are so many opportunities to shape your career and shape the firm! This is an excellent time for people like Keith and me to step down and find our paths, because it’s up to the younger generation to envision the future of CRTKL now. Take those opportunities and make the most of them.

You both will certainly be missed here as your decades-long careers with CRTKL come to an end. Do you have any plans for post-retirement yet?

KC: I plan to become a professional fun seeker and see what comes my way! I have no plans, and I haven’t yet shaped my post-retirement life – I think that’s by design.

KS: I’m looking forward to having an unstructured life with my family — doing what we want, being more physically active, going skiing, learning pickleball – which I’m obsessed with now! I look forward to being able to travel for longer, get to really know and feel places. There will be plenty of time to volunteer, too – I’m incredibly excited about the Olympics coming to LA in a few years.

On a final note, I wanted to echo what Keith said about not taking lightly the opportunities given to me by this company. When I look at the last thirty years of my life, I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation for the life that CRTKL has allowed me to live.

KC: I agree entirely, it’s pretty amazing to have no bitterness and be able to say I truly loved this experience. Not many people can say that about somewhere they’ve worked for 25 years.


Author Spotlight

Clare Sausen
Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms. Her work appears in outlets such as Broccoli Magazine, Building Construction + Design Magazine, High Times Magazine, Medical Construction + Design Magazine, NORML Blog, The Lounge, You Are Here, and WRGW Music Blog.