Lynn J. Osmond: A Towering Career in Architecture
BY MAXWELL ULRICH
CHICAGO – Known as the city of architecture, Chicago hosts innovative buildings that are renowned worldwide. Through her tireless effort, Lynn J. Osmond is working to ensure that the windy city maintains this legacy.
Today, Osmond, 55, is the president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a non-profit organization that has evolved immensely from her takeover in 1996. Osmond has transformed the CAF, impacting not just Chicago but the world.
Growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, Osmond described herself as having high energy. “I was always trying to be very active in both community activities as well as different part time jobs,” said Osmond.
Her passion for clarinet motivated her towards acquiring a Bachelor of Music degree from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.
Upon graduation, Osmond began looking for job opportunities in Arts Administration. Through the attainment of an Ontario government grant, she found a job with the Association of Canadian Orchestras. From this point, Osmond began to redefine traditional symphony.
“I felt for most audiences, the days of the conductor turning its back on the audience were done” said Osmond. A variety of initiatives were introduced by Osmond to increase public appeal and understanding of the orchestra.
One of the most common problems that Osmond noticed was that many didn’t know what to wear to the symphony. Osmond broke down this barrier by holding an event called ‘Jeans and Beer’. This event allowed for the audience to wear jeans, and receive a free beer upon admission.
After crossing the border in 1990, Osmond spent six years managing and revolutionizing many symphonies around the United States. In 1996, she got a call from the CAF.
Osmond explained she had no idea what to think when she got the call, because she thought she had no relevant architecture experience. She made the connection when going out for the interview.
“If I can put bums in seats in orchestras, I can certainly work on putting people in place for taking architectural tours” said Osmond. “[The CAF] needed a translator, someone who understands how [to] translate challenging conversation to the public.”
Within her first year at the CAF, Osmond hit the ground running. “The first thing I did was look at where the opportunities are for revenue enhancement and stabilization, because you cant grow programs until you look at your revenue,” Osmond said.
Osmond was able to renovate the organization’s major source of funding, the Architecture River Cruise. She extended their contract with the boat company from one to five, and stabilized their most popular attraction.
She also changed how the CAF was involved within the entire community. “My philosophy has been to leverage your brand through partnerships,” said Osmond.
In taking her organization to the street, Osmond was able to partner up with many organizations such as the Central Area Committee, and the Chicago Loop Alliance. According to Osmond, the development and growth of these partnerships has led to the CAF’s involvement in important Chicago functions, such as NATO and Chicago’s Olympic bid.
Osmond redefined her role as a leader by becoming a docent herself. The volunteers are the backbone of the CAF, according to Osmond.
“By becoming a docent I could speak the same language, but I was also experiencing the same experiences,” said Osmond.
She explained how conducting a tour in horizontal snow to one tourist brought her closer to the 450 docents who currently volunteer for the CAF.
Osmond implemented a new attitude of efficiency upon becoming head of the CAF. “I brought a sense of energy and urgency, that translated from the selling of tours to the way we handled subject matter in the marketplace,” said Osmond.
Youth education is very important to Osmond, and she is using the CAF to help teach students K-8 about math, arts, science and social science through architecture. Osmond and the CAF have created a resource book called Schoolyards to Skylines.
“The product has actually had a national appeal because people want to use architecture in their own communities as an education tool for youth,” said Osmond. According to the CAF website, the book is being used as a learning tool in 41 states and 16 countries.
Osmond and the CAF have partnered with CPS to educate high school students about architecture with a similar innovation. The Architecture Handbook educates students in accordance with the high school curriculum about architecture and design. “It’s the first of its kind in the country,” said Osmond.
The success of The Architecture Handbook has inspired an online tool created by Osmond and the CAF. Discover Design is an online architecture teaching product that students all around the world can use through social media.
“These are really transitional products that are not just in CPS but throughout the country now,” said Osmond. “It was our initiative that did it.”
Osmond wanted to make sure that the CAF catered to the needs of Chicagoans and not just tourists. To achieve this goal, Osmond has spearheaded events like Open House. A festival that promotes architecture through the general public, Open House lasts two days and spans over 150 buildings around Chicago.
A free event, Open House was originally held in London 20 years ago. “We wanted a festival that was really about engaging Chicagoans,” said Osmond. The CAF completed its second annual Open House this October.
The CAF has seen a lot of growth over Osmond’s 16-year tenure; she would like to see evolution and innovation continue into the future. “I think the organization is poised to take a leadership role in the discussion of cities,” said Osmond.
According to Osmond, the CAF hopes to serve as a medium that citizens could turn to when understanding news about architecture. Understanding news would help citizens take a stand on their built environment.
Osmond believes that architecture is not a term that should not be reserved for skyscrapers. She wants to put more focus on community outreach beyond downtown.
“Architecture is about everything around you, and how we make neighborhoods more cognizant about the decisions that they make that impact their built environment,” said Osmond.
As the largest architecture foundation of its kind in the world, the CAF is being called upon to advise and lead other organizations around the globe. Osmond is the chair of the Association of Architecture Organizations, helping to create a network of great ideas that can have an international influence.
“We feel that a networked group will be stronger in terms of changing the public dialogue,” said Osmond.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation hopes to become a leader in teen education according to Osmond. A main goal for the future of the CAF is expanding teen activities to a national level.
Although her first love was music, Osmond still remembers how architecture had made an impact on her early life. She explained how a classroom exercise where she had to become an urban planner and redesign a city served as her fondest memory of high school. “It is really interesting that I should come back to that most impactful exercise in high school, [it] is really what I’m doing now,” said Osmond.
Through her extensive work and contribution to the CAF, Osmond has received many awards. Her most meaningful is her honorary membership to the American Institute of Architects.
Her colleagues share admiration for Osmond and her work. Barbara Gordon, Vice President of Program Operations for the CAF said, “She took [the CAF] from a small organization that had two tours a day and blew it up.”
Osmond’s passion for her career is second to none. “I think I’ve got the best job in the city, to live in the city of architecture and to be able to curate that discussion is really important,” Osmond said.
An expert in architecture, Osmond claimed her favorite edifice as the John Hancock Center. It is fitting that that she would pick this building as her favorite because it redefined architecture. Osmond can relate as she achieved innovation of architecture through the CAF, and looks to continue this process for years to come.