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Residential commons have uncommon theme
> > Long before ground was broken this spring for the Max Palevsky Residential Commons, the College community and the building's architect were at work, planning what they hope will be a happy ending.

image: Campus NewsCollege is hectic. Arguing about what a categorical imperative really is can be intense. Eventually, most U of C undergraduates seek a respite from the intensity of college, Chicago-style.

Ricardo Legorreta, architect for the Max Palevsky Residential Commons, (see Chicago Journal, pg. 13) believes College students will find that respite in his building when it opens in the fall of 2001. In an interview with Architectural Record, Legorreta said that he cannot separate architecture from happiness and instills it in all his buildings. "All my life I have tried to create human emotions," said Legorreta of his designs. "I hope that students will feel comfortable and happy in the residence halls and feel encouraged towards friendship and human values."

Architecture critic David Dillon has written that Legorreta's buildings are places of renewal with an "underlying serenity." Steve Klass, deputy dean of student services for housing and dining services and assistant dean of the College, experienced what Dillon describes when he went to visit Legorreta in Mexico.

"It wasn't until I visited several of his buildings that I got a sense of how you feel there," Klass says. "People had described it to me, I'd seen pictures, but one needs to be there to experience the impact of his use of light, scale and materials."

The Max Palevsky Residential Commons will consist of three brick buildings, two with adjoining courtyards and glass corner elements, and one with a four-story glass atrium. Each four-story building will have a main entrance and elevator.

Legorreta's signature use of color will be found in the courtyards and corner elements, and inside the buildings' common areas. Legorreta also has positioned windows to create changing patterns of light in the lobbies, corridors, and lounges. And he has created corridors that end not with a wall, but rather a turn that leads to a day-lit space with views of courtyards and sculpture gardens. Dillon calls Legorreta a master of "continuous flowing space that draws us into and through his buildings, like a good story. We want to know what happens next, and how it all turns out."

The story of the Palevsky Residential Commons actually starts several years before the search for an architect began. Although the task of creating the ideal residence loomed large, the Housing Office methodically planned for the dorm, one step at a time.

Klass and Cheryl Gutman, director of the University Housing System, first conducted a series of focus groups with students and resident staff, and coordinated a comprehensive programming study to identify what activities should be built into the new dorms.

"It was crucial that we commissioned the programming study before the University even began looking for an architect," says Klass, noting that study participants ranged from resident masters to first-year students. "In organizing the new halls, our priority was to keep intact that which is revered-our house-based community programming and houses that retain a cross-section of first years and returning students."

The community valued the basic structure of residential life: a system of houses within a dorm, staffed by resident heads and assistants who create a sense of community for undergraduate residents.

After the University selected Legorreta, he structured his design to include eight houses with 78 to 106 students per house. And he continued the process of listening to students and administrators as they refined their vision of an ideal dormitory.

Paul Kaufman, AB'00, former president of the Inter-House Council, says that students thought private, two- and four-person suites with private baths were important, but that the rooms should be small enough to draw the students out into the common areas. Current students, says Kaufman, also believe it is important for younger students to take advantage of such on-site programming as academic advising and a foreign-language commons. In addition, they wanted open spaces, large community areas, computer labs, and large house lounges, all of which Legorreta incorporated.

"By meeting students I understood several things about their expectations and their lifestyles. It definitely affects the design in the rooms and furniture. It also encouraged us to create more possibilities for them to get together and develop a community life," Legorreta told Architectural Record.

Klass and Gutman continued to relay information between the architect and students throughout the design phase, says Kaufman. "I was staggered by how much influence we had in the process. When we saw the first model, Andy [Hong, '01, former Student Government president] and I high-fived."

After students toured individual room mock-ups last winter, the architect modified such details as closet space, shower height, and electrical outlets. Students liked the room layout and its flexibility for personalizing their space.

"Architecture should always comply with programmatic demands as well as aesthetics. Otherwise it is not architecture," said Legorreta. "I don't see this accomplishment as a compromise, but as a result of collaboration between the University and the architects."

According to Klass, the key to the design was finding the balance between community and privacy, coming up with the scale and location of those areas. "The opportunity to work with a world-class architect and his firm on multiple revisions over time-to match their bold artistic vision to our programmatic needs-has been the most interesting and satisfying part of the process," Klass says.

Construction began in the spring on 56th Street between Ellis and University avenues. After unearthing old foundations that may have been the concrete wall surrounding the original Stagg Field, construction crews began to lay the new foundation, working sequentially from east to west. By mid-autumn, the floors should be in place and work will begin on the exterior walls.

The Max Palevsky Residential Commons, along with Regenstein Library and a converted Bartlett dining commons, will create a north campus quadrangle that will be a new center of student activity. If Legorreta is true to form, in that hub of activity there will be room for serenity.-Jennifer Leovy


  AUGUST 2000
  > > Volume 92, Number 6


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