Make no little quads

Chicago’s Hyde Park campus undergoes its biggest building boom in a century.

By Jay Pridmore

Photography by Dan Dry

In 2008 HOK brought specialists from all over the country to the University of Chicago. The architecture firm was among four finalists invited to meet with a selection committee for an immense new commission: the $375 million Center for Physical and Computational Sciences.

The architects from HOK had been through such exercises before, and they were experts in modern laboratory design. With complexes at Columbia in New York and at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena to their credit, they entered into a rich discussion with the Chicago team of faculty, trustees, and administrators. The building would house three departments—astronomy, physics, and computer science—and four physical-science institutes, on the theory that the big science discoveries of the future depend on nothing less than seamless collaboration among disciplines.

Opening this fall, the 811-bed dormitory at 61st and Ellis will help pull campus life southward, along with the Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts.

“We convinced them that we understood what they wanted,” said Bill Odell, of HOK’s science and technology practice. “We convinced them that we understood where science was going.” 

So far, so good. But then the interview took an uncommon turn. After presenting, the architects were excused. Several hours later they were ushered back to make what Simon Swordy, professor of physics, smilingly called a “thesis defense.”

The committee asked “really loaded questions,” said Jeff Schantz, another HOK partner. Among them: What do you think of the campus now? The “campus” meant many things, but mostly the venerable, century-old, Collegiate Gothic architecture for which the University is renowned. And all of this ivy-covered limestone is, as any architect trying to work at Chicago knows, the 900-pound gorilla. Modern architects can’t copy Hutchinson or Stuart any more than they can add a new wing to Stonehenge. But they can’t pretend those buildings are not there either.

Happily for HOK, its architects were ready. They answered that the University’s “vocabulary” is undeniably centered around quadrangles. “They are exterior rooms as important to the learning environment as any interior space,” Schantz said. So the new complex, to line a stretch of Ellis (and possibly incorporate portions of the old Research Institutes), could enclose a new quadrangle; its gate could be designed on axis with Henry Moore’s sculpture Nuclear Energy.

Their astute response was what the committee wanted to hear, and it helped HOK get the job.

The Center for Physical and Computational Sciences is one project among many in what planning administrators are calling the University’s biggest building boom in a century. More than a dozen major new projects, half costing at least $100 million, are in some stage of design or construction, nearly all of them reflecting President Robert J. Zimmer’s determination to fulfill, as he wrote last year in an open letter to the community, “fundamental missions of research and education.”

The Mansueto Library, will connect to the Regenstein by a bridge.

Buildings include the new undergraduate residence hall on south campus, nearly done; the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, under construction; and the Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, a structure across the Midway whose schematic design is scheduled to be presented at the trustees’ June meeting. Each of these buildings was planned with tremendous input from the faculty, students, and staff intended to occupy it. And yet beyond a well-equipped campus, planners and architects envision a more livable one as well. This objective implies features more subtle than simply large, striking structures. It also means the spaces between buildings define a place as much as the buildings themselves. So designers promise attention to familiar but long-neglected public spaces, such as Ellis Avenue, which will have new buildings and better landscaping to make it the University’s “main street.” And officials plan to move ahead with long-discussed visions for the Midway Plaisance, to make it quadrangle-like and more of a meeting ground instead of a dividing line.

Such transformations seldom happen overnight, and Zimmer acknowledged in a December e-mail to alumni that the recession would delay, though not cancel, some projects. In March Provost Thomas Rosenbaum sent a budget update to faculty, students, and staff, assuring them that major projects “crucial to the continued momentum of the University”—including Mansueto, Logan, and the New Hospital Pavilion—would proceed as planned. Awareness that change is coming to campus has touched off greater-than-usual interest in architecture, sufficient to draw a standing-room audience of 300 when University Architect and Associate Vice President for Facilities Services Steve Wiesenthal spoke at a February town-hall meeting in Ida Noyes Hall.

Wiesenthal began by reiterating HOK’s point about quadrangles: that open spaces on campus are at least as important as the buildings that form them. To illustrate, he outlined a radical idea he had a local architect sketch out, to cut a passage through the unloved, modernist Administration Building, creating a gate and “view corridor” from the growing Medical Center, through the quads, and east down 58th Street. He spoke of improving Ellis Avenue and the Midway, and he also talked about the difficulties of parking—the only part of his talk that sparked hisses, albeit good-natured ones.

Most of all the town hall was an opportunity to meet Wiesenthal, who arrived at Chicago in March 2008 from a similar position at the University of California, San Francisco, where he distinguished himself as an advocate of green design. He described his new job as one that touches on all aspects of institutional architecture, including strategic direction and design oversight. In an interview afterward, he expanded on his duties and his approach. He agrees, for example, that the quadrangles, with their arches, oriels, and towers, represent a striking architectural achievement. Yet his impression of the campus when he first saw it two years ago remains operative: “It felt like a dowager to me. It had a storied past, but there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to keeping up.”

The Mansueto Library features a glass dome above ground and 3.5 million volumes below ground, retrievable with the click of a mouse.

Loyal alumni might bridle at this suggestion, considering the brilliance of old Harper or Ryerson. Others might tremble, given such regrettable experiments as the modernist nod to a Gothic profile found in Albert Pick Hall. But Wiesenthal’s hope is clear: that the University can express the same confidence and have as strong an architectural impact as it did in the late 19th century. And that the new crop of buildings, besides accommodating necessary functions like astrophysical research and parking, will leave a vivid mark for future generations.
So if architecture reflects values and principles—as the Collegiate Gothic reflected timelessness and moral uplift—the new campus buildings are meant to exhibit the ideals that Zimmer cited in his October 2006 inaugural address: “The words ‘open, rigorous, and intense’ are easy to say, but one should not underestimate the challenges in actually creating, preserving, and enhancing such an environment.” Fusing those ideals to buildings is also a challenge.

“At Chicago, nothing gets done in a superficial way,” said Judith Nadler, director of the University Library. She was talking about being the client in the design for the Mansueto Library, scheduled to open in February 2011. For Mansueto, the selection committee exacted a daunting set of requirements. One was to build a new library adjacent to the Regenstein for 3.5 million volumes—entirely against the trend in research libraries, which is toward off-site storage. Another requirement was to take up as little space as possible on the mid-campus site. Yet another was to harmonize with the older buildings on the quads across 57th Street, which face the Regenstein. Nadler began the process systematically—she jokes that librarians wrote the book on being systematic—and brought six architecture firms to a 2005 briefing outlining the committee’s requirements.

Major architects have ways of romancing clients. Most promise that their engagement in the project will be intense. But Chicago’s flamboyant Helmut Jahn turned it around. “He wanted to know what level of interest he would get from the University,” Nadler explained. “He was saying, ‘If I invest in you, will you invest in me?’” Needless to say, this was a conversation that Nadler and her group wanted to have.

At first the committee discounted a proposed underground facility as interesting but expensive and unrealistic. Jahn said he could do it, both elegantly and within a reasonable budget. Nadler was hooked. Mansueto’s underground, high-density, closed stacks—largely periodicals and specialized manuscripts—will be immediately accessible through digital retrieval. The strategy relieves pressure on the Regenstein’s open stacks, highly valued by Chicago scholars, Nadler explained, for their browsability.

“Jahn was very excited about the fact that his design would bring together aspects of architecture and engineering,” she said. Although hardly alone in marrying those two professions, the German-born architect has gone far enough to give it a name, “archi-neering,” the title of one of his books.

The appeal of Jahn’s architecture-engineering got an early, unanticipated test in commissions awarded after his selection for the library. In two campus utility plants—one already built at 61st and Dorchester, the other under construction at 56th and Maryland—transparent walls enclose heating and cooling systems that function as sculpture as well as machinery.

Jahn’s Mansueto design also celebrates technology but is more restrained than the chillers—largely because of its position on campus. In fact, other architects competing for the library contract professed an active dislike of the 1970, brutalist Regenstein next door. But Jahn insisted that he admired the older building, lining up with librarians and faculty members on the selection committee who regarded the Reg as a model of form following unexcelled function.

So the Mansueto will be noted for its low profile but should not be mistaken for a modest one. In fact, its pristine glass dome has aggravated some community members, including Maroon columnist Claire McNear, ’11, who labeled the design a “vast transparent igloo” and equated it to an alien that ingests everything in sight. But Jahn’s grand gesture suits the library committee fine. “We talk about this library as a bridge,” said Nadler. “The building will be a bridge between what we have done in a traditional library and what we are going to do in libraries of the future.”

Privately, some administrators worry about too much conspicuous architecture on campus. “There’s been a bit of a backlash that some of our buildings have become too iconic,” said a member of the facilities management staff. The word “starchitect,” or celebrity architect, often comes up in such conversations; the view is that too many unique, even if brilliant, visions can upset the quiet unity of campus.

Given that backlash, the 2005 selection of confirmed starchitect Rafael Viñoly for the New Hospital Pavilion (NHP) was initially surprising. But Viñoly, who designed the business school’s Charles M. Harper Center, has shown the University that even the so-called avatars of modern architecture are replacing extravagant grand gestures with streamlined and often “sustainable” efficiency.

It is hard to deny that Viñoly, a Uruguayan native who designs luminous buildings of glass and steel around the world, casts a larger-than-life image. But to get hired by the bottom-line-oriented hospital, suffice it to say he understood the institution’s long-term goals beyond the addition planners initially called to discuss.

“The problem of the hospital was much greater than the one that they were asking us originally to solve,” said Douglas Zalis, Viñoly’s on-site project director. So what began as an interview for a modest-sized job evolved into a major structure and focal point for the Medical Center, planned to open in 2012.

“It’s true that RVA [Rafael Viñoly Architects] talked us into a much bigger project,” said Jim Hietbrink, a facilities planning director for the Medical Center. In fact, the hospital had already proposed new quarters for many distinguished programs, including neurology, oncology, and gastroenterology, and to bring them closer to surgical units. Viñoly’s design achieves these objectives not with elaborate architecture but with pure economy.  

The NHP is essentially a box, architecture’s most cost-efficient form, ten stories high and spanning two blocks facing 57th Street. The box approach has advantages for hospitals, where it’s important to have specialized clinical spaces near each other. Big floor plates, as architects call them, represent a change, Hietbrink explained, from the ideal in the 1920s, when hospital planners built long, narrow wings to maximize natural ventilation and light. (Older buildings in this style, like Billings Hospital, may be converted to classroom or office space.)

Viñoly’s building will feature a delicate, glass-wall design. Its sheer size will change the feel of the Medical Center, and its position at the northwest edge of campus will provide a stately new entrance to campus from Cottage Grove Avenue. But mostly the story of the NHP is that the starchitect has gone cost-efficient. When asked repeatedly if the pavilion would have features along the lines of Chicago Booth’s towering winter garden, Viñoly’s man Zalis went back to efficiency both now and for the future. In this big box, he said, “you can easily compartmentalize different parts of the hospital in different ways.”

Hietbrink, who counts controlling costs as high among his missions, concurred. What’s extravagant about the new hospital, he said, is mostly utilitarian—large, unobstructed spans inside; high ceilings; and special supports for heavy loads—for new MRI machines, for example. “What we learned is that flexibility comes at a price,” he said. “But that’s where the smart money was spent.”

A lesson of the University’s building boom is that modern architecture is more complex than when the campus’s first architect, Henry Ives Cobb, went to work in 1892. And among the most difficult projects in the next few years will be new space for the Laboratory Schools, one of several construction and renovation projects slated for 2015 completion. Many things make this one difficult: The site is tight. Schools have diverse functions. And the client includes exacting board members and parents.

The selection committee chose Chicago architect Joe Valerio, who is dedicated to maintaining the Lab Schools as a vanguard of private education. An early-childhood–education center, plus arts and library space for the middle and upper schools, are key in plans that combine new construction and retrofitting older buildings. Sustainability will be prominent, both to save energy and as an educational tool. Modern technology makes school design a moving target. School libraries are now “media centers,” and science labs need computers along with test tubes. These and hundreds of other detailed requirements suggest the one certain rule of modern architecture: that buildings are designed from the inside out.

But then there’s the gorilla, James Gamble Rogers’s untouchable main building modeled after Loire Valley castles. “Joe convinced us that he had great respect for the existing architecture and that we’d end up with a building to fit beautifully with the traditional architecture of the Laboratory Schools, even if it was a modern building,” said David Greene, the University’s vice president for strategic initiatives.

How will Valerio do it? “It’s a really exhaustive research phase,” Valerio said. He and other architects are following students around to learn how they behave and function. And before anything is settled, they’ll provide at least three alternative designs.

The architects and planners argue that this level of “inclusiveness” promises optimal results. They presume that such a process was not part of past Lab Schools additions, not the jarring aluminum and glass wing (1960) or the imitation of Collegiate Gothic (1993 and 2000). Valerio’s likely solution will mediate between those extremes, he said. It may involve glass and limestone, but more important are subtleties of scale and rhythm to harmonize with what’s already there.

The power of architecture to influence the way we live is being put to the test south of the Midway. Developing south campus has been attempted and forsaken countless times in decades past, and administrators know that it will require not only money but also deeply held values—such as “openness, rigor, and intensity”—to make it succeed.

In the past decade a series of distinguished planning consultants have proposed ideas in broad strokes and fine detail. Most of those plans focus on “knitting together” disparate buildings that appear isolated along the Midway’s south edge. They also attempt to unify buildings with greenways and footpaths connecting the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the Law School, and the School of Social Service Administration.

Changing the character of south campus requires sustained initiative—namely to create new centers of activity with important undergraduate facilities. The new dorm and future arts center will exert a “gravitational pull” toward south campus, said Mary Anton, AB’70, MBA’79, the University’s director of space management in the facilities services department, much as the Max Palevsky dorms and Ratner Athletics Center have changed campus life to the north.

The as-yet-unnamed dorm, south of Burton-Judson, is designed to achieve that objective in a way envisioned decades ago. Dean of Students in the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, had long been enchanted, he explained, by a mid-1920s plan by Philadelphia architect Charles Klauder to create a south-campus residential community, similar to Harkness Memorial Quadrangle at Yale. The U of C hired a different firm to implement the vision, but the plan was interrupted by the Depression, and only one of the four proposed buildings, Burton-Judson, was built.

The new, 811-bed dormitory may do now what might have been done then. For one, it unifies once-isolated buildings with a widespread network of walkways. And while the high-rise dorm is imposing from a distance, its mass steps down as it meets 61st Street and blends with a streetscape that planners envision as a connector, not a barrier, between town and gown. It contributes, Boyer said, to “the receding sense of the University as a bastion against the rest of the city.”

Along with the grand gesture of the building, planners acknowledge that “God is in the details,” as declared the modernist master Mies van der Rohe, an adopted Chicagoan who designed the School of Social Service Administration, completed in 1965. For the dorms, for example, Boyer talked at length with the architects, Boston’s Goody Clancy, about the effects of attractive and accessible courtyards. “They understood the idea,” he said, “which was to create an environment where people can move from highly individualized life into community living.”

Inventive details also mark the Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, slated to open across the Midway in 2012. Like the new dorms, this “mixing bowl of the arts,” as deputy provost Larry Norman calls it, will exert an inexorable southward pull on undergraduate life. As architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of New York describe it, the building sounds like a Rubik’s Cube of interior spaces where sculptors, musicians, and other artists will interact.

In 2007 news of their design raced through campus more quickly than most campus plans ever do. Among highlights creating a stir, a performance space on the tower’s top floor seemed ingenious. “People are really excited about this glassy, sunny area up top,” said the Maroon’s McNear.

It’s different, she said, and that’s what appears to move people at Chicago. “You can easily make the connection between what’s widely considered to be a quirky student body and quirky architecture,” McNear added. “I’m not part of the decision-making process for architecture and design, but they’re certainly not afraid to try new things and be bold and move forward.”

The building boom in progress attempts to reflect these qualities. And by adding measures of openness, rigor, and intensity, the architects may meet one of the big objectives they’re all setting out to achieve: to send a striking message to future generations about how the University saw itself and its mission in the 21st century.

Jay Pridmore is the author of the Campus Guide series’ The University of Chicago: An Architectural Tour (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006) and Shanghai: The Architecture of China’s Great Urban Center (Harry N. Abrams, 2008).

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