(Photography by Tom Rossiter)

Quadrangles to crossroads

New construction is about the exchange of ideas—within and beyond the campus. The University architect explains the theory behind the practice.

Almost anywhere one looks on campus today, the University of Chicago’s aspirations are tangible in limestone, concrete, glass, steel, and landscaping. Many members of the University community are familiar with recent campus additions such as the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, and the Center for Care and Discovery. You may also have heard about the renewal of the physical sciences facilities, the development of a new home for economics east of the main quads, and plans for a residence hall and dining commons on the north edge of campus, replacing Pierce Tower. All of these projects, and others on the horizon, are part of a broad vision for a physical campus transformed for the University’s second century but still true to its founding principles.

Imported from Oxford and Cambridge, the Collegiate Gothic style of the University’s quadrangles lent the fledgling institution instant credibility when the campus was built in the 1890s—the epitome of a scholarly academic retreat. Founding president William Rainey Harper decided to hold no opening festivities, lest anybody think that the University hadn’t already existed for “a thousand years.” In addition to importing this academic architecture from some of the most venerable higher learning institutions in the Western world, the founders were well aware of the event being prepared just east of campus: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The University, a gray city of limestone, was to be in stark contrast to, and secluded from, the commercial, neoclassical “white city” of the Columbian Exposition, designed to attract millions of fairgoers.

The intentions of that initial design are clear, and the results—measured by the University’s success in research, education, and overall eminence—have been undeniable. But the original quadrangles also create a challenge for the University today in the very separation they impose. Now more than ever, the University is committed to engagement and collaboration with the city and the world. To thrive, these partnerships demand an open and accessible University of Chicago. Campus planning today aims to preserve the quadrangles and the scholarly environment they have long nurtured, while ensuring that the campus is an inclusive, inviting crossroads, well connected to its urban neighborhoods and beyond.

You’re probably familiar with the UChicago T-shirt that says on the front, “That’s all well and good in practice …” and on the back, “… but how does it work in theory?” That sentiment affects a lot of our architectural planning. Being part of a culture of rigorous and tireless inquiry, we are always asking questions—even as the shovels are digging.

So it was inevitable that our vision for a 21st-century campus began with questions. In a discussion with the Board of Trustees that began in 2007, University leaders posed questions of strategy as we embarked on this ambitious building program. First, there was the question of capacity: is there enough land to meet our needs? Many of our peers, including Harvard, Columbia, and Yale, have needed to move away from contiguous expansion. At the University of Chicago we have seven to ten million square feet of capacity on contiguous land that we already own, where we can build over time. If we use our land wisely and build at proper densities, this is a great advantage for the University.

Other questions were about impact: How do we maximize opportunities for the distant future while answering today’s needs? How do we enhance our inherited legacy of a beautiful urban campus? How can we leverage our investment to improve the surrounding communities? We are answering these questions through a series of design principles, overarching planning themes, and iterative conversations at all levels within the University.

The University’s rate of physical growth has accelerated since its founding. For its first 50 years, the University grew at an average of 750,000 square feet per decade. For the next 50 years, that rate doubled, reflecting in particular large national investments in research facilities. For the first two decades of this century, we are building at the rate of 3 million square feet per decade. Put another way, we are in the midst of building 40 percent as much space as was built in the previous 110 years. At this scale, it’s hugely important that we get it right.

Many universities have extensive design guidelines to prescribe architectural styles, building volumes, and even the right color of brick. Not so at the University of Chicago; to help ensure we get it right while not freezing the campus in the style of any single period, we have worked with the Board of Trustees to establish four simple, overarching design principles that define our architectural aspirations. My office uses these principles in seeking architects and in educating project steering committees whose members may be primarily focused on the buildings’ programmatic goals. We fundamentally believe that every single project the University builds should meet the individual programmatic objectives as well as contribute in some meaningful way to enhancing the greater whole. That’s one of the great joys for me of working at the University of Chicago—it’s not a series of one-off renovations, buildings, or landscape projects. In order to ensure that we don’t squander our capacity in the midst of our current pace of growth, we use these four design principles to keep the big picture front and center.

The first principle is at the core of the University of Chicago’s identity: what we build must promote the exchange of ideas. This applies to the indoor and outdoor spaces and places we create, and even to the architectural facades of our buildings. All should facilitate the exchange of ideas, inspire students, faculty, and visitors, and bring people with different viewpoints together to have that lively debate. Whether it’s the single “wow” moment of stepping into Mansueto’s transparent reading room, or the unfolding journey through the curious paths and uniquely crafted stairways of the Logan Center, everything we build is about the discovery and exchange of ideas.

Fostering stewardship is the second principle. We define this as appreciating and preserving the legacy of significant buildings and open spaces that we have inherited and working to provide for their continuity into the future. But stewardship is also about the legacy we will leave. What we design today should be flexible, adaptable, and useful for generations to come. Often when a capital project is initiated, the realization lies years ahead, when many aspects and intentions will have changed. Take the Logan Center, which was conceived more than a decade ago. Years after those initial discussions, how will that building serve the University community in a future that looks different, in ways we can foresee and ways we can’t? We consider these questions as we design.

The third principle, enhancing environmental sustainability, is about the health of the environment within our facilities, but also compels us to think about the broader environment—the impact on the earth of the resources we use within our buildings, of the transportation and greenhouse gas emissions to get them here, and of demolition when needed to prepare construction sites. For example, we have initiated a process to substantially reduce demolition landfill by “deconstructing” and salvaging material at the end of a building’s life. When the Research Institutes came down last year to make way for the William Eckhardt Research Center, most of that material was diverted from landfills for reuse elsewhere. And, with the support of the Board of Trustees, we now require LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification at a minimum for all major projects. The renovation of the Searle Chemistry Labs was one of the earliest LEED Gold laboratories in Illinois; the Logan Center also recently received the Gold designation.

The final principle is to strengthen the identity and character of the campus. This principle has proven to be most open to debate, as it can mean many things. Are we Collegiate Gothic forever? Or are we a campus layered in a history representing the work of some of the world’s greatest architects, building in styles and using technologies and techniques appropriate to their eras? How referential (and deferential) should we be when building next to the quads? Where do we insist on limestone? Do we express the University of Chicago as a community for creating and disseminating knowledge through a tradition of architectural innovation? And how does it all work, in theory and in practice? From Henry Ives Cobb at the beginning, to Bertram Goodhue, Eero Saarinen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Edward Durell Stone, and Walter Netsch, to Rafael Viñoly, Helmut Jahn, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and other notable architects today (not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House), we believe we have a responsibility to select the most talented architects and provide them with guidance and a framework of principles within which they can continue to advance the University’s impressive architectural legacy.

Campus architecture, much like a great city, succeeds when we consider the human experience at multiple scales. While the University’s four design principles inform the development of individual projects, we are also guided by three overarching planning themes that speak to our continual effort to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Strengthening the core, that is, the main quads. Strengthening the core can be about more than the famed UChicago curriculum (or pilates). The quads—our physical core—are the heart and soul of campus. The personally most satisfying moment of our four-year-long effort to turn the quads from streets and sidewalks (albeit with lovely lawns and trees) into a truly pedestrian-oriented landscape happened when the construction fences came down and I could hear not idling engines, but footsteps, conversation, and birdsong. We will continue to look for ways to elevate our iconic quads into the greatest academic destination between the coasts—a true community for the exchange of ideas.

Engaging more in the civic realm. The University campus is framed within one of the generally acclaimed greatest city park systems in the country, much of it designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. And our adjacent neighborhoods, largely residential, speak to the special, historically layered place of our urban community. An ongoing campus planning challenge is to be both inward and outward focused. Grounded in the wonderful scholarly enclave of the quads, we have begun to extend outward through an interconnected network of open spaces and improved streetscapes to integrate more with the city. The move of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore to Woodlawn Avenue, joining the Robie House and academic centers there and along University Avenue, has reinforced the transitional areas between campus and neighborhood as places of vital engagement.

Linking north and south of the Midway. The distance between the north and south sides of the Midway is in the eye of the beholder. Measured on a map, it is the same distance as from Cobb Gate to the central circle of the quads. But walking across the Midway on a blustery winter day can feel like forever. That daunting perceptual distance is being addressed through design and planning. When you’re crossing from south to north, you see the towers of Rockefeller Chapel, Harper Library, and the Medical Center. Conversely, looking from north to south, you don’t see a destination—or you didn’t until the tower of the Logan Center was built. Now Logan provides something to draw your eye, a visible destination from the north to the south. And with the Midway Crossings complete, there’s a much wider space for pedestrians, separated by planters from the street and illuminated by the light masts (or “lightsabers” per the students). These changes create a sense that the Midway is a place one wants to be.

A lot has been going on south of the Midway in the past five to six years: the renovation of the Saarinen-designed Law School quadrangle, construction of the South Campus Residence Hall, Helmut Jahn’s ice cube–shaped chiller plant, and the new Chicago Theological Seminary next to the Press Building. And more is planned: a proposed new home for Chicago Harris, now in the fundraising stage, will make a dramatic adaptive reuse of the New Graduate Residence Hall. All of these projects work toward creating the critical mass of activity that is needed to make the south side of the Midway feel fully integrated into the campus.

Informed by our design principles and planning themes, our iterative and evolving touchstone remains all around us: the physical manifestation of the University of Chicago’s ambition over time. As a place conceived for the vibrant exchange of ideas, the campus will never be finished. Complete, yes—but just as new ideas continually spring forth from students and scholars, the campus will continue to renew itself through its architecture.

How we apply these principles is illustrated by five current campus projects:

Earl Shapiro Hall

The Laboratory Schools’ new Earl Shapiro Hall opened for prekindergarten through second-grade students in September. As the first phase of a comprehensive master plan for upgrading the schools’ existing facilities and expanding overall capacity from about 1,750 to just over 2,000 total students, Earl Shapiro Hall is on Stony Island Avenue, a few blocks from the main Lab campus. Its location across from Jackson Park and the Museum of Science and Industry catalyzed our thinking about a dramatic new presence that could inspire the exchange of ideas among UChicago’s youngest students (and their parents). Lab not only provides a great education but also strengthens the University’s sense of community and its place in the city. We took some freedoms with the architectural forms to celebrate the continual quest for knowledge, expressed in the cantilevered library wing soaring over the entry on Stony Island. The exterior sun-shading fins are arrayed in the Fibonacci sequence to instill a sense of mathematical patterns at the earliest age. And on the Laboratory Schools’ main campus, we are about to begin construction of a new arts wing that will continue the dialogue with its Collegiate Gothic predecessors via forms and materials that reinterpret Gothic verticality and spirit while incorporating environmentally sustainable strategies such as increased access to daylight.

William Eckhardt Research Center

Scheduled to open in fall 2015, the Eckhardt Center will join the University’s first formal venture into engineering, the Institute of Molecular Engineering, with departments in the University’s physical sciences division. The investigations that will take place here, scaling all the way from quarks to the cosmos, are translated into the architecture of the facades.

As scientists within study the very nature of light and matter, the serrated, faceted glass and structure of the exterior will reflect, refract, and channel light deep within the building. To promote the exchange of ideas, food and coffee (what better inducement?) will be available in a glassy ground-floor café visible and accessible from Ellis Avenue.

Adaptive reuse of the former Chicago Theological Seminary

How we think about existing buildings is as crucial to campus as how we build new ones, and fundamental to the principle of fostering stewardship. The adaptive reuse of the former seminary to house the economics department and the Becker-Friedman Institute for Research in Economics will be a catalyst to transform the entire block adjacent to the main quadrangles. By removing the walls that separated the raised courtyards from 58th Street, diverting the alley that bifurcated the building, and covering a large classroom with a landscaped terrace that will overlook a new pedestrian walkway, we will make the richness of the existing architecture newly visible. Viewed in conjunction with the new portal into the main quadrangle at 58th and Ellis (page 31), this project helps the exchange of ideas break free from its historical bounds within the quads to connect with the world outside.

58th Street pedestrian pathway

This fall we carved a new portal into the Administration Building, now Edward H. Levi Hall, at 58th Street and Ellis Avenue that transforms a primary arrival point on campus. What had been a forlorn and uninspiring intersection is now a gracious and welcoming entrance. The faceted glass sides (think crystalline forms exposed inside the geode) frame a new visual and physical pathway that reinforces the primacy of the main quadrangles and again extends their impact outward. This project was all about enhancing the connectivity and character of the campus through a strategic intervention at perhaps the most frequently traversed intersection on campus. Landscape work, to be completed in spring 2014, continues westward to strengthen the linkages to the University of Chicago Medicine.

New residence hall and dining commons

In deciding not merely to replace Pierce Tower, but rather to significantly expand its housing capacity from 262 to 800 students, the University is taking a bold step toward reurbanizing 55th Street. All four design principles informed the creation of what will become a 21st-century quadrangle formed not by orthogonal grids but rather by the flow of people and the orientation of the sun and prevailing winds to maximize comfort and minimize energy consumption.

At the intersection between the Hyde Park campus and the surrounding community, a new urban plaza will welcome pedestrians into a diagonal path framed by an active ground floor. To strengthen the identity and character of the campus, the architecture, enabled by modern construction technology, expresses the essence of the Gothic: material depth, shadows and light, sinewy structural forms, and tracery.

Steven M. Wiesenthal, FAIA, is senior associate vice president for facilities and University architect. He previously worked at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Pennsylvania.