Something old, something new: Architectural vision changes campus and honors its history

University Communications

When the University of Chicago was founded in 1890, president William Rainey Harper declared there should be no inaugural celebrations, lest it give the appearance that the campus hadn’t existed for hundreds of years. Cloaked in collegiate Gothic grey limestone, the quadrangles furthered his cause, creating a cloistered space dedicated to scholarship’s timeless pursuit.

Yet in the past 120 years, the campus designed to eschew “the distractions and evils” of the outside world has gradually opened up, said University Architect Steve Wiesenthal at a May panel held at the Art Institute of Chicago. The event, billed as “The Grey City Transformed,” brought together architects and designers to discuss their recent UChicago building projects.  

On the roster were Logan Center for the Arts creators Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Midway Crossings mastermind Jamie Carpenter, who also is designing the glass exterior of the new William Eckhardt Research Center, and Ann Beha, who is turning the former Chicago Theological Seminary into a home for interdisciplinary economics research. Though vastly different, the projects share a similar goal: creating a space that preserves—and furthers—the UChicago ethos.

The husband-and-wife architect team of Williams and Tsien designed the 184,000-square-foot Logan Center with an 11-story tower of glass and stone. “We want to make spaces that last longer than we do,” said Tsien, referring to her work on the building, which she and Williams have called “a mixing bowl for the arts.” The Logan Center will be completed and celebrated with a grand opening from Oct. 11 through Oct. 13.

Carpenter designed the Midway Crossings at Ellis and Woodlawn avenues, and a third that’s under construction this summer at Dorchester Avenue. The project is inspired by the original Frederick Law Olmsted concept of the Midway Plaisance as a water link between Washington Park and Jackson Park, with bridges traversing the Midway. This series of streetscape improvements includes lighting masts, railings and retaining walls that add security for pedestrians and beauty to the landscape.

Carpenter sees light as an increasingly important part of an evolving landscape. “There is a movement afoot of using light as a way of linking other parts of the campus together in the future,” he said. To mirror the “sense of collaboration” implicit in the Eckhardt Center’s scientific exploration, Carpenter aims to “have remarkable qualities of light come into the spaces,” he said.

Respect the past

“To me there is no greater part of practice than how we treat our heritage,” said Beha, whose adaptive re-use and expansion of the seminary building will house the economics department and the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics.

Tsien and Williams shared the sentiment. “We should not only respect our past, but respect the past that comes right up to the present,” Willams said. “We will regret it if we throw it away.”

A Boston-based architect who wrote her MIT dissertation on repurposing ecclesiastical sites, Beha has given new life to academic buildings at the University of Pennsylvania and the New England Conservatory of Music; changed a former Masonic temple into a Portland contemporary art museum; and transformed a jail into a four-star hotel.

Beha’s approach dovetails with Wiesenthal’s vision for the campus. “We want everything we design and build to feel right at the University of Chicago,” he said. “It should feel as if it’s being respectful of the legacy we’ve inherited, but is also taking us forward.” To that end, all projects are guided by four key design principles: promote idea exchange, foster stewardship, enhance environmental sustainability, and strengthen campus identity and character.

Beha herself defined her job as finding “the balance between stewardship and intervention.” Located at 5757 S. University Avenue, the adapted site will turn a Gothic archway over an alley into a welcoming entrance along 58th Street. Blueprints also include a new 90-seat classroom below ground, flooded with light from above; and the transformation of an unused attic space into 70 graduate student lofts.

“We really want to respect the integrity and the character of the existing building,” said Wiesenthal, “but give it a whole new identity.”

Create the future

Beha admitted that turning a liturgical building into an economic building takes “a certain leap of faith.” Her plan will preserve key structural aspects such as the Hilton Chapel—it will remain a reading room with its original stone ceilings—while features like the 58th Street entryway will make the building more inviting. Creative use of light and glass, explained Beha, also will help bring more people to the building.

That’s no small feat, explained Wiesenthal. “You might think that a renovation or adaptive reuse would perhaps require less creativity than a building completely from scratch, where you’re envisioning something that never existed,” he said, “but when you’re taking something that exists and already has a history and you’re trying to transform that, that is, in many ways, an even more creative process.”

Of course, Beha told the audience, one of her project’s biggest challenges may be living up to the legacy that sits just down the street: Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Robie House.

“No pressure,” she joked.