Circle of Light

Landscape Architecture Magazine Ι January 2019 

From the University of Chicago’s Crerar Science Quad, one can see the entire scope of the 128-year-old university’s built history.

Bordered by science buildings and one medical school facility, the dominant Collegiate Gothic flavor of the university’s campus is present in the quad’s southern and southeastern edge, anchored by the dour Abbott Memorial Hall. To the north, there’s the slick, contemporary glass facade of the Gordon Center for Integrative Science, built in 2005, and to the west, the 1984 John Crerar Library offers a late Brutalism. Most appealing, to the southwest and east of the quad are a pair of impeccably mannered midcentury modernist laboratory buildings by I. W. Colburn that mimic the school’s traditional neo-Gothic architecture in form, scale, and materials, though with bracingly rectilinear detailing.

The Crerar Science Quad has recently been redesigned, and its new centerpiece, a pair of concentric steel circles hoisted up by catenary cables and 20-foot poles seems to sweep up and embrace this entire tableau with its pure geometry. Made of laser-cut carbon steel, the circles create a framing device for the moon and sun, an outdoor planetarium for tracing their paths across the sky. Across many cultures, the circle holds an expansive set of symbolic and metaphorical meanings, signifying community, inclusion, exclusion, enclosure, equality, the infinite, and wholeness.

The quad’s redesign, by the Chicago firm Jacobs/Ryan Associates Landscape Architects, is an exercise in building a place out of unnoticed and discarded parts and wrapping them in a bit of magic. “There’s a mystery about it,” says Jacobs/Ryan’s Terry Ryan.

“This has always been an odd quad at the university, because it was built out of leftover space, as opposed to being designed like the main quads were,” says Richard Bumstead, FASLA, the university’s landscape architect for more than 30 years.

In the early 1980s, the block-long area that became the quad was cleared of buildings (facilities and grounds work offices and shops) in anticipation of the construction of the John Crerar Library. The library was completed alongside an earlier iteration of the science quad, but it didn’t add up to much, Ryan says. “It was just a pass-through space without any remarkable characteristics,” she says; an amalgamation of paths that “converged and then fell apart,” creating two paved X-shaped paths that crisscrossed the area and didn’t link all the buildings present, several of which (like the I. W. Colburn buildings) turn their back on the quad. In 2005, the quad was modified to better link to the brand-new Gordon Center for Integrative Science, and seven years later, 58th Street, its southern border, was completely pedestrianized, weaving this neglected bit of lawn and pavement into the campus a bit more. But still, Bumstead says, “There was no sense as to why that quad existed. It had no purpose for being. It had no center focus.”

Adding such a feature would be a way to spread attention and appreciation for the university’s landscapes further, Bumstead says. “One of the things that I’ve been trying to do through my tenure is to get everybody into other corners of the quad,” he says. “Everybody wants to hang out in the main quad. It’s [an] iconic location on campus, so I wanted to create different senses throughout campus.”

The Julie and Parker Hall Botanic Garden Endowment provided funding for the $1 million project, named after a former trustee of the school and established to build gardens on campus. Jacobs/Ryan’s design featured a square plaza ringed by a series of Redpointe maples and a perimeter of geraniums, with tumbleweed onion outlining the paths that radiate outward. Along the quad’s edges, the plantings are less geometric and more heterogeneous: daylilies, sage, sumac, fountain grass, and more. At 40 by 40 feet, the plaza had to be situated around a series of underground utilities and buildings, slanting it off axis. Concentric squares of dark and light pavers host seven custom-designed concrete benches, offering a place to linger.

The steel circle installation was fabricated by Maglin, the Ontario-based public site furnishings company. Each ring is composed of 100-pound modular segments that are bolted together; 32 for the larger 30-foot-diameter ring, and 16 for the smaller 15-foot-diameter ring, hung from four 9/16-inch-gauge cables. LEDs are slotted into the rings’ underside. The installation was assembled at the Maglin fabrication facility for testing, and then disassembled and shipped to the site. There, it took a week to put together, but only an hour or two to crane up into the sky. “This is the largest structure we’ve done,” says Aaron Dawson, Maglin’s director of manufacturing.

An earlier iteration of the Crerar Science Quad‘s plan consisted of a series of fabric sails on masts that formed a circle. Ryan envisioned them as media projection screens, reflecting impressionistic, northern lights imagery. “Richard thought that was a little too psychedelic for his taste,” Ryan says.

But it seemed just the right approach to Ryan, who ran away from a small town in Northern California in 1968, decamping for San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. “I spent all my time in Golden Gate Park,” she says. “The one thing that my time in Golden Gate Park really focused for me is that I wanted to be involved in creating things that inspired people and got them to see the magic in nature.”

The light-show projection sails didn’t stick. But in conversations Bumstead had with university administrators, the circular motif instinctually came to the fore, and the landscape architect and client began swapping sketches back and forth. Amid some of the school’s best modern architecture, Bumstead wanted a quad that was contemporary and forward-looking, an exacting expression of meticulous humanism.

During the day, sharp shadows from the steel rings arc across the pavement. At night, the LEDs that run along the underside of the steel circles hover like a halo, levitating the shadow arcs, with the poles and cables shrouded by darkness. Peering up, these concentric rings appear as orbital tracks delineating the path of astral bodies, crisp and precise.

In this way, it’s a strong counterpoint to Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ North Sciences Quad, just a block north of the Crerar Science Quad. There, slabs of rough-hewn limestone (stacked like terraced seating or perhaps a ziggurat) are set between meandering paths and naturalistic, shaggy prairie grasses. There’s more overt topography farther north, and no exact focal point. Where the Crerar Science Quad is precise and geometric, the North Sciences Quad is organic and intentionally coarse.

During an August visit to the quad, there were few students on campus, but there still seemed to be a primal draw to the place. Looking skyward, I noticed a spider web (with its resident designer at its center) hanging precariously from the outermost ring. It was anchored in place by a single filament-thin spider cable reaching down to the ground 20 feet below, bending and blowing in the breeze but never snapping. It would be a moment of David Attenborough-esque amazement anywhere, but here, aligned underneath this unalloyed, perfect geometry on the campus of an institution of higher learning as formidable as exists anywhere, it seemed like cause to submit oneself completely to the bewildering complexity and grace of the universe. The mind-boggling elastic strength of spider silk, 3-D-printed on demand from a tiny and ubiquitous creature, is just one of an infinite number of mysteries contained in the circle.