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Proposals for New Building at UIC Contend with Walter Netsch’s Brutalist Campus

Architectural Record Ι April 8, 2019 

Last week, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) unveiled three short-listed proposals for a performing arts center. Two of the finalist designs, by OMA and Johnston Marklee, take strong cues from Walter Netsch’s arch-Brutalist UIC campus—one of Chicago’s least understood bits of architectural history. The third, by Thom Mayne’s Morphosis, staunchly stands apart from Netsch’s legacy.

Located at the campus’s northeastern corner adjacent to a freeway and a Blue Line El stop, the arts center will be a gateway to the school, adding a 500-seat concert hall and 270-seat theater. This new home for the university’s School of Theater and Music comes with an estimated budget of $94.5 million. Each proposal (crafted by a major national or international firm partnered with a local architect of record) is designed to be phased in gradually, offering flexibility for a project that is still raising the money needed.

Designed and built in the mid-1960s, Netsch’s UIC campus is one of the most singular academic environments in the nation. Unabashedly Brutalist, its imposing, fortress-like buildings of stone, brick, and concrete were connected by elevated ramps, and feature stacks and layers of rotated cubes with a logic (one Netsch called “field theory”) all their own. Some of the SOM architect’s original designs for the campus went unbuilt, including “Project Y,” a performing arts center that would span the nearby freeway, and was planned for roughly the same site as the new proposals.

OMA’s concept for the new performing arts center consists of two glass towers flanking the main concert hall, with the smaller theater situated at the eastern end of the site. The hall’s seating arrangement is a rotated square, a la Netsch’s field theory. The two venues are conceived as opaque and colorful articulated volumes under a curving fabric membrane that caps an expansive roof terrace to form a “covered park,” said OMA partner Shohei Shigematsu, whose firm was paired with the local practice KOO. A system of ramps, reminiscent of Netsch’s no-longer-intact elevated walkways, connects to the building’s main lobby and echoes some of the material heft of the Brutalist campus. “It’s a way to re-introduce people to the core concepts of a lot of what happens within the Netsch design, but to do it in more modern way,” OMA’s Christy Cheng told RECORD.

Johnston Marklee’s plan is a pair of ziggurats—one is turned upside-down—that each contain a performance venue and are separated by an atrium lobby. Firm principle Mark Lee noted “there’s something very archaic and ancient” about the right-side-up form, in contrast to the upside-down ziggurat, famously seen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim and at Netsch’s University Hall less than a block away. Lee said it carefully nods to the Brutalist massing and articulation of Netsch’s campus, where volumes are often stacked and rotated. “If you look at the diagram and squint, it could be a Brutalist building,” he said, speaking to RECORD. But a closer look reveals a radically different materiality. The outside is clad in system of perforated metal half-cylinders that will glow at night with interior lighting. The building’s scalloped facade is midway between rigid and lofty, and has “a certain gaiety to it,”said Lee, whose firm was paired with UrbanWorks.

By contrast, Mayne told RECORD his proposal is a “complete break” with the mid-century campus. His design offers Morphosis’ signature canted and twisted massing, making its exact volume difficult to intuit at first glance. With a vaguely boomerang-like form, a shallow angle at its center separates the two performance venues. Hoisted up on pilotis, renderings show a facade with pixelated apertures—“a texture that’s breaking down the scale, but is also acting as windows,” said Morphosis principal Arne Emerson, who developed the design with Chicago’s STL Architects. Inside, monumental terraced stair seating leads to the halls. Perhaps most uniquely, accessibility ramps in both spaces make even the back-of-house rigging catwalks totally accessible.

Given the campus’ strong aesthetic identity, the question for the school will be whether to add a totally new formal precedent to a place that’s always seemed a bit out-of-this-world, or to begin with bits of Netsch’s design language, and evolve them towards contemporary functions and sensibilities. Interim Dean of the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts Walter Benn Michaels said the school will likely select a winner by mid-month.

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