Tunnel vision -- a good kind

Times Staff Writer

The new McCormick Tribune Campus Center is a mischievous building -- and that has irked many in a city that clings to its architectural traditions with near fanatical reverence.

Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the student center rises amid one of the city’s most famous architectural landmarks -- the Illinois Institute of Technology campus designed in the 1940s by the late Modernist legend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. As such, it has been criticized by some for not showing enough respect to Mies’ original vision.

It is a standard complaint among the preservation-minded -- and it is largely unfounded. Koolhaas is not interested in creating false reproductions of a dead past. Instead, he understands that any meaningful architecture must reflect the values of its own age. In early projects such as the 1992 Rotterdam Kunsthal, for example, Koolhaas aggressively reworked old Modernist ideas, stressing the hidden urban and psychological tensions that his predecessors generally preferred to smooth over. Later projects like the 297-acre master plan for the Euralille development stressed the collision of urban forces that are a defining feature of the contemporary city.

In Chicago, Koolhaas finally gets to challenge his father figure head on. The result is a work whose populist appeal stands as a powerful antidote to Mies’ more austere aesthetic approach. Its ephemeral surfaces and dynamic forms -- marked by an enormous corrugated steel tube that wraps around a section of elevated tracks -- shake up the campus’ unyielding sense of order.

The $48-million center stands along State Street underneath the Green Line train that connects the campus to downtown. The school’s dormitories extend behind the center to the east; its brick-steel-and-glass academic buildings are scattered across the street to the west. Mies’ Crown Hall -- a landmark of modern design -- rises a few blocks away.


The school has seen better days. Since its heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s, the population of its main campus has dropped by almost a third -- to 4,500 students. Mies’ architectural vision, meanwhile, has also lost much of its allure over the decades. A model of Cartesian order, it is as apt to conjure notions of institutional conformity as of social harmony.

Koolhaas’ aim was to imbue that vision with the kind of urban edge that it has always lacked. The building’s low one-story rectangular form is conceived as a sort of social magnet -- a dense enclave amid a sprawling campus. Above it, the glistening steel form of the 530-foot-long tube looks intentionally out of scale, as if it were squashing the building underneath it. (The center’s construction was partly funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, a nonprofit with substantial investments in Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times.)

The tube is meant to muffle the noise of passing trains, creating a tranquil zone that links the east and west portions of the campus. But it can also be read as a metaphor for intellectual growth -- the emblem of a society relentlessly marching toward the future. Real knowledge, it suggests, is never static.

That notion of a dynamic architecture shaped by existing forces continues inside the building, whose public zones are pierced by a series of diagonal paths. The paths are based on a careful study of the natural routes that students follow across the site. The idea is to make visible the hidden patterns of behavior that define urban life. It is also a powerful critique of the idealized formulas of early Modernism -- the belief that architecture can act as a force for social change by imposing Utopian visions on a docile public.

What makes the building more than an intriguing conceptual diagram, however, is the design’s ability to transform such ideas into a meaningful architectural experience. Inside, the various paths collide in a frenzy of activity. Approached from the south, for example, a long, narrow ramp is carved into the floor, leading into the “broadband” zone, where students can log on to a row of computers. A second path flanks a broad stair that leads down into the sports bar -- a social mixing chamber where students can linger, study or exchange gossip.

Other paths cross this space at various angles. From the west, glass doors -- emblazoned with an image of Mies’ imposing head -- lead into a small glass-enclosed gallery space and past the faculty lounge. The lounge, partly submerged below ground level -- is one of the design’s most elegant spaces. A shallow reflecting pool -- a nod to Mies’ famed 1929 Barcelona Pavilion -- frames the back of the room. Views open up through large floor-to-ceiling windows to the outside. Sitting here just below ground level, one feels keenly aware of the activity along the street. The boundary between inside and out seems to temporarily melt away.

Koolhaas reinforces this effect by allowing natural landscapes to filter through the building. A rectangular garden, encased entirely in glass, extends over the sports bar like a kind of gigantic, floating terrarium. Various translucent and transparent surfaces reflect fragments of a nearby lawn, blurring the distinction between natural and man-made worlds. In effect, the entire building becomes a matrix of colliding worlds -- one in which conventional boundaries are constantly blurred.

Where Koolhaas got into some early trouble was in his treatment of Mies’ Commons building, which anchors one corner of the site. In his original proposal, the architect planned to extend the roof of his new structure over the existing landmark -- essentially wrapping old and new into one form. But local preservationists objected, and in the final design, Koolhaas was forced to leave Mies’ structure intact. As if to tweak his critics, the architect created a sort of mock excavation site. A small garden is carved out along one side of the commons below ground level. Visitors can now stroll out from the sports bar and stare up at the facade from a position of awe. It is a witty expression of how preservation -- when taken to an extreme -- can be a form of urban embalming.

That kind of critical edge, in fact, is what makes the center such a potent addition to Chicago’s architectural legacy. Koolhaas has long been an observant student of Mies’ work. But he understands that cities are living organisms; to treat them as museum pieces is to sap them of their meaning. Instead, his aim is to imbue Mies’ campus with new life -- to reinvigorate a dying tradition. It is hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to Mies’ genius.