From Past to Present, UChicago Campus Is Home to Architectural Innovation

The Chicago Society tapped into history of campus architecture through “Building the University.”

By Abby Kuchnir

On Thursday night, the Chicago Society brought together three speakers for “Building the University,” a panel discussion about the history of campus architecture at the University of Chicago as well as at universities as far away as Oxford and as close as IIT. The conversation was moderated by Dean of the College John Boyer.

The event began with a brief lecture from each speaker on their area of research in the world of campus architecture. First to speak was Paul Hardin Kapp, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His presentation focused on the iconography prevalent in campus architecture and how such symbolism has evolved. Kapp argued that the UChicago campus, initially planned by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, was the first true campus home for any university in the world. UChicago’s neo-Gothic architecture set the precedent for what campus architecture should look like and for years afterward was emulated in campus designs across the country.

In more recent years, modernist architecture has hit campuses, along with the expansion of new dorms, libraries, and entertainment facilities like auditoriums and sports arenas. Kapp noted that every campus has a prominent Brutalist building, pointing to the Regenstein Library here at the University of Chicago. While students will whisper that the splash of Brutalism was meant to discourage protests, in actuality, Brutalism was the avant-garde architectural style of its day, placed on university campuses to symbolize their commitment to embracing new discoveries.

Carla Yanni, a professor of art history at Rutgers University, spoke next, focusing on the first women’s dorms on co-ed campuses. She presented the idea that women’s dorms were constructed with the goal of teaching women domesticity. At the turn of the 20th century, several universities—including UChicago—situated women’s dorms in social spaces on campus to instill hostessing habits. Beecher, Kelly, and Green Halls, which house the Psychology Department today, were UChicago’s first women’s dorms, resting directly across from the first men’s dorms in Gates-Blake and its neighbors. Although architect Henry Ives Cobb’s plan for the campus had Beecher, Kelly, and Green arranged as they are today in a single long and continuous building, Alice Freeman Palmer, the first Dean of Women in the College, used walls to break them up into three separate buildings, more like the cottages at Smith College (where she had previously worked). Deans of Women at the time favored cottages for women in lieu of larger dorms, which they feared would promote “diseases and vices of body and imagination”—that is, lesbian activity. Palmer’s choice to split up Beecher, Kelly, and Green into communities of about 100 students each introduced the House system in place today.

The final speaker was Sharon Haar, professor and architecture program chair at the University of Michigan. She spoke about the relationship between campuses and the cities in which they reside, and disagreed with the common narrative of the campus “bubble.” From the Hull House campus to the University of Chicago’s quad today, Professor Haar argued that the campus was a prime method of urban renewal and thus a critical part of Chicago’s growth as a city. She pointed to a modern trend of schools blurring the line where the city meets the campus, in contrast to the carefully boxed-in campuses of Olmsted’s imagination. According to Haar, the campus draws private investment to a city and with it brings “new urban life.”