From Gothic to Studio Gang

Grey City examines the cultural history of of campus architecture.

The West Tower of Harper Memorial Library collapsed during construction in 1911.

Special Collections Research Center

The West Tower of Harper Memorial Library collapsed during construction in 1911.

By Kate Mabus and Milutin Gjaja

Among all campus debates, architecture can be surprisingly divisive. The diversity of architectural styles on campus, from iconic Gothic to controversial brutalism, leads to the development of architectural rifts among students. A survey on the quad conducted by The Maroon found Harper Memorial Library to be a favorite student building, but also identified a lover of concrete and a fan of Stony Island. One cannot browse the UChicago Secrets Facebook page without seeing common expressions of dislike for the Regenstein Library and Max Palevsky’s distinguished modernist architecture. Yet, campus architecture also serves as a living record of the University’s history. The University’s built form embodies important administrative decisions and messaging, illustrating the development of the University’s cultural history. 

When the first University of Chicago closed in 1886 for financial reasons, its Baptist founders in 1890 saw an opportunity to create something new. The founders of the University had a vision to integrate the school into a long tradition of higher education wanting to match the reputations of its long-established Methodist and Presbyterian competitors in Evanston and Lake Forest, Illinois. The founders wanted the new school to feel elite and long-established, so they used Gothic architecture to imply a greater degree of antiquity than the University really possessed. The new University was built on a land grant from entrepreneur Marshall Field, who owned land in the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods. The area was essentially unoccupied at the time yet situated in an economically stable and promising location, offering the founders room to fulfill their ambitious, expansive vision for the University.

To achieve a reputation of established elitism, the founders decided on a Gothic architectural style for the new campus and commissioned architect Henry Ives Cobb to design the iconic Gothic facades, including Kent, Ryerson, and Cobb Hall itself (named for donor Silas Cobb), which enclose the main quad. Cobb chose an English Gothic style for the University to make the campus feel like an escape to intellectualism to “remove the mind of the student from the busy mercantile conditions of Chicago.” The Gothic style also served a practical purpose: to allow for a variety of interconnected buildings linked by bridges and trestles. In this way, campus architecture could embody and encourage the interdisciplinary model founders envisioned for the University. 

Cobb designed the iconic quadrangles which make up the main quad to symbolize the unity of graduate and undergraduate education. He envisioned the original campus as a series of six quadrangles, surrounding a larger, central court to give the college practical separation of disciplines while also promoting unity under the umbrella of the University. 

“The University was founded by men and women who admired the German research university as the ideal,” said Dean of the College John Boyer in an interview with The Maroon. “But, they also thought they were founding an undergraduate college. The German universities did not have colleges, they were just universities in general.” 

Of the college’s inception, Boyer said that “it was an attempt to meld together different academic cultures. And I think the logic was, ‘If we do that we will create greater legitimacy and greater prominence for ourselves.’” Boyer emphasized that “[the idea was] that out of this confluence and combination of the two will come something new. Because neither Oxford nor Berlin had the traditions of the American liberal arts college.” 

After plans for the University quadrangle were decided, President William Rainey Harper lobbied for the construction and funding of Harper Library. After his death, a number of donors pledged money to construct the building, including John D. Rockefeller, the University’s primary donor whose contributions were intended to push the school toward a Baptist style of education.

When Cobb died in 1900, the University appointed Charles Coolidge as head architect to guide the construction of the library. Although Coolidge directed the plan to a more historically accurate Gothic style, modeled off of iconic British universities, Cobb’s master plan still served as the blueprint for the larger University and acted as a road map for the first five decades of the University’s construction. Cobb constructed the facade of campus, represented in the Tower Group—which was designed by Coolidge’s architecture firm and includes Reynolds Club—to resemble the German universities of Berlin and Vienna. Coolidge’s vision was realized, however, with the construction of Harper Memorial Library, which was designed to resemble the buildings of Oxford and Cambridge. 

In the early 1930s, as the University underwent a reorganization that divided it into four graduate divisions and the undergraduate College, University leadership sought to more closely adhere to the model provided by the Ivy League by building student housing and enhancing the undergraduate experience. This would bring the University into the modern age of higher education—a more comprehensive system of academic and social life which universities such as Yale and Princeton had already begun to imagine. 

Architect Charles Klauder planned an entire student village to attract students who were living off campus, a majority at this time, and to fully incorporate academics into student lifestyle. The ambitious plan included twelve courtyards and a 300-foot tower. However, the economic conditions of the Great Depression and resistance from senior faculty who were against the promotion of the undergraduate division hamstrung the execution of the plans. Burton-Judson Courts was the only new housing constructed as part of Klauder’s plans. Klauder designed the dorm in the beaux-arts style and included an especially luxurious interior, with carved wood and large common rooms. Klauder’s use of neoclassical architecture embodied the University's rejection of modern industrialism, as President Robert Maynard Hutchins instituted the Core Curriculum, symbolizing a re-embrace of classical thought and the long-established Western literary canon. 

Following World War II, ornate architectural styles, such as Gothicism and neoclassicism, became unfashionable in a cultural era of grief and industrialism. University President Lawrence Kimpton (served 1951–60) commissioned architect Eero Saarinen to embark on a new modernist architectural project. Saarinen crafted a complete overhaul of the Midway Plaisance and drafted designs for the University’s developing south campus, at that time consisting of only Burton-Judson; the plan included more courtyards and openings to streets around it—a juxtaposition to the exterior of the original quadrangle, a fortress-like complex of Gothic traditionalism. The Midway acted as a barrier to separate the old-fashioned Gothic architecture of the Quad from the new construction to the south as the University sought to compartmentalize itself.

Chicago historian Jay Pridmore wrote that the University’s development in the late ’60s and early ’70s “revealed an institution struggling with new economic realities, untried construction technologies, and experimental architecture styles.” In an attempt to reinvigorate the University, Provost Edward Levi and President George Beadle designed the Ford Plan, an academic master plan approved by the board in 1965 and designed for one of the Ford Foundation’s challenge grants. (In the ’60s, the Ford Foundation issued a number of grants totaling almost $3 billion today to various colleges and universities around the country which could produce a realistic long-term plan for the institution). 

This plan, which eventually won a grant worth $25 million ($204 million today), had lofty ambitions, including a sharp increase in faculty, a near-doubling of enrollment and tuition, and a much-needed update to campus infrastructure including a new STEM building, flagship library, residence halls, and renovations of some of the older buildings such as Cobb and Harper. On the administrative side of things, the plan also included a separation of the College into five divisions. Levi was keen on keeping the spirit of the University intact; according to Dean Boyer, “Edward Levi was often wont to talk about Chicago as ‘one’ university, and this principle was [never] more acutely present than in the Ford Plan.” In the previous decades, the University had “merely continued to survive,” and the then-provost was determined to uphold the core educational values that defined and differentiated the University from all others.

One of the Levi administration’s biggest projects, the construction of a new flagship library on campus, continued in that vein. Regenstein Library, built in 1970, isn’t entirely the complete departure from previous architectural styles that it may at first seem to be; in fact, similarly to Levi's plan, it pays homage to the foundations of the University. Its massive scale reflects that of the larger buildings on campus (such as Rockefeller Chapel), while the uneven blocks that make up its facade are meant to create a complex interplay of light and shadows, a signature characteristic of the Gothic style. In other ways, however, the Regenstein Library was a considerable departure from everything that had preceded it. Stylistically, the brutalism that Le Corbusier pioneered in the ’60s, which relied on exposed concrete and blocky masses, clashed with the deeply intricate Gothic aesthetic that had characterized campus up until then. Gone, too, were any attempts to emulate other prestigious institutions.

The Regenstein Library, a campus landmark, was constructed in 1969.
The Regenstein Library, a campus landmark, was constructed in 1969. (Special Collections Research Center)

The appointment of Hugo Sonnenschein as president in 1993 once again brought on a new direction for the University. A distinguished economist, Sonnenschein immediately went to work fixing the financial problems that had plagued the institution for decades, which at that point included a yearly $14.8 million deficit. The centerpiece of this reconstruction was a master plan, approved by the board in 1998, which provided funds for new structures. 

In an interview with the Maroon, Sonnenschein, now a professor in the Department of Economics, explained that the goal of the plan was to “tease out the aspirations of the sub-communities of the University,” then to “imagine what this might look like physically.” 

Although concretely, the master plan had as its main objective the construction of a number of buildings, Sonnenschein emphasized that this went beyond a simple physical renovation of campus: “More than a physical plan, it’s a plan for the way that you’re going to grow more generally.”

In combination with this plan, however, Sonnenschein made a number of controversial administrative changes, including reducing the size of the University’s Core Curriculum, which many faculty members considered a sacred part of its identity, and substantially increasing undergraduate enrollment in an effort to increase revenue. The backlash to such changes by faculty and alumni alike was swift and furious, and a New York Times exposé published in December 1998 following interviews with distressed professors and administrators further fanned the flames on campus. With increasing interest from the media and faculty pressure mounting, Sonnenschein resigned in 1999.

Yet, Sonnenschein's financial competence was undeniable. One of his most impressive achievements was raising $386 million as part of the University’s centennial fund campaign. A large amount of that money was subsequently directed towards the construction of a number of buildings in the 2000s, such as the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, the Gordon Center for Integrative Science, and Max Palevsky Residential Commons. And his master plan, approved by the board a few months before his resignation, guided the University's administration for years to come.

One of Sonnenschein's main goals was to improve the University’s dour image. Up until then, the University had acquired a reputation for isolationism, elitism, and being out of touch with the modern world. Acceptance rates were strikingly high for an institution with such lofty ambitions, rising over 40 percent in 2000. Yet of those accepted, only a third decided to attend the University, giving many the impression that UChicago was a safety school for most applicants. This combination of a high acceptance rate and a low yield effectively laid waste to the myth that students self-selected due to the University’s Spartan life-of-the-mind attitude towards education. With the University lagging behind its designated competition of Ivy League schools, Sonnenschein and the administration realized they had to make campus a more attractive destination to retain students. 

Architecture played an important role in this revolution, rendering the campus more alluring through visual beauty and technical brilliance. The early 2000s saw a development boom on campus as brand-new, modern complexes emerged from the money raised in the previous decade, filling in areas where the University was sorely lacking infrastructure. The Gordon Center for Integrative Science, for instance, built in 2005, was a much-needed comprehensive STEM center. The Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, opening in 2003, was the first gymnasium built on campus in more than 70 years (Crown Field House opened in 1931), and was designed to attract potential students. The imposing glass facades of the gymnasium and pool wings let natural light flood in, breaking sharply with Bartlett Gymnasium and Crown’s dim, artificially lit interiors. Additionally, the towering spires atop the gym recalled the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals, adding an air of divinity to the structure while creating a memorable addition to the University skyline, as was the intention of head architect César Pelli.

Yet the most emblematic (and controversial) structure of this period was easily Max Palevsky Residential Commons, known colloquially as Max P. This was first and foremost for historical reasons: As the first purposefully built dormitory at the University since Burton-Judson and International House in the ’30s, Max P was necessary to fulfill housing needs, particularly given the administration’s renewed emphasis on undergraduate education. For such a project, the university brought in Ricardo Legorreta, a famed Mexican architect known for his bright colors, in an attempt to rejuvenate campus. The bricks used for Max P’s main orange structure were reportedly the brightest that Legoretta could find, rendering the building one which “amplifies the sunlight, especially in the cold, gray months of winter” (as explained in Building Ideas by Jay Pridmore). The blue, purple, and pink that feature prominently in each wing of the complex are a notable break from the uniform gray that makes up most of campus, particularly the Regenstein Library and Bartlett, its two closest neighbors. In the face of the Gothic style’s intricate towers and ornate facades, Legoretta chose simplicity, creating a geometric complex built from a combination of squares, rectangles, and triangles. 

Max P also illustrated an increasing awareness of the neighborhoods surrounding the University. For much of its history, UChicago had an uneasy relationship with the rest of Hyde Park, even going so far as to sign agreements not to build past certain streets so as not to infringe on the neighborhood’s identity (agreements by which the University did not abide in future plans). But with Sonnenschein’s revolution came a departure from the University’s isolationism, at least aesthetically, which was reflected by Max P’s design. When Legoretta came to the building site, being relatively out of his comfort zone of warm climates and colors, he decided to take a few weeks to walk around Hyde Park and take in the local scenery. From these promenades, Legoretta was inspired to imitate the red brick structures that he saw on display; from this was born Max P’s distinctive break from the concrete and limestone that defined the University’s architecture up until then, in favor of a style that was more in line with the architectural trends surrounding the University.

It wasn’t just the architectural styles that reflected the University's change in philosophy, but also the choice of architects themselves. In the past, the University had often hired architects to plan large-scale structures for the campus: Cobb’s original vision in the 1890s, the student village of Burton-Judson in the ’30s, or Eero Saarinen’s ambitious plans in ’60s to make the Midway the center of campus. In the past 20 years, however, the University has preferred to invite world-class architects to design single buildings, with little or no connection to the rest of campus. Ratner, for instance, was designed by César Pelli, a world-famous architect who designed, among others, the Petronas Towers, at the time the largest buildings in the world. Helmut Jahn, the mastermind behind Mansueto Library, created the designs for a number of airports (including O’Hare’s Terminal 1) and the Sony Center in Berlin. This trend continues even today: Studio Gang, the firm which designed the divisive Campus North, is also responsible for a massive renovation of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, due to be completed in 2022. 

Since 2004, much of the construction on campus has been because of a two-part extension of Sonnenschein’s original master plan. The first part, completed in the early 2010s, includes the construction of campus-defining structures such as Granville-Grossman Residential Commons and Mansueto Library, as well as a renovation of the Law Library, among others. The larger second phase is in the process of being constructed right now; among its most important structures are the Logan Center for the Performing Arts, Campus North, and the Eckhardt Research Center, as well as the new Forum building and Woodlawn Residential Commons, both currently under construction. In an interview with the University Magazine, dating from 2005, former provost Richard Saller said that the overall plan “grew from the bottom up, starting from the individual needs of projects and schools,” with overall objectives including making Ellis Avenue “the backbone of campus” and filling up property south of the Midway that the University had acquired years ago.

As such, the years since Max Palevsky’s construction have largely been characterized by the construction of vast residential spaces, commonly referred to as “megadorms.” The first of these, Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, built in 2009, can accommodate over 800 students. Campus North Residential Commons, built in 2016, houses 800 more, as well as a number of cafés and restaurants on its ground floor. Finally, Woodlawn Residential Commons, slated to open in the fall of this year, will accommodate over 1,200 students in 11 houses, with 16 floors. Among the notable similarities between these complexes is the addition of a dining hall within or right next to the complex. The days when students would trek from International House to Cathey for a meal may soon be gone. As it has over the decades, UChicago’s architecture continues to evolve with the University’s needs.