One day a few years ago, I was walking across 55th Street from my apartment. As I walked across the busy boulevard that is 55th, a female student advanced toward me with her mother. In the middle of the busy street, the student abruptly stopped, turned and pointed at Pierce Tower. With her mother looking on, the student muttered two words: "Prison architect." I could only imagine the kinds of things going through her mother's mind, especially given the kinds of things that go on in prisons. But her mother nodded in agreement. And that was that.
Whether or not Pierce's architect, Harry Weese (a Chicago architect of some legend) was really in fact a "prison architect" is another story. But that scene always resonated in my mind because it is very telling of two things: the University's regretful building decisions of the 1950s and 1960s, and an architectural culture that the University's inhabitants aren't quite proud of.
In the course of the 1950s and 1960s, the University added a wave of buildings that were very progressive architecturally, but did little to help the campus culture. Many of these were on the South Campus.
"Many of the buildings that they built on this side -- the Ed Stone building (the Graduate Residence Hall), the dormitory buildings with the columns -- don't look like they belong to the University," said Laurence O. Booth, FAIA, the architect of the new Press Building. "The Mies building could be a commercial building in an office block. The Saarinen building, as good as it is, has some connection -- it has a sort of verticality. But there's a couple of other buildings that don't relate."
Of course, the '60s were a weird time and all is forgiven. We're still recovering from that, but what's at stake here is the present architectural culture of this campus, especially in light of the initiative to add $500 million in new building. To ameliorate some of those mistakes, the University has decided to correct these mistakes by tearing down some of those buildings (Woodward) and making due with what it has by adding on (Pierce).
But there's more to be done than that.
Right now, the money is on the north campus, the high-rent district of the University. Thus far, the University's half-billion dollar building initiative has not capitalized on the south campus in any major way (save for a half-baked Master Plan). No effort has been made to connect the seemingly disparate monuments -- each a separate node of mid-century Modernism -- on 60th Street. But there is hope.
Ironically, the first project to the finish line is not in the north campus, but in the low-rent South campus.
The South Campus, Press Building, et al.
On one of the farthest corners of campus, the south east corner of the Midway, is a plot of land that is either a no man's land, or possibly one of the most valuable sites on this campus. This particular block -- like much of the South Campus -- is a half filled-glass. If the glass is half empty, it is because of the decayed atmosphere of the South campus and the monstrous power plant that looks as if it were straight out of Lowell, Massachusetts. But if indeed the glass were half full, this land is plush with possibilities: the proximity of the lakefront and Jackson Park, the close connection to the Metra stop and the majestic view that it commands over the rest of the campus. This here is prime real estate.
The University of Chicago Press Building, a seemingly generic office structure, hasn't been as highly touted in -- ironically -- the press. Even considering its very talented architect, the new Press Building does not stand side by side with the offspring of celebrity architects that the University have ordained to guide its architectural culture into the next century.
But this scrappy underdog emerges from the obfuscation of the University's present indecisive architectural culture, and stands proudly as a building that very distinctly belongs at the University of Chicago.
"We wanted to bring the architectural culture of the campus across the Midway," explains Booth, the principal of BoothHansen. But bringing the campus culture across the Midway did not mean stealing it, but understanding it.
"The Cobb buildings -- the original quadrangles -- really established an outstanding environment," said Booth from his office in the heart of the South Loop. "It probably held it together in the '60s."
Booth's building reflects that tradition. The massing of the Press Building very much resembles Cobb Hall, with its centrally defined tower flanked by two building masses on both sides.
The success of the building is due to a number of different, very simple factors -- and I mean really simple. The scale is very human. The spaces are big and flexible. There's lots of room for lots of stuff. The windows are wide, and there's lots of sunlight everywhere. It is respectful of its older, stately neighbors across the Midway because it doesn't speak its architectural idiom too loudly.
"You have this marvelous sight in front of it, so you have big windows so people can see. You have the building placed on that axis. You have the tower here so you the viewer can connect to the entry," said Booth. The tower identifies this as a U of C building because it, quite simply, literally states "U of C." The tower hoists the University's seal of the Phoenix, proudly and triumphantly on the top. It's not terribly inventive, but there is no way anyone will mistake that gesture for anything else. It speaks volumes about architectural ownership and identity, something the South Campus desperately lacks.
"You wouldn't build this building everywhere. It's not an anonymous building. It has a specific connection, and the spirit is connected to the architectural culture of the University," explained Booth. "This building can't be anywhere. It's here!"
The bottom floor of the building is lined all round with wide, ogee-arched windows. It's a wonderful acknowledgement of the University's pedestrian culture, the windows inviting one to look in from the outside. The east portion of the first floor will be used as a cafe, while the west will unfortunately be used as office space. Why not locate the bookstore in it? Imagine the hordes of undergraduates spilling out onto the green of the Midway in spring.
While the Press Building currently serves the interest of office space, it has positioned itself to be the kind of flexible collegiate building that could well serve the Midway. "This is not a special building. This is an all-purpose building," said Booth. "If the press moves out someday, they can put any number of things in there."
The possibilities are generous. BoothHansen has developed a plan (at the request of the University) for that particular block, with the Press Building growing on the East and South, all this benefiting the Midway. "The Midway could become more of the center of campus, as opposed to the edge," said Booth.
The Press Building is big, spacious and -- most importantly -- flexible. It's got room on all sides for neighbors. Its backyard, now a parking lot, will one day be a wonderful quadrangle.
The hardest thing about the Press Building is convincing passersby that it is not a Gothic building. You'd have an equally hard time convincing someone that it's a modern building. It's a bit in-between, but it's not Postmodern. How to judge this book by its cover?
"I don't know if this is a modern building or an old-fashioned building," said Booth. "Who cares?"
And to a certain extent, he's right. "You care how you feel when you see it," he said. "How you experience it is what's important -- the human experience."
The outside is merely a shell, a means to an end, much like the old Gothic buildings on campus, many of which were built using modern building techniques.
It's like the introduction to an argument, the icing on a cake, or the cover of a magazine. They're all acts of persuasion, seeking to draw you inside.
Gothic happens to be the beautifully ornate costume of choice for this University. The fact that the Press Building's ground floors are arched and not rectangular is merely to help it blend in with its context, its history. It's to help the building dress for the occasion, to help it belong in that Gothic procession on the Midway.
We look back at the Gothic because it ensured the growth of this campus's architectural and collegiate culture -- but mostly, I think, as an architectural dynamic, and less as a particular style. When the University abandoned Gothic in favor of more modern styles, what it really abandoned was the kind of well-rounded thinking of its future. It's not really the style that's at issue here; it's just the substance that was lost.
What had become lost were the big rooms, the great windows, the richness it demanded in every detail, that neo-Gothic architecture brought with it. But mostly, it's the great feeling that being in such a space -- like say, Hutchinson Commons -- which was never echoed in present buildings.
Gothic is -- and will always be -- the impenetrable architectural legacy of this University. Presently, the building projects on campus come from two different extremes, which originate from the same desire: resonating the University's Gothic past. To resolve this issue, the University has hired architects with a modern idiom, and also architects who are designing buildings that look and feel very much like its older Gothic counterparts.
Currently, the campus culture is caught in reconciling its two pasts. That task has crippled the abilities of even the best architects. The Press Building shows that there is no need for this schizophrenia.
(If one were to be a devil's advocate here, one could say that most of the University's supposedly "modern" architects -- Cesar Pelli, the gym's architect; Riccardo Legorretta, the dorm's architect -- have one foot in postmodernism and the other in.... we'll leave that aside for now.)
"This whole idea of modernism is kind of whack. [But] postmodernism became a cliche that just destroyed itself," said Booth, an architect whom some have considered quite postmodern. "It was such a good idea to go back and understand the past, to appreciate the past and learn from [it]. But everybody went back and did it superficially. Some of which we did," he admitted. "A superficial understanding of the past. But to straddle the fence -- look forward and backward at the same time" is not a bad step, for now.
On a college campus -- especially one with so many heavyweights (the Gothic ones, I mean) -- that's good. Stripped bare of its neo-neo-Gothic exterior, the Press Building would function just as well as a building -- the pedestrian-friendly ground floor, sensitive context, big windows, spacious everything. In that, it tries to supersede the style arguments. As Booth declares: "Style takes care of itself."
"In my lifetime, I think we've gone through 10 stylistic enthusiasms. When we got to number four or five, I [said] 'Forget it,'" said Booth, whose firm has designed buildings that are starkly modern, and oddly historicist. "That's the trouble with any style idea -- because every building has its own spirit to it. Every building has its own place. Every building has it own potential to connect. Everything's different. So it's like the divine imagination is not interested in any repetition. Everybody's different."
In the meantime, the Press Building will continue being an office building, very quiet and efficient and tranquil, because right now that's the nature of the South Campus. But when the South Campus is ready for a transformation -- and it will be soon -- the Press Building will be there, ready, set, to go.