Too cool for school
Buildings by Helmut Jahn and Rem Koolhaas turn the Illinois Institute of Technology into Chicago's "it" campus
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 1/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
If a Frisbee sails across a quad, and there's no one to catch it, is it really a quad?
In the early 1990's, the Illinois Institute of Technology boasted a 120-acre Chicago campus with buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—but not much in the way of community spirit. Administrators, mapping out the institution's future, knew that today's sophisticated students expect more: a cool place to crash, a cool place to hang, and a cool place to access the Internet (at high speed, no less). "Universities have a responsibility to consider life outside the classroom," says the IIT School of Architecture's dean, Donna Robertson.
An IIT master plan began by considering the campus's main artery, which actually functioned more as a barrier. Because State Street and the adjacent Chicago Transit Authority elevated tracks bifurcated the campus, traveling from one side to the other was undesirable, especially at nighttime. "The new plan not only joins what was previously segregated—housing and classrooms—but also develops a sense of community and provides enhanced services for the students," explains Robertson. Key to these revitalization goals are two high-profile projects. One, a residence hall, is by Murphy/Jahn president and CEO Helmut Jahn; the other is a campus center by Office for Metropolitan Architecture partner Rem Koolhaas, who won the commission through an international competition.
Jahn himself studied architecture at IIT in the 1960's, so it makes perfect sense that his three U-shape residence halls, collectively known as State Street Village, follow the Mies philosophy. They're honest structures that show what they're made of: poured-in-place concrete clad in glass and corrugated stainless-steel panels. The buildings embrace landscaped courtyards, and views from roof terraces stretch across the city's South Side, all the way to the Sears Tower. "The complex makes a very strong urban impact—and redefines IIT as a residential university," says Jahn.
State Street Village offers both suites and apartment-style units for a total of 98 rooms housing 360 students. Walls, floors, and ceilings are concrete; bathroom fixtures are stainless steel; custom beds, armoires, and desks are lightweight, easy to rearrange, and minimally detailed. To ensure that the el wouldn't disturb studying and sleeping, Jahn constructed walls with acoustic barriers, which eliminate train noise and vibrations.
The McCormick Tribune Campus Center, one block north of State Street Village, takes on the el line even more directly, integrating it to resolve a variety of urban-planning issues. Koolhaas did this by enclosing a 530-foot-long section of track in the Tube, an acoustically isolated tunnel that pierces the center's soundproof concrete-slab roof. The Tube's cladding of corrugated stainless steel coordinates with State Street Village's facade.
The campus center itself is clad in panels of glass, aluminum-framed, and the main entry's pair of 20-foot-high sliding glass doors are printed with an oversize portrait of Mies. They open to a highly energized environment, clearly designed for a student state of mind.
Even Koolhaas's layout for the single-story 115,000-square-foot building derives from student habits: Circulation routes follow the foot-worn paths that residents formed in walking back and forth between dorm and classroom over the past 70 years, explains former OMA project architect Sarah Dunn. Stairs morph into ramps, which morph into spaces for dining, watching TV, playing Ping-Pong and pool, or accessing the Internet.
One elevation is double-glazed with orange laminated glass sandwiching a layer of orange plastic honeycomb panels, which bend natural light into concentric circles. The floors—some green, some red—are coated in epoxy. A striking contrast to IIT's black-and-white Mies architecture, the saturated colors glow all the more intensely against the grayness of the long, cold months separating students from their spring vacations.