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Building Ideas: An Architectural Guide to the University of Chicago

Building Ideas: An Architectural Guide to the University of Chicago


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Many books have been written about the University of Chicago over its 120-year history, but most of them focus on the intellectual environment, favoring its great thinkers and their many breakthroughs. Yet for the students and scholars who live and work here, the physical university—its stately buildings and beautiful grounds—forms an important part of its character.

Building Ideas: An Architectural Guide to the University of Chicago 
explores the environment that has supported more than a century of exceptional thinkers. This photographic guide traces the evolution of campus architecture from the university’s founding in 1890 to its plans for the twenty-first century.

When William Rainey Harper, the university’s first president, and the trustees decided to build a set of Gothic quadrangles, they created a visual link to European precursors and made a bold statement about the future of higher education in the United States. Since then the university has regularly commissioned forward-thinking architects to design buildings that expand—or explode—traditional ideals while redefining the contemporary campus.

Full of panoramic photographs and exquisite details, Building Ideas features the work of architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Ives Cobb, Holabird & Roche, Eero Saarinen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Netsch, Ricardo Legorreta, Rafael Viñoly, César Pelli, Helmut Jahn, and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The guide also includes guest commentaries by prominent architects and other notable public figures. It is the perfect collection for Chicago alumni and students, Hyde Park residents and visitors, and anyone inspired by the institutional ideas and aspirations of architecture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226046808
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/12/2013
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 9.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jay Pridmore is the author or coauthor of many books, including Chicago Architecture and Design, University of Chicago: The Campus Guide, Shanghai: The Architecture of China’s Great Urban Center, and The American Bicycle. He has worked as a journalist in Chicago and has written extensively about architecture. Tom Rossiter is a photographer and filmmaker as well as a registered architect and fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

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Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-04680-8



The University of Chicago originated not as a small college as did most universities in the East, but rather with the full-blown ambition of a major university—one that was unique in reflecting from its beginnings the American ideals of openness and accessibility based on merit rather than social position. Just as Chicago is the great American city, so the University of Chicago is the great American university.


THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO'S LEAFY, sprawling campus in Hyde Park is one of the world's great intellectual destinations, and its complexity and diversity are vividly reflected in its architecture. The campus in many respects appears venerable and rich with tradition, and in other ways it seems fresh and mutable as a new idea.

Today, the original quadrangles remain as the founders intended, with gardens surrounded by limestone buildings that feel as ancient as the hills. Yet the courtyards, towers, gates, and gargoyles engage in continuous dialogue with more modern neighbors, the newest among them transparent, seemingly weightless, and gleaming with light. Together the buildings reinforce the university's message that it honors the past even as it gazes into the future.

Architecture has been central to the university's identity since its founding in 1890. By then Chicago had already earned a reputation for innovative architecture. The city's early architects included those collectively known as the Chicago School, famous for creating the modern skyscraper. In the shadow of the nascent university, Chicago hosted the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and created the grandiose White City, America's first major example of City Beautiful urban planning. These and other achievements set high standards for architecture on the University of Chicago campus.

The university has long shown its desire to meet if not exceed those expectations. In the beginning, the founders debated the merits of the chosen site, not just where it was located but how it should be configured. They considered the architectural styles then in vogue—Classical, Romanesque, Gothic. They remained vigilant in guiding the early campus design, and they were generous with their money and their personal engagement. The founders believed that the architecture of Chicago's university should bespeak an institution that exuded ambition and vision.


The university's aspirations were fueled by the times. When the institution was founded, the United States was completing its conquest of the frontier, mastering industrialization, and believing fervently in manifest destiny. Chicago, as a new city of immense importance, served as more than a major hub and staging ground for commerce. It became a symbol of the nation's future. Chicago's wealth outpaced its rapid population growth, and its self-regard often outpaced its wealth. In the early twentieth century, novelist Theodore Dreiser described Chicago as the "Florence of the West ... a hobo among cities, with the grip of Caesar in its mind." City fathers treated cultural development with the same entrepreneurial drive that they applied to business concerns, and the university benefited from this thoroughgoing spirit.

Like the notion of manifest destiny, Chicago's greatness was considered a self- fulfilling prophecy. Even the Great Chicago Fire became less a setback and more an opportunity to reclaim open spaces. In the fire's wake, the city attracted a wave of architects and builders willing and able to reconceive Chicago. "The flames swept away forever the greater number of monstrous libels on artistic house-building," declared a local publication at the time.

Sensing this as a rare moment, the architects who would make Chicago famous mostly came from elsewhere for the chance to build as no place had been built before. Henry Ives Cobb, William LeBaron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright migrated here looking for ways to engage in new ideas and to realize high ambitions.

Downtown, the Loop prospered as steel-frame structures scraped the sky, dazzling the world with their lofty heights as well as their returns on investment. Surrounding areas prospered too, as railroads collaborated with real estate interests to develop outlying neighborhoods and communities. Indeed, when the university's founders chose Hyde Park, it was a marshy, largely undeveloped southern outpost. But it had rail service and the promise of an active future, so acres of land were drained and reclaimed. To the founders of the university, the less-than-bucolic property around 57th Street represented a slate at least as clean as that provided by the fire.


The earliest proponents of the University of Chicago were churchmen who wanted to expand the Baptist Union Theological Seminary. The church organization showed an interest in establishing "a great college, ultimately to be a University, in Chicago," wrote Frederick T. Gates, a high-ranking Baptist clergyman from Minneapolis. "Between the Allegheny and the Rocky Mountains there is not to be found another city in which such an institution as we need could ... achieve wide influence or retain supremacy among us."

The idea attracted the attention of another Baptist: John D. Rockefeller, a man who knew something of big plans. Rockefeller required some convincing, but ultimately he pledged $600,000, an amount that would swell over time to $37 million. A wealth of correspondence ensued, debating what kind of an institution there should be and how it might address the problems of the growing metropolis, become a laboratory for research across disciplines, and bring the uplifting influence of a large university to a city that did not have one within its limits.

Rockefeller's interest, indeed his strength, lay in the realm of brick and mortar, and he exhorted the founders not to think small. "Do not on account of scarcity of money fail to do the right thing in constructing new buildings," he wrote to Thomas Goodspeed, a trustee and secretary to the board. "We must in some way secure sufficient funds to make it what it ought to be."

Local collaborators shared Rockefeller's interest in a new university. Many were non- Baptists from families whose viewpoints were shaped by the risk and drama of acquiring significant wealth in a new city. Charles Hutchinson, a banker and trader, was illustrative. He left a successful career in business to concentrate on building cultural institutions in Chicago. Hutchinson assumed a pivotal role in the creation of the University of Chicago and, along with his friend, steel magnate Martin Ryerson, persuaded the newly recruited board to acquire a four-block site.

Another key player in the conception of the University of Chicago was William Rainey Harper, who came to the Midwest from Yale. He shared the high aspirations of Chicagoans to create an original, fundamentally new enterprise. Harper envisioned a college, graduate schools, an extension division, and publishing house that would grow under the same umbrella. He insisted that it be a university (not a mere "college") of diverse parts, unified by the spirit of inquiry, of Socratic debate, of shared purpose and outsized ambition. He and the other founders were convinced that the university was an essential engine of the city's social and intellectual advancement.


For the physical plan and architectural design, the founding trustees considered six local firms. Chicago's architectural talent was adept at executing large projects, maintaining budgets, and creating designs that consistently impressed (albeit grudgingly) the critics from the East Coast. Chicago School architects designed for a demanding city: for developers who craved square footage, for building occupants who loved abundant natural light and fresh air, and for Chicagoans who aspired to distinctive and occasionally sublime architecture. The trustees appeared determined to create a campus as emblematic of the university mission as the downtown skyscrapers were of the city's soaring economic ambitions.

The winning proposal was submitted by Henry Ives Cobb, whose portfolio in Chicago included tall office buildings along with well-appointed residences. Cobb's was not the most beautifully rendered entry, but the relationship he had formed with Hutchinson and Ryerson—Hutchinson was a member of the Chicago Athletic Association, which Cobb had recently designed to significant praise—may have helped him secure the university commission.

Cobb's original proposal for buildings in the Romanesque style was quickly revised to the Gothic, which lent the campus an air of distinction and erudition—this in a city that had often defended itself against an image as hog butcher. Not long after the first buildings went up, the magazine and arbiter Architectural Record endorsed the university's campus in conception as well as execution. The Gothic style was "selected as far as possible to remind one of the old English Universities of Cambridge and Oxford; in fact to remove the mind of the student from the busy mercantile conditions of Chicago."

The choice of Gothic offered other advantages as well. Among them was the timeless quality of the buildings, which "struck Gothic notes of permanence and immortality," as Harper and his compatriots desired. The style harkened to medieval times, a period romanticized as the antithesis of industrialization, impersonalization, and the oppression of the working classes. That bygone age of chivalry, noted for artisanship and individuality, had inspired writers such as Walter Scott, John Ruskin, and William Morris to revive medieval customs, including architecture. On a practical level, Gothic's asymmetrical massing enabled numerous building types—libraries, classrooms, and laboratories among them. The style's endless variations of detail assured that the campus would remain unified even as it grew over time.


There were dissenters, naturally, who found the style distasteful, but they did not number among the trustees or others who could block the decision. Thorstein Veblen, the eminent sociologist, saw the campus where he worked as out-of-date, and derided "the disjointed grotesqueries of an eclectic and modified Gothic." He believed that it would end up a regrettable choice when the style fell out of fashion.

Frank Lloyd Wright was also dismayed by the theatricality of the Gothic style, modern 500 years earlier, for an institution that aimed to offer the most up-to-date learning in many fields. In 1930 he wondered aloud why "an American University in a land of Democratic ideals in a Machine Age [should] be characterized by second-hand adaptation of Gothic forms."

Veblen's denunciation is easy to dismiss, for he was a social scientist, not an architect or designer. But Wright's critique is not discounted so readily. He himself had been influenced by Gothic architecture, which, like the prairie style, was grounded in organic and natural forms. Indeed, Wright possessed a genius for geometric harmonies and asymmetric massing, features that also made Gothic a durable and influential style.

It is intriguing to imagine the University of Chicago as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. His famous Robie House, on the edge of campus, might seem an implausible template to line the quadrangles; a more likely one may be Hitchcock Hall, which was built on the quads in 1902. Hitchcock is Dwight Perkins's blend of Wright-inspired organic design and Gothic revival. It features unique floral ornamentation, inspired by Wright's mentor Louis Sullivan, and a prairie-style-like floor plan more intricate, even labyrinthine, than that of most Gothic revival buildings on campus.

But as far as Wright is concerned, he would have been much too cranky to design in the collective environment of a university. Cobb, in contrast, was a brilliant collaborator. As for the suitability of Cobb's influence in the ten years and sixteen buildings of his tenure for the university, we can defer to no less an arbiter than Eero Saarinen, who took on master planning for the university around the time he designed the Law School, completed in 1959. He observed that the university's Gothic style was used not just by Cobb but by a succession of later architects for almost forty years. Saarinen judged the result "a beautiful, harmonious visual picture" and implied that early choices, not just of the Gothic styling but of uniform materials (Indiana limestone) and thoughtful proportions, inspired later architects to build agreeable neighbors.

As we'll see, the design decisions that informed the university's architecture were prescient and influential. Their long-standing emphasis on public space, both as a planning motif and to encourage intellectual collaboration, has been manifest in new science quadrangles, in the winter garden of the Booth School of Business's Charles M. Harper Center, and in other places that encourage interaction. In many ways, innovative buildings on campus heed the university's vivid past as much as they reach toward its future.

The university's Gothic revival may have had its heyday in the early twentieth century, but it has been influential well beyond that period. Other styles have also left their own stamp on the Hyde Park campus as it has expanded with the times. Many so-called modern buildings may even appear at odds with the carved towers and turrets of old. But in them we detect an architectural tradition—and a consistent eye for interpreting it— that runs deeper than styles or superficial appearance.

Today we see contemporary buildings through a lens colored by history. In new architecture, like the old, the best buildings deftly incorporate the site, scale, and spirit of the institution. The long-term beauty and suitability of any single building on campus reflect not only the skill of the architect but the character of nearby buildings as well—structures that harmoniously define and affirm the university's identity.

The Robie House Symphony

CHILDREN'S BOOK AUTHOR BLUE BALLIETT and her family live within walking distance of Robie House, Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style masterpiece in Hyde Park. Of her fascination with the house, Balliett has said, "I love the idea of something made of brick or stone or wood, something that is not supposed to be alive, communicating.... Although, of course, that's impossible ... or is it?"

In The Wright 3, Balliett draws from the history of Robie House, imagining that it is once again under threat of demolition. A group of sixth graders decides to try to save it, and the students learn to appreciate the house not only as architecture but as a work of art. Mrs. Sharpe, a former occupant, describes the features of the house that bring it to life:

Living in that house felt a bit like living in a slowly turning kaleidoscope. The light captured by those windows changes by the hour, and sometimes even by the second, and yet what you see always fits perfectly with everything else. It's almost as if Wright managed to set up a resonance between the structure itself and all of the details—art glass, ceiling grilles, rugs, lamps, balconies—that changes continuously and yet remains seamless. I'm not sure anyone has ever been able to figure out exactly how he did it. A symphony, that's what the place is like—a complex Bach symphony that sharpens your mind even if you can't comprehend every strand of harmony. And when you stand inside, it's almost as if you become part of the art yourself, an instrument in Mr. Wright's hands. There's the feeling of belonging to someone else's imagination.



The choice of Gothic for the University over the popular classicism of the Exposition had its sources deep in the University's conception of itself.... Classicism stood for the burgeoning materialism of the Renaissance, Gothic for timeless religious values.


THE TRUSTEES OF THE NEW and as-yet-unformed University of Chicago were in a hurry. In April 1891, they invited six architectural offices to submit proposals to build on the four-block site assembled just a few months before. Among the competitors was Adler and Sullivan, the best-known firm in Chicago at the time. Within weeks the trustees chose Henry Ives Cobb, architect of Loop skyscrapers, country houses, and a few years later the Newberry Library. By early June, the trustees most involved in building concerns, Charles Hutchinson and Martin Ryerson, visited Cobb's studio to discuss the drawings he had submitted.

Like the other architects vying for the commission, Cobb had proposed buildings in the then-fashionable Romanesque manner, the style made popular by the prominent Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Richardson's rusticated walls and heavy arches were admired throughout the country for their strength and frank expression of underlying structure—and by extension their American character. Yet, once settled in Cobb's office, the trustees expressed doubts about the architect's initial scheme for sprawling, fortresslike buildings. They wondered whether they might take the architecture in another direction.

Excerpted from BUILDING IDEAS by JAY PRIDMORE. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Map of Selected Architectural Landmarks on Campus....................     vi     

Foreword by Robert J. Zimmer....................     xix     

ONE IDEAS AND ARCHITECTURE....................     1     

TWO THE GOTHIC CAMPUS....................     17     

THREE THE OLMSTED EFFECT....................     41     

FOUR THE EXPANDING ENTERPRISE....................     61     

FIVE EMBRACING MIDCENTURY MODERNISM....................     79     

SIX THE ARCHITECTURE OF SCIENCE....................     97     


Epilogue by Steve Wiesenthal....................     137     

Acknowledgments....................     141     

Sources....................     145     

Index....................     151     

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