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Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago
[October 11, 2012] - In a supply chain world, a building breaks free from the standard modules.
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center photograph: Tom Rossiter
“I think in life it's generally true,” said architect Tod Williams, “everything's pushing to the more broadly based and generic, kind of universal answers. I think that's the trend of the moment, and I think there's certain places, certain institutions, and people that go against that. We go against that.”
He was responding to my question about architecture in the era of the supply chain, where it's all about maximizing efficiency through standardization and scale. Not even culture escapes. In city after city, for example, symphony orchestras, once a proof of a city's significance, have become to be considered inefficient redundancies, and allowed to die. At the same time, "world-class" museums now must be encylopedic to be credible. Just as the Art Institute added a Modern Wing to extend its credentials into contemporary art, a museum must come to contain the entire world of art to stay competitive as a global brand.
And how does this relate to commercial architecture? Two words, Benjamin: "warehouse store".
Health care is taking a similar path. Smaller, neighborhood hospitals grow uncompetitive, merge or close. Market share is usurped by a far smaller number of massive mega-hospitals. Just this decade, Chicago has seen an amazing construction boom: Prentice Women's Hospital ($502 million construction cost, 257 beds); Rush Hospital ($654 million, 304 beds); and Lurie Children's Hospital ($915 million, 245 beds)
The University of Chicago will be staking its own claim in the health care sweepstakes with the opening in 2013 of its new Center for Care and Discovery, designed by architect Rafael Viñoly ($700 million, 240 beds). This will be a world-class, state-of-the-art treatment and research facility, with capacious patient rooms on the top three floors, just above a sky lobby, all looking out over the rooftops of the older buildings on the University campus. The overall design is based on the bedrock of supply chain architecture - the extruded standardized module. In the case of the Center for Care and Discovery, this is a standard module 31'6" x 31'6" x 18' high, each module able to contain a single operating room, or be subdivided into two patient rooms, or into three prep/recovery bays. The module is repeated 17 times along the structure's length, five times along the width. The resulting building hovers over the University campus like a beached ocean liner, 570 feet long, 180 feet wide, nearly 200 feet high. Whatever the wonders inside, the message conveyed by its massive, looming form is one, not of healing, but of overwhelming, faceless corporate power.
In the supply chain economy, you have the broad-based mass-market and the specialized fringe. In retailing, this would be the superstore and dominant national chains - Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, CVS, McDonald's- versus the luxury boutique (the Apple Store, Nordstrom's, Ruth's Chris). In architecture, it would be the big commercial and residential developers versus non-profits like universities and museums.
I had the opportunity to tour the Logan Center with Williams and Tsien, and I think the best way to illustrate what I mean is to take you through the complex under their guidance.
The Logan Center for the Arts is, its own way, an example of the compulsion to be encylopedic. It's the U of C's frontal assault in securing its credentials in the arts as an institution previously best known for more traditional academic disciplines. Williams and Tsien were selected for the job in 2007 after an invited competition that included such heavyweights as Fumihiko Maki and Daniel Libeskind. Hans Hollein proposed a large building anchored by a central tower rising up from a semicircular plaza facing the Midway Plaisance, the long, broad strip of parkland that runs all along the southern end of the original campus. Thom Mayne/Morphosis's proposed a typically spectacular design with an audacious cantilever created a ceiling over the entire Lorado Taft studio complex to the east of the site.
Tod Williams: “We of course had been to Chicago and to the University of Chicago, but we had never looked at it with the eye we might have a real project here. Sometime ago, there was some thought there might be a project that would be right for us, so we had visited the campus with the eye to thinking about a possible architectural work, but this was a whole new ballgame. The mission was to animate this portion of the campus and to begin to address the community to the south.”
“One temptation early on was to think we should build in steel. It's a steel city, but frankly we're not experts in it. I think we have much more expertise in concrete, and masonry buildings have an important place in Chicago's history, too. So we thought of this being a dense masonry building, poured-in-place concrete with a stone cladding, that would refer to the Gothic towers of the campus, the towers of Chicago, the silos of the Midwest.”
Felix Ade: (Project Architect, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects) “The tower was quite a struggle. It was a quite expensive way of stacking the functions atop of each other. For programming, building without a tower would be easier and cheaper to do. But the University wanted it, so we made it work.”
There are two basic parts to the Logan Center. Alongside the tower, there's a large horizontal structure that houses three theaters. First, a 105 seat proscenium space where the stage is as large as the seating area. Next, an 185-seat "Black Box" theater that's conpletely configurable, including a catwalk that can be used either for seating or performers . . .
The Performance Penthouse is already proving to be one of the most coveted spaces on campus, not only for performances, but for seminars and banquets, with reconfigurable seating for up to 110 people. 135 feet up in the tower, with a 21-foot-ceiling, its full-height windows offer spectacular views along a vista that runs from Lorado Taft's Fountain of Time all the way to Lake Michigan. (If it weren't for the new hospital, you'd have been able to see the entire Chicago skyline, as well.)
The 170-high tower is intended to be a "beacon", drawing students from the main portion of the campus to the north, and provide a link to the non-university, lower income neighborhood to the south. The roughly 100 x 40 foot floorplates are crammed with varying programs - a film screening room at the bottom, at outdoor deck at the top, music practice rooms for individuals, ensemble rehearsal rooms, which can double as intimate performance spaces . . .
“Given the budget”, adds Williams, “we said you should put money into the stairs, and the fire stairs, make them beautiful places to be, so students will use their hearts and lungs and legs, and actually use these socially as opposed to having yet another elevator to take people mindlessly up from one level to the next.”
Williams says getting the glass-enclosed fire stair was a major battle. “In our original idea, the fire stair would have had a rolling shutter so that it would have been completely open to this central space. I would have loved that, but Chicago has a more stringent fire code than any other city. We didn't know that when we started. Those kinds of things began to break my back. I mean, Jesus, did we need to have that laid on us? We begged and we had Felix go down and plead to see if we could get a waiver.” When they couldn't, they made the decision to enclose the fire stair in glass, which required its own innovation. “Glass like this,” says Ade, “has a two hour fire rating. It didn't exist prior to this. That at least gives us transparency into the tower stairs.”
And this is one place where transparency isn't just a buzzword - it really makes a difference. I'm sure that eventually, to students using the building every day, it will become as familiar as the back of their hand, but there's also an air of perpetual discovery permeating the experience. Every door has a window. Wherever you are, there's a transparent visual element drawing you on to another part. You have a choice of stairways, You can move from one to another, and either gives you views both into the space and striking snapshots drawing in the cityscape outside. There are benches and seating on the stairway landings. You feel both protected and encouraged to explore and play. It's like being in the world's coolest tree house.
When it came to fitting all of the needed programs into the space of the tower, however, it was more like a game of Jenga. Explained Billie Tsien, “As I said before to (New York Times architecture critic) Michael Kimmelman, it's like you've got this long, tall box and you're trying to squeeze into it an umbrella and a duck and three blocks and a plate. Not only do you have these odd-shaped things, you then have to wrap them up because they have all this insulation so they don't impinge upon each other. So it was hard, but I think that struggle was the important one, because almost every other tower is an extrusion - a highrise that's the same on every floor, so it has a consistency that makes it more simple to put together. I think when you have different floor-to-floor heights and different adjacencies, it was really an extremely complex three dimensional puzzle but it was crucial to the meaning of the building.”
I asked if there was ever a point in a project when they looked at the level of complexity and said: too much.
“Yeah, here” replied Williams. “We felt we had been asked to something that almost seemed impossible. At one point I called Bill (Michaels, Logan Center Executive Director) and I said, look Bill, to get it in on budget, we have to eliminate the idea of the tower. It's too expensive an idea, and the acousticians drove us crazy because they always wanted that extra layer of fat to separate one space from another acoustically.” (Kirkegaard Associates were the acoustical consultants on “anything that had to do with sound,” including practice spaces, which use floating floors to provide an acoustical seal.)
“It's easy to come up with a complicated idea. It's very, very difficult to make that complicated idea complex and taut, and I would say that this is complex and taut. I would say I don't want to push this hard again. The American Folk Art Museum we did was like a vertical submarine, way too tight if anything, unbelievably tight dimensional sections mechanically and every other way. And then we cranked it up to another level here. This pushed us right to the wall. I was exhausted. We were all exhausted.”
“It's an unbelievable story. We were fighting for inches all the way up this tower, because of the difficulty that it's not a terribly tall tower. After all, we're talking about Chicago, with buildings that are over a thousand feet tall, and we are crawling about a building that's 175 feet tall, and smaller than half the buildings around it. So trying to create something that really feels like a tower meant we had to squeeze its footprint and at the same time we had to respect each of the programs. It really could not have been more difficult. We wanted the tower to be as slender, as narrow, and as tall as possible. That said, these programs have proportions that have to work. They absolutely have to work. The fire stair, the elevators have widths that absolutely have to work. This hallway is not just a corridor, but it's an additional meeting space. ”
Unlike original gothic buildings to the north of Plaisance, the Logan Center has no carved ornament, yet the surface of the tower has its own unique texture due to its stone cladding, which is very different from the Indiana limestone of the original campus. “We chose ultimately," says Tod Williams, “not to use that limestone because the limestone that's quarried out of Indiana today is very, very even in its color, much more than when they were cutting it in the early 20th century.”
It's the first time Dolomite Limestone has been used for a building of this size. Originally, the plan was to use the same material on the 5,200 square-foot central courtyard between the Logan Center and the Lorado Taft studio complex to the east. “We thought about using the identical stone until we found an even less expensive concrete element.” The concrete is also better suited to supporting performances held on the plaza, including vehicles driving on the surface.
central courtyard, with temporary entry tent
Williams and Tsien have been able to control their work by being selective about the work that they do. They've kept their firm small and manageable. Since their firm pretty much confines itself to not-for-profits as clients (along with the design of residences), I asked if they believed that today it is almost impossible to bring their values to commercial work.
“We would love to be able to do low cost housing at the same level. As this building opens, we are finishing up dormitories at Haverford College (in Pennsylvania), which will be presented the day after this opens. Those are surprisingly modest . I love that project because it’s extremely quiet and it could be a kind of model for lower cost housing.”
In a way, the banality and spiritual emptiness of commercial supply chain architecture is a perfect reflection of a culture where any value that can't easily be monetized is marginalized and suspect, and your identify is largely defined on Pinterest with pictures of the things you want to buy. Maybe we should just be happy there are still deep-pocketed non-profits willing to foot the bill for civic interventions like the Logan Center. But I'd like to think there's a better answer lurking somewhere, and it may have something to do with the idea of "places of grace". whether it be the Tiffany domes of Marshall Fields/Macys or Jeanne Gang's Aqua. It's reflected in Williams/Tsien stated philosophy, so I concluded the tour by asking them to define the kind of building blocks that go into creating them.
“Things we think about in making that place in grace," said Tsien, “is making a place that, number one, will last a long time, and number two, has a sense of quiet. It's not about being an object, but more about being a container. It really stems from a very deep desire to try to make the world better, which is both naive, but also very strong in what we do, a motivator in what we do. We always say what we do is we serve. As architects, we really believe in service.”
“Place of grace,” added Williams, “is about being inside. It's about your soul. It's about your interior. The interiors of buildings are more important than their exteriors. If you really respect the interior life of a person, I think you have a chance to find that place of grace.”
© 2012 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.