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Welcome to Loop U

Given that my office shares a building with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, my perspective may be somewhat skewed. But any time you head to the park for lunch, hop on the El, or just walk down State Street, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re back in college.

That’s because students are everywhere.

As we approach mid-August, the crush of college students has already started converging on downtown Chicago. Although you might not think of Chicago as a “college town,” the Loop is host to tens of thousands of students attending dozens of schools – well over 70,000 at last count.  It’s an impressive number, especially given that I’m not including the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, or other schools located just outside the city center.

The focus here is on the colleges and universities in the Chicago Loop, an area of only 1.6 square miles. The Loop does not embody a prototypical “college town” feel or conjure up picturesque snapshots of campus life. These are vertical campuses, often distributed on many floors in multiple high-rises. Forget about a stroll across the campus quad – these kids take the elevator.

The vertical campus offers a host of challenges. Like, how do you begin to make a collection of disparate buildings seem like a cohesive place? I like to think we’ve made significant progress in that mission with clients like Columbia College, which owns 2.1 million square feet of space and is one of the largest landowners in the South Loop.

In a recent New York Times article called “Backpacks Among the Briefcases,” writer Rachel Aviv follows incoming college freshman as they learn to negotiate the anonymity of New York. (One source says he identifies the college-programmed buildings by the number of smokers outside – true in Chicago, too.)

Here, as in New York and other dense urban areas, students have embraced the urban experience. Columbia’s relationship with the city is one of the things that make it unique. The blurring of campus and city is a compelling phenomenon that draws students from the suburbs and beyond.

In my view, it’s a unique condition that is infinitely more interesting than a self-contained college campus. One of the great things about going to school in an urban environment is the fantastic opportunity to experiment. It’s not just a city; it’s a huge learning lab where students can test their ideas, connect with professionals who share their passions, and gain invaluable experience that can’t be bottled in a curriculum.

Photographer: Michelle Litvin

Michael Hanley is a designer in the education practice at Gensler’s Chicago office and has a background in journalism. He’s interested in the unique design opportunities presented by urban college campuses such as Columbia College Chicago, and finding innovative ways to connect higher learning institutions with speculative development enterprises. Contact him at michael_hanley@gensler.com

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