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Contemporary Architecture at the University of Chicago

Steve Wiesenthal has overseen a slew of new building projects since taking over as the University of Chicago's associate vice president for facilities services and university architect.

The University of Chicago may be best known for its ivied quadrangles and collegiate gothic building stock, but it is no stranger to contemporary architecture. Starting with the mid-century modernists – Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Netsch – and continuing through the early 21st century, the campus is peppered with contemporary gems that contrast with the University’s hoary beginnings.

Recent campus projects continue to reflect a diverse architectural vocabulary: a glass-domed library building designed by Helmut Jahn; a towering performing arts center authored by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien; and a re-imagining of the Hogwarts-like Chicago Theological Seminary for the university’s school of economics, designed by Ann Beha Architects (and with Gensler as architect of record).

The university’s master plan for expansion –it plans to add 6 million square feet of space in just 20 years – may be one of the single largest building campaigns Hyde Park has seen since the World’s Columbian Exhibition descended on Chicago’s southern shore more than a century ago.

The man in charge of this building blitzkrieg is Steve Wiesenthal, associate vice president for facilities services and university architect. Wiesenthal has occupied the position for only four years, and yet the pace has been so frenetic that he says he feels like he’s already accomplished more than during his nine yeas at the University of Pennsylvania, or his subsequent eight-year tenure at the University of California - San Francisco.

I was fortunate to get some of Steve’s time recently to ask him about U of C’s sustained building boom, the school’s shifting attitudes about density, and the particular challenges of practicing architecture in academia.

MH: How did your experience working for Venturi Scott Brown shape you as an architect?

SW: When I found myself working for Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, I immensely and intensely enjoyed working at multiple scales – from the design of flatware to houses to planning for university clients. Denise was a master at thinking in a highly logical and rational way, which was a wonderful counter-balance to Bob, [who took] the more emotional, driven-from-the-heart, passionate approach. It was a wonderful combination to be mentored by the two of them.

Through that experience, I did come to appreciate something very different from what I feel like I gained in architecture school, which was much less about the form, and much more about the function. Not that we need to separate the two – the marriage is what architecture is all about – but that’s in part why it was such a great experience to work with the both of them.

MH: How did you develop your focus on architecture for higher education clients?

SW: I don’t think anybody goes to architecture school with a career ambition to do university architecture. At the time it certainly wasn’t my intent or expectation, especially from the perspective of the client.

At one point, Penn asked me if I would come on board to be on the client side. I didn’t really want to do it, but I was intrigued about what they did on the client side, and frankly my plan was, “I’ll learn everything there is to know about a university as a client, and then go back into consulting practice.”

That was over 20 years ago. What I learned is that there’s something tremendously satisfying to be working side-by-side with my clients. I see my role as being the liaison, the translator, the facilitator of trying to interpret what my university colleagues want to achieve. There’s nothing more satisfying than walking down the halls of a university / campus building where you’ve been working for four or five years with the chair of neurosurgery or the philosophy professor, and they are inhabiting the spaces that you’ve worked so hard to create.

I have to be very careful – I’m not the designer – but I can help steer in a way that is going to meet the intentions of the university in a much stronger way than if I were a project architect.

MH: It’s been four years since you came to the University of Chicago. What has your experience been thus far, and how has it differed from your time at Penn and UCSF?

SW: It’s been exhilaratingly exhausting. I do absolutely love the breadth of work we’re doing – geographically, programmatically – and the sense that I’m working with university leadership that are interested in the enhancement of the entire campus.

It was important to me to come here knowing that the position I agreed to take was a combination of a university architect and head of facilities. At too many places there’s a handoff of responsibility once construction is complete. The building may look great in the initial photographs, but does it really meet the needs and is it kept up for the long haul?

One of the things that’s most satisfying and rewarding at the University of Chicago is that they get it, in a big way. This is a place where the president of the university will initiate conversations with me about the spaces in between the buildings, about the collective campus environment, about the gestalt.

In contrast to some of the work that I’ve seen at other universities, where it’s all about maximizing net to gross square footage efficiency, it was a breath of fresh air to come to the University of Chicago. [At a recent project review], after expressing appreciation that the project achieved the programmatic objectives, the first question from the faculty on this oversight committee was, “But where’s the capaciousness?” To have had that question was an eye-opening moment: It said that people understand the qualitative, not just the quantitative.

MH: In deciding where and what to build, how do you ensure that you’re being respectful of your legacy while carrying forward in an architecturally appropriate way?

SW: I was told that when the first president opened the campus, he didn’t want to hold an opening or inaugural event, because by design, he wanted it to feel as if it had always been there. That was the right decision then, but over the intervening years, the university has been a place of academic research innovation in an incredible way, so I think there’s a pretty powerful argument to be made for doing that architecturally.

Determining “what’s appropriate” in the main quad is very different from “what’s appropriate” south of the Midway. I try not to engage in “What style should it be?” but try to engage in a higher level. There are four guiding design principles:

First, the University is about the exchange of ideas – that’s our core, that’s what it should always be. So spaces, places and architecture should be about promoting the exchange of ideas. Second is fostering stewardship – thinking about the day a building opens as well as how it can be flexible to anticipate future uses. Third is environmental sustainability, something we’re very attuned to.

And last is to strengthen the identity and character of the campus. That’s probably the one that’s most open to interpretation, and it’s very specific to building site, the program, and the place and time of the project, as to what would strengthen the identity and character of the campus.

MH: Can you talk more about what’s in store with U o fC’s master plan? Has it been a challenge to get people to think in a different way about density?

SW: Columbia is leapfrogging into Manhattanville; Harvard is going across the Charles River to Allston; Yale acquired the Bayer Pharmaceuticals campus; Penn is going up the Schuylkill River. But because the UofC has a wide swath of land – some of which is densely built out, some of which is underutilized – there’s real opportunity through careful planning and land use to being able to achieve that kind of growth through land we already own.

We think there’s the capacity to go denser and taller, not everywhere certainly, but in select places that would help to achieve that capacity for growth, and also create a more dynamic campus.

That’s actually a bit of a hurdle that we had to jump over, with some neighbors as well as internal constituents. It’s a change from what they know. But like with anything I’m finding at the University of Chicago, a well-reasoned argument can often carry the day.

One of the key goals in thinking about how to maximize density in an appropriate way is how to better stitch together the north and south sides of the Midway. Perception is that the Midway is a barrier; it’s a vast gap between the dense, inward-focused collegiate gothic quadrangles, and the rest of the world. If we can change the perception and the reality of the Midway as being a great intersection between one of the great Frederick Olmstead-designed park systems and this incredible university campus, then it’s no longer a barrier.

MH: So how do you change people’s perceptions of that barrier?

SW: The first strategy involves the experience of walking across the Midway. The Jamie Carpenter-designed [Midway crossings] help that experience from a safety and desire perspective.

Also, from the north side of the Midway, you can’t see buildings from the south side; there’s nothing drawing you there. This is in high contrast with the collegiate gothic towers at the north side of the Midway. That was a key driving force behind the design of the Logan Arts Center. Now for the first time there’s… a landmark, and it reduces that perceptual distance of vast horizon. That’s another argument that density and selective height can be a good thing.

The third strategy is programmatically. The Logan Arts Center is a magnet for multiple users. It’s more of a community draw; [there are] more people going to and from, and more people that will activate it.

MH: How does the decision-making process at the university work? How challenging is it to get projects built?

SW: Academia is legend in terms of being able to think things through in an infinite number of ways and never draw a conclusion. In fact, when I took the job at UCSF, I was told by the CFO two things about the decision-making process: One, they liked the decisions they made so much that they made them eight or nine times over again. Two, it’s the only place where an 8-to-2 vote was a tie. And that proved true.

Here, by contrast, there’s broad and deep consultation, but then when it’s time for a decision, it gets made, and we move on. That’s so important, given the magnitude of the capital program under way, to be able to make and stick with decisions. We’re building 40% as much square footage during the first two decades of this century as was built in the entire previous history of the University of Chicago. So we have to get it right, and we have to do it in a rather rigorous and disciplined way.

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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