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Altered Visions

The brutalist UIC campus is mugged

Inland Architect

March/April 1993

The published subtitle read, “A proposed design at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus raises questions for the future of high-density urbanistic experiments from the 1960s.” Preserving modernist architectural works has posed any number of problems, which are the real subject of this piece. The re-design was approved by the way, to the applause of students and of university administrators who have to sell potential students on the idea of going there. 


Looking back, perhaps it was a mistake on Walter Netsch's part to install the University of Illinois administrators in the lone tall building on his new University of Illinois Circle Campus: The bureaucrats who run the place have been looking down upon his work ever since. Netsch was chief designer on the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team that created a permanent campus for the then-fledgling university in the mid-1960s. Unveiled to general praise, the project was not just an attempt to invent a campus but to invent the campus of the future, one fit for a new kind of student in a new kind of urban university.


The design was bold enough, especially when compared with its pastoral downstate cousin at Urbana-Champaign, whose roots were planted deep in the ivy-and-brick tradition of campus architecture. Netsch's severe exercise in reinforced concrete could not have been what many university trustees or legislators thought of as a campus, but its density and urbanity offered undeniable advantages to the fledgling Chicago institution and gave it a notoriety that most new schools only achieve with losing football teams.

The centerpiece of the original Circle Campus [now called The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)], both physically and conceptually, was the Forum, a plaza-like concrete deck (with an amphitheater modeled loosely on Greek antecedents) that connects several buildings at the second-story level. The Forum formed the roof of six lecture halls and student activity buildings below it and was connected to remote parking lots and other university buildings by elevated walkways that spanned the campus, each composed of massive granite slabs set atop reinforced concrete columns.


To many people who used it, the original campus core proved a tour de force of alienation. "Brutal" may not accurately describe the aesthetic of that core, but it's a fair description of the experience of using it, especially in winter.


One of the reasons Netsch's campus core didn't work is that it was overbuilt, to accommodate hordes of students who showed up about a decade late for class. (Initial enrollment projections foresaw 32,000 students; the school was originally expected to reach its present enrollment of some 24,000 by 1975.)


Supporters have pointed out that the doomed walkways are being torn down at just about the time when they might have become useful; Netsch suggests that they could be repaired so as to carry people across Harrison Street to and from any parking deck that may someday be built. Spending public money on a structure that might prove useful someday may seem extravagant, but in principle, it is no more extravagant than spending it on a management major in the hope that he or she might prove useful. The problem is that Illinois public universities can't afford to do both.


The UIC administration voted last summer to eliminate two key elements in the original campus as part of a $7.1-million revitalization plan scheduled to begin in May 1993. Like nearly all the concrete structures of its era, Netsch's are showing their age. Worse, the columns supporting the system of elevated walkways were set atop unstable fill that have left the walkways plagued with gaps and uneven pavement. The students may fear muggers, but the university is even more afraid of liability lawyers lurking in the shadows.


However central the Forum may have been to Netsch's concept in symbolic terms, it is not obviously essential to it in either an aesthetic or functional sense. Accordingly, university administrators last May voted to (as one university architect put it) "let the sunshine in" to the old campus core. The Chicago firm of Daniel Coffey & Associates Ltd. was commissioned to come up with schemes for new roofs for the soon-to-be-exposed lecture halls and for the open space that will be created by the demolition.

In January, Coffey submitted the first detailed version of the core remodeling that the trustees approved in concept last July. As expected, the concrete Forum was replaced with a landscaped courtyard, although one proposal to clad the soon-to-be exposed lecture hall buildings with brick was rejected; no one will mistake this plate-glass piazza for Schaumburg.


The new overhanging roofs of the lecture halls will be supported in part by some of the original columns left redundant by the removal of the Forum—a contextual as well as cost-effective reuse. A bow in another direction is the decision to clad the new roofs in metal that matches that used in the nearby residence halls by Solomon Cordwell Buenz and Associates. The demolition will create two small quadrangles that will be landscaped with grass and walkways. The dismantled walkways' granite slabs will not be integrated into the new walkways, as per Netsch's suggestion, but the Forum's massive ornamental chains will be reinstalled at ground level.


The decision to revitalize the core reportedly caused hardly a ripple on campus, apart from a couple of editorials in the student newspaper that—oh, how kids have changed—argued the case for preservation on grounds of nostalgia.


Reaction among local architects and preservationists has been more lively helped by an energetic campaign waged on behalf of the design by its author. A delegation twice met with Netsch as a courtesy but there has been little evidence that they considered his suggestions, and his views certainly were not solicited by the university. An architect may labor long to give birth to a project of this vision and scope, but custom, alas, denies him custody of the child.


Netsch has accused the UIC officials of bad planning and bad manners. His offer to work pro bono with Coffey to deliver alternative schemes was ignored. "We certainly listened to him," explains a university spokesman, although it must be added that they listened after the important decisions had been made, at least in principle. Netsch clearly found it inexplicable that an architect of his standing, with his close association to the project, should be casually dismissed.


Netsch's alternatives to destroying the Forum included installing fabric enclosures atop the three surviving exedras and building a conservatory to replace the fourth or replacing half the amphitheater with trees. Other versions would replace some granite walkway sections with skylights or reuse the granite slabs from dismantled skywalks to build new ground-level paths, while converting the walkway's support columns into pergolas planted with flowering vines. Such steps, Netsch wrote, would convert that much-maligned moonscape into a "new urban campus garden."


Whatever their merit otherwise, these changes, unfortunately would have left the old core as a two-level environment. That would have contradicted the university's plain intention to develop a ground-level circulation system. Whether this will bring the campus back to earth or run it into the ground remains to be seen.


The issues raised by the UIC core revitalization are relevant to a generation of radical '60s structures. Basically, the question is, what should be done when history catches up to antihistorical buildings? Like Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City and other seminal projects in the Modernist style, Netsch's campus is too new to be old, but too old to be novel; too substantial to be dismissed, but too familiar to be venerated.


These "underage landmarks" thus are especially vexing to the preservation-minded. Landmark preservation statutes permit structures younger than 50 years to be given official landmark status but only if, according to Vincent Michaels of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI), they possess "exceptional significance." The Chicago Programs Committee of the LPCI has concluded that Marina City, Mies van der Rohe's apartment towers at 860–880 Lake Shore Drive, and the John Hancock Center are among the buildings that possess that significance; to date, they have declined to so compliment the UIC campus.


Setting 50 years as the age for a landmark is bound to cause problems in a country where buildings are typically built and rebuilt every 30 years or so. Integrity is as much a criterion as significance in determining landmark status, and most buildings' integrity is threatened with compromise before they are old enough to qualify for official landmark status. The proposed expansion/remodelings of such Modernist classics as the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim museum, and the main terminal of Dulles Airport are well-known examples. In Chicago, Marina City has suffered from indifferent maintenance, and parts of the complex, seen as economically obsolete, have been threatened with demolition.


Nothing compromises a building's integrity like being razed. The argument in favor of preserving the elements of the UIC campus as monuments rather than as (or in addition to) working buildings swings on the project's stature as an architectural artifact. Robert Bruegmann, an associate professor in the UIC's history of art and architecture department, has noted in its defense that the UIC campus was one of the most published projects of the era.


Consistent with critical practice, however, this praise was bestowed before anyone had a chance to use it. Critics who see the old circle in plan or photographed from above tend to admire it; students and others who experience it from below, as it were, tend not to. This recourse to critical opinion has its risks. It would be hard to give standing to critical opinion that praised the Forum 30 years ago and not also give standing to critical opinion that damns it today.


Netsch appeared before the LPCI in mid-January, the same day as the trustees were meeting to approve Coffey's plan. He explained that he regarded the landmark question as "primary and serious . . . . Opinions on aesthetics vary," he noted, adding that Chicago-style buildings once were out of style too.


Thus is posed one of those questions that have no obvious answers in spite of their having been asked so often. Does the university have a responsibility to preserve Netsch's work until such time as an historically informed judgment can be formed on it? What if doing so contravenes the wishes—however foolish or ill-informed—of the students who use it or the taxpayers (acting through elected trustees) who are paying for it? Thus, can an architecture that was meant to expand democracy (Netsch designed his campus to be what he calls an "everyman's institution") be the occasion of some very undemocratic decisions?


Just as nettlesome is the dilemma of deciding which criteria are appropriate to such controversies. Intellectual? Aesthetic? Functional? Historical? One can come to dramatically different conclusions about the old Circle Campus depending on which one applies.


And what about the historical test? It seems inherently unfair to judge 1960s projects with 1990s attitudes, which leaves us having to use the standards that their creators used to design them. Recalling the hey day of the Modernists in the '60s on radio station WBEZ, Bertrand Goldberg said: "Architecture was meant to be a social art that contributed to the sociological life of the community. To preserve buildings because of their style or their significance in the development of art is anathema to the movement." Their aim, he added, was to "make architecture into a useful thing."


But useful to whom? Campuses are communities that many groups—faculty, students, administrators, and trustees—think belong to them. The conflict involves not just the us vs. them of interest group politics, but also the present vs. the past. Goldberg noted that architecture is an interpretation of the society that builds it, and "the period in which [UIC] was built applauded that statement."


True enough, but we all thought the world was changing for good in the '60s. The term futuristic was often applied to the designs of Netsch and like-minded practitioners in the '60s. Alas, nothing is shorter-lived than the future. Netsch's notions of the university of the future have held up even less well than his concrete. What began as a commuter college has metamorphosed into a quasi-residential research university.


All institutions grow and change, often in not good ways and for not good reasons. The fact that dorms were recently built on land originally set aside for expansion of the architecture school summarizes how the most intelligent attempts at design coherence can be undone by changing circumstances.


The question is whether the architect ought to be the only participant in the process whose guesses about the future are allowed to endure unamended. Virtually all established universities have experienced periodic convulsions of design. The University of Chicago is a good example: It started out High Gothic a century ago and ended up building designs by Eero Saarinen, Mies, Harry Weese, and Edward Larabee Barnes. Similarly, virtually none of the "instant universities" built in the '60s and 70s, such as the SUNY campuses at Stony Brook and Buffalo and the University of California's campus at Irvine, has weathered the ensuing decades intact.


To "less is more" and "form follows function" we might add another maxim to guide the builder: Times change.


In a letter in November, the UIC chancellor, James Stukel, thanked Netsch for providing "an interesting reminder of the [school's] early history," but pointed out that the campus had evolved and changed over the years. The message was muted but unmistakable: In his opinion, the time for Modernist and experimental design had passed.


Netsch is now 73, and reading him, it is impossible not to conclude that he identifies in some way with Chicago's many landmark buildings abandoned by their inheritors. In a statement to the UIC officials he recalled the enthusiasm, hope, and desire of those days and, on another occasion, compared the unveiling of Coffey's revisions to being at a wake.


A detailed critique of the Coffey scheme must await further refinement of the proposals. Of particular importance are the details of the lecture hall roofs, which stand below the upper floors of such adjacent buildings as the library, and the proposed new clock tower. Anything less than subtlety will look out of place there. Even without the Forum and walkways, the original UIC Campus remains a powerful collection of forms whose coherence and internal logic could easily be marred by careless emendation. Anything that replaces the Forum ought to respect the context that Netsch's surviving work provides, especially if it can't improve on it. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


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Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

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The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

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“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

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The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

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A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

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The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

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