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Thread: McCormick Tribune Campus Center

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    Default McCormick Tribune Campus Center

    October 2, 2003

    ARCHITECTURE REVIEW | MCCORMICK TRIBUNE CAMPUS CENTER

    A Building With a Song in Its Heart

    By HERBERT MUSCHAMP


    Rem Koolhaas designed the McCormack Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

    CHICAGO, Sept. 28 Some great buildings allow you silence. Others give you song. The new McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago got my fingers snapping. On my visit this weekend before Tuesday's dedication, the Goo Goo Dolls were playing on the building's sound system. But another track was playing inside my head: a bouncy 2002 lounge tune by Joseph Malik with a silly lyric that goes, "You oughta take it all in and check it all out."

    Shall we? We'll let McCormick Center show us how. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, the $48.2 million project is a bazaar of a building, a souk of sensations that stands in vibrant contrast to the immaculately modern desert around it. Situated on the main campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, this is the Dutch architect's first completed building in the United States. If you want to know what all the fuss over Mr. Koolhaas has been about, this student center is an exemplary place to start. It's Koolhaas go-go, a masterwork for the young and curious.

    A train runs through it. The center's most striking feature is the oval tube of corrugated stainless steel that slices through the building overhead. Designed to muffle the noise from elevated trains that cross through the 120-acre South Side campus, the 530-foot-long tube establishes a spatial and conceptual axis for the architectural composition. It's a metaphor for absorption, for a receptive frame of mind. Stuff comes in. Stuff goes out. In between there's a process called education, also known as checking things out.

    The students have already adopted "The Tube" as their school's unofficial logo. A campus newspaper of that title is apparently in the works. But the big steel cylinder isn't the only logo Koolhaas and his team have incorporated into the design. The structure beneath the tracks creates one too.

    The tube is held aloft by seven concrete V-shaped prongs. Five thrust upward from within the building, punching through the concrete roof. A shallow pitched roof flipped on its head, it echoes the shape of the prongs. If you're much older than you pretend to be, you will recognize the similarity of these overlaid contours as the swanky double boomerang Chrysler adopted in 1955 as the logo for its new corporate face. The "Forward Look" it was called. What better symbol could there be for a school with deep roots in the golden age of industrial design?

    But look wider, look deeper. Another V is rushing toward us on the big memory screen, an image as vast as Jefferson's nostril on Mount Rushmore. It's Vista Vision! This spectacular horizontal film format was used by Hitchcock for "North by Northwest," "Vertigo" and "To Catch a Thief." Are you getting the picture? This Is . . . Rem-o-Rama!

    I associate freely because the McCormick Center was made for precisely that. It is a place where our private memory screens are brought together in a public setting, the better to check them out. In fact, this building goes far toward explaining the excitement contemporary architecture has been generating in the United States for a decade.

    The most significant buildings produced in this period are not unified by style. Designed by individual architects or collaborative teams, they differ greatly in appearance. If some of the best are linked by a common theme, the link is conceptual rather than visual. It is the idea that we live perpetually on the threshold between our inner and outer worlds. This is a psychological bond, not a visual one, but the link is no less cultural for that. It reflects the view that architecture is a philosophy of urban life.

    Designed in partnership with Holabird & Root, Studio Gang Architects and Ove Arup & Partners, McCormick Center is custom-made for examining this premise. The campus was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1941, a few years after he arrived from Germany. It is the great architect's most ambitious effort in modern city planning. Many would consider this effort a contradiction in terms. Even admirers of modern architecture concede that the movement's blank-slate approach to urbanism was catastrophic for urban centers.

    Mies's philosophy differed from the conventional model of postwar urban renewal, a sweeping approach on the concepts of Le Corbusier. Mies did not propose to rebuild cities from scratch. Instead he saw individual building projects as islands of order and stability surrounded by the chaos of a culture in decline. Skepticism rather than any impulse to reform was Mies's urban attitude.

    His philosophy took on personal meaning at the Illinois Institute of Technology. From 1938 to 1958, Mies reigned as dean of its architecture school. Crown Hall, designed by Mies to house what is now the College of Architecture, is the jewel of the campus, a classical temple remade for modern times. This is where students came to imbibe the master's principles. These included the belief that every architect must discover his own creative path.

    No contemporary architect has embodied this belief better than Rem Koolhaas. If the new student radiates with the Vitruvian quality of fitness, that is partly because Mr. Koolhaas long ago adopted Mies as his father figure. Predictably, the relationship is fraught with ambivalence.

    Nowhere is this more evident than in the V-shape of the roof. For Mies, famously, pitched roofs were anathema. Were Mr. Koolhaas's instincts purely Oedipal, he might have used one. But the inverted pitch of the student center goes Mies one better. Instead of flattening the roof, in the manner of the master, Mr. Koolhaas turns it upside down.

    Koolhaas fans will recognize this ambivalence as characteristic. From the start of his career, the architect has opposed the tendency toward Oedipal overthrow that is rampant in his profession. This helps explain the midcentury-modernist decorative details he often uses, whether portholes, boomerangs or spirals. He celebrates the era of a father who took in much more than Less is More.

    Ready for More? The building's exterior scarcely hints at the cascade of images, spaces and perspectives that gush within. Were it not for the tube penetrating the ceiling and the ceiling's angled flair, the McCormick's interior would be a labyrinth nearly without orientation. It comes close to that anyhow. But the overhead train has enabled Mr. Koolhaas to treat the building as a cross-axial composition.

    Inside, the cross-axis is spatially exploded, rather like a Cubist painting. Instead of organizing the interior along straight lines, Mr. Koolhaas has arranged the spaces on a diagonal grid. Some spaces are enclosed: an auditorium, ballroom, private offices and meeting rooms. Over all, however, the interior is wide open and unfolds on changing levels. A result is a Miesian "universal space" densely packed with a universe of contrasting images.

    Wood-patterned wallpaper. Shimmering Op Art lenticular surfaces. Patterned fabrics by Petra Blaisse. A grand stair, painted green, that masterfully incorporates a ramp for wheelchairs into the treads and risers. Courtyards, handsomely planted, suffused with natural light: these again are nods to Miesian precedent and to similar devices by Wallace K. Harrison. At 110,000 square feet, the open space is a wide enough screen to let these multiple devices breath. As if for the first time, we see that architecture is actually 3-D.

    More logos, on the micro scale: little humanoid icons, designed by Michael Rock of the New York firm Two by Four, recur throughout the premises. These are signs for signs' sake, graphics that convey the idea of information more vividly than they do the functions that they ostensibly identify. Where's the student bulletin board? Get lost!

    And found. Snap! Near the center of the center, the building pulls away to reveal the fourth dimension, time. Through a plate-glass window, we see a corner of the Commons building next door, designed by Mies a half century ago. The exposed corner, of steel and glass, is all the orientation we really need. The seed crystal from which the McCormick Center has sprung, it shows that Mies, too, was a maker of icons. He called them I-beams, glass curtain walls, flat roofs.

    We can appreciate these features here, in the crisp purity of Mies's intentions. Daddy is still in the details. Thanks to a living master, we can also see how the spirit of our age has transformed Mies's ideas.


    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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    Senior Member JonY's Avatar
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    In general, why are The Dutch excellent at being adventurous with their architecture? IMHO It's great stuff and doesn't have the self-consciousness adhered to it.

    Just goes to show that you can still be prgamatic and creative at the same time.

    The corrugated steel tube is visually the most obvious from the pics but not the only thing that makes this building.

    LOL @ "Koolhaus a Go-Go".

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    I go to school at IIT and I watched this building come from a model, to a hole in the ground, then to this. I never met Koolhas and did not even see him until that lecture he gave opening weekend.

    I have to say it is an incredible structure. Unfortunately when Koolhas did his lecture, it did not cover the building itself, stating that he has spoken about it too many times and now we should just let it stand for itself. Besides, he was pretty rude when someone was taking too long to turn down the stage lights.

    Part of the reason why I do not like the new campus center is that it lacked all of the ammentites that the old student union building had- many pool tables, bowling alley, the BOG ( student hangout and place for local bands to play ( it was in the basement of the old HUB), and the feeling of space.

    The new center has computer terminals, plasma tv, and the ground level is broken up into many planes, and all this other stuff, but not many ammenities. There is also this very decorated facade on the west (State Street) and that part of the building looks like the inside of a brothel. I wonder how this building will be in 10 years of so.

    The consensus is that most people who have been here at IIT for some time hate the new building, as a student center, place to work, etc. Most outsiders like it. So I do not know.

    The new dorms, just across the street to the south, (it is where the picture of the tube was taken) is much better building that the new campus center. It was designed by Jahn and has received very little attention.

    I can give more personal experiences and musings if anyone asks.

  5. #5

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    Koolhas is the most overrated architect in the world. His buildings are invariably ugly, undeveloped, embryonic. His ideas are literary, not architectural; a verbal description of a Koolhas building is more interesting than the real thing. I think his problem is that he doesn't know how to draw. And he's arrogant because he has found he can get away with it.

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