UIC Campus

Chicago's many university campuses are enclaves of interesting architecture. Let's talk about the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. If you walk among the boat docks and tourist attractions of Navy Pier, it seems hard to imagine that such a place for education was once one for entertainment, but the university was originally located here. In the 1960s, with the understanding that baby boomers would soon be of educational age, the city hoped to expand UIC beyond the borders of a pier to have an official campus in a more central part of town. 

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From the early 1900s through the 1960s, the area between Halsted, Roosevelt, Ashland, and Van Buren was primarily an Italian neighborhood known as "Little Italy," among other ethnic groups. Despite years of community protests in the 1960s, the site was chosen as the development for the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

In true Mayor Daley form, Chicago "makes no little plans" and cleared the area in a massive urban redevelopment project, resulting in the displacement of around 8,000 people and 630 businesses. World-renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was chosen to design this new college campus with lead architect Walter Netsch.

The primary architectural style for the UIC campus is called "brutalist." Whenever I share this term with people on the architectural and historical tours that my tour company offers, usually some sort of snicker results. It's because this style of architecture does not exactly  feel warm and fuzzy to anyone, and so the word seems perfectly descriptive. Despite the brutal feeling of brutalist architecture, the term possibly originates from the French word for "rough concrete" and not at all from the harshness of its forms. 

Brutalism is an austere style of architecture that came into being in the 1950s-1970s. Characterized by massive shapes, often of poured concrete, brutalist structures are boxy and devoid of decoration. Because that poured concrete doesn't age so well, unsightly streaks and spots result. 

To get a sense of brutalism on the UIC campus, take a walk. On a sunny day, one can better appreciate Netsch's "Field Theory" of utilizing sophisticated shape arrangements that would break through the Miesian box to provide psychological variety to the usually more repetitive quadrants of architecture of the 1950s. Other great examples of SOM's brutalist structures of the '60s campus are on Harrison and Taylor streets, such as the Behavioral Sciences Building, University Hall, and the Science & Engineering buildings. 

To try to imagine what was once here, visit the Hull House Museum and Dining Hall. The 1856 home was saved in the clearing of the campus because of its significance to the history of social reform in America. You will immediately recognize this as the symmetrical, more decorated, and very not brutalist structure on Halsted Street.

The Italianate style was all the rage during this time of history. You won't find anything Italianate in Italy - it just means it's inspired by Italian symmetry, cupolas, and shallow sloped roofs. The ornamented brackets under the eaves would have provided some shade in the pre-air-conditioning era. 

Italianate is on first glance more pleasing to the eye than the brutalist building, but it can be interesting to ponder the deeper effects of experimental architecture on students at an institution of higher learning. Does the psychological variety of brutalism create inspire with its varied forms or create weight with its heavy blocks? Check it out to decide for yourself.