On the cusp of the new school year, the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts reveled in two exhibitions at Gallery 400: The Netsch Campus: Materializing the Public at UIC and Back to the Future: Visualizing the Arts at UIC. Curated by Associate Professor of Architecture Judith K. De Jong and Gallery 400 Director Lorelei Stewart, the exhibitions affirmed UIC’s role as an urban laboratory and cultural hub — one through the lens of Walter Netsch’s original design for the UIC campus, and the other through proposals for a dynamic 21st-century visual and performing arts building. Together these presentations, along with UIC’s legacy as a visionary institution, reflect both the necessity and the power of the arts in higher education — and the exciting potential of a new arts center for the UIC campus.
But first, a look back. The Netsch Campus exhibition revisited the ideas and ideals present in the original conception of UIC as a truly public university. Accessible by the expressways and public transportation of postwar Chicago, the east side of campus, designed by Netsch between 1961 and 1968, was built at the cost of relocating area residents through a program of urban renewal, making the birth of UIC both a declaration of the right of access to higher education, and, for some Chicagoans, the disruption of a cherished neighborhood.
The context, however, was the urgency of bringing higher education to Chicago’s working families. As De Jong points out, “Netsch and his team from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill sought to materialize a new expression of public education through urban and architectural design.” The Drop of Water Scheme — the notion that a pebble dropped in a pond represents “knowledge spreading out,” can be seen in the inner rings of shared lecture halls, classroom buildings, the library and student union, and in the outer rings of buildings for individual academic disciplines. The raised walkways were conceived as pathways into the amphitheater at the center, and buildings were placed in relation to one another to create exterior spaces where students would be inclined to linger and interact.
After designing a series of rectangular forms with brick, precast concrete, and glass exteriors, Netsch based his later UIC buildings, including the Architecture and Art Building, on his “Field Theory,” a three-dimensional geometry based on the double helix of DNA. With Field Theory, Netsch turned corridors into exhibition spaces, stairs into amphitheaters, and roofs into classrooms.1 Amid all this activity, Netsch was also designing “Project Y,” a little-known initiative by a small group of University administrators in the late-1960s for a massive new UIC arts complex to be located across the highway in the West Loop. Conceiving the complex as “an equivalent of Lincoln Center to Chicago,”2 Netsch planned a Field Theory project with a central plaza, as well as four theatres, a recital hall, spaces for music, drama, and dance education, and an art museum. Project Y never materialized, but the core ideas remained. An internal UIC document written in 1970 outlines a vision for a College of Creative Arts at UIC: “For it has been recognized that the arts are not a condiment, but a nutrient . . . a primary force in human society and therefore an essential study in an educational system.”3 The ten-page proposal goes on to lay out an arts institution of the highest calling, with UIC’s well-established civic sensibility: “What is required by talent, internationally, are generous opportunities to create and to perform at the summit of the art, in an environment, both physical and cultural, which is conducive to excellence, which urges vivid urban experience, and which offers unsurpassed resources both technical and atmospheric for realization of what is created.”4 As this history attests, UIC was conceived for the public good, with a deep commitment to the arts, and seminal, civic architecture has always been intrinsic to that identity.
Visibility in the making
So what do the arts require of UIC today? A new facility that “urges vivid urban experience” should not only aid and abet art-making in its boldest forms, but also celebrate both process and presentation. For the Back to the Future exhibition, three faculty-led teams from the School of Architecture and School of Design put forth speculative architectural proposals for a state-of-the-art visual and performing arts facility for the campus. Although each proposal is aesthetically and conceptually distinct, all three provide a compelling vision for how architecture can enhance and promote the arts.
Arts Performance Center
A triad resides within the Arts Performance Center — sidewalk, block, and skyline, all of them conceived, according to the design team, as “architectural actors that perform to both campus and city.” The ground-level “sidewalk” flows seamlessly between city and campus and proceeds into the interior as “an expansive urban carpet,” the “block” relates to the building’s immediate context, and the “skyline” is “a series of figurative pavilions that collage themselves into their urban context.” All of these components reflect urban theatre itself, as the building stages intersections between departments, between public and private, and between city and college.
The Center: Gateway, Hub, Incubator
The Center asserts the College’s agility in supporting artist and audience interactions. Yet intense focus within each field of study must be encouraged as well. The Center thus expresses three key ideas for the building: gateway and bridge, mixed-use hub, and incubator. As a gateway and bridge, The Center links university and city, providing a new public face for the east side of campus, and inviting broad and deep participation in its activities. As a mixed-use hub, The Center offers a cross-disciplinary ground floor and roofscape to foster this exchange, promoting interchange and collaboration between the arts and programs across the university. Moving vertically, floors become increasingly disciplinary, providing focus for performance, research, exhibition, scholarship, and teaching. As a public incubator for artistic innovation, production, and scholarship, The Center serves as a research site for both thinking and making.
In Play, the number three emerges again, this time with three material elements resting on an articulated ground surface: the Performance Tower, an Arts and Education Wing that its creators call “tectonically expressive,” and, tying them together, the “bright and animated Fifth Theatre,” which is envisioned as the lobby, the central area for circulating through the building, and as an experimental performance venue. The ground surface, which is landscaped, continues deep into the building complex with outdoor seating for a cafe, a large bicycle storage facility near the Blue Line station, and a Divvy bike station.
The future is now — with a sense of then
As Netsch and the University administration recognized more than four decades ago, an architecturally significant arts facility in the heart of Chicago’s Near West Side will elevate the cultural life of UIC and the city. A diverse community of artists, faculty, and audiences will be able to engage in multiple arts and cross-disciplinary activities, in the creative expression of ideas, all in a singular, vibrant hub. The legacy of Netsch’s design ethic — expansive urbanity, the perpetual dissemination of knowledge, places designed for intellectual exchange and kinship — will continue to reverberate across campus and the city. The College is on a clear trajectory, powered by the most efficient of fuels: memory merging with foresight.
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