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No Ivory Towers in the Works

Review: Rem Koolhaas' plan for Illinois Institute of Technology blends design into the urban landscape.

April 11, 1999|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

All children want to kill their parents, psychologists tell us, but no current architect has picked apart the experiments of an earlier generation more obsessively than Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Since publishing his first book, "Delirious New York," in 1978, Koolhaas has reworked--mostly on paper--the history of 20th century Modernism, from the solitary building to the entire metropolis. In the process he has made Modernism's sweeping idealism relevant again.

With his recently completed schematic design for the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, however, Koolhaas takes his atavistic experimentation one step further. The building will stand alongside one of Chicago's great Modernist landmarks. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1940, the school is a model of the best modern planning, with its collection of low, Euclidean forms loosely arranged across a vast carpet of green lawns. Crown Hall--the home of IIT's architecture school--ranks among Mies' great masterpieces.

Koolhaas' design represents both a radical departure from history and an acceptance of history's continued relevance. He notes that since the '50s, the campus has grown from 57 acres to 120, while its population has decreased from 7,000 to 3,000. To Koolhaas, 54, a child of the 1968 uprisings in Paris, the goal in Chicago is to generate density, to create an urban environment of spontaneity and play. Where Mies sought academic tranquillity, Koolhaas seeks an architecture of congestion. In place of Mies' isolated Utopia, he envisions a campus woven into the fabric of the surrounding community. Koolhaas' design turns Mies' logic on its head. In doing so, it becomes a remarkable parable of the Modern experience.

The new building will be wrapped in a taut glass skin, a tribute to Mies' penchant for transparency. Inside, it will include a bowling alley, bookstore, grocery store, post office, auditorium, food hall and faculty club--and even a chapel and a mosque. It will absorb Mies' Commons Hall into its design, but the former hall will become a food court, while the city's elevated train--enclosed in a long, oval-shaped tube--crosses the building's main axis overhead.

Koolhaas conceived the plan as a dense "urban carpet," where all of the activities are compressed onto one floor and enclosed under a faceted concrete roof. Broad internal streets cut through the building, intersecting at odd angles and opening the structure to the surrounding campus. Nothing about these streets is arbitrary: Koolhaas' staff studied pedestrian movement across the site for three months, and the internal streets reflect existing paths, connecting dormitory entrances to various classroom buildings. The idea is to create a massive social condenser--to borrow a term made popular by the Soviet Constructivists--a place that will inspire lively communal interaction.

But the design also seeks to connect the project to a larger social context. If Mies' architecture represents high Modernism at its most refined, the '60s-era Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor public housing projects bordering the campus to the south--marked by grim concrete towers and vast sterile plazas, reworkings of early Modernist planning schemes--are emblems of how Modernism went wrong. The city has already begun to tear down some of these high-rise horrors and plans eventually to replace them with low-rise middle-income housing.

Koolhaas' design is an attempt to correct that history of isolation and alienation, to prove that architecture can reinforce community, not by imposing a new order from above, but by revealing an existing hidden order within. By carving the building into distinct fragments, he seeks to open the heart of the campus to the masses. The elevated train will provide a tour of the distinct phases of Modernism's architectural history: from Mies' purism, to the sterility of public housing that led to Modernism's fall, to Koolhaas' new inclusiveness.

This is more than mere symbolism. It is the history of Modern architecture made palpable. In case the connections are not obvious enough, Koolhaas has ensured that his building will serve the surrounding community as well as the school's students. Public services all are located on one of the neighborhood's main thoroughfares, in an effort to replace commercial facilities that disappeared during the '70s when the neighborhood fell into economic ruin.


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