• Emailarticle
  • Writecomment

The Evolution of the Urban University

More than 52,000 students attend institutions of higher education within Chicago's Loop and South Loop.


When we think of the American University, the image that comes to mind is the University of Virginia campus, designed by statesman/architect Thomas Jefferson. UVA's campus is a broad lawn dotted with well-behaved buildings in a semi-rural, small town setting.

But consider this: more than 52,000 students attend 24 institutions of higher education within Chicago's Loop and South Loop. If we add IIT, University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul and other institutions, more than 100,000 students attend classes within the city limits of Chicago.

The American paradigm of the university campus bears no resemblance to the first modern universities of Italy, France and England. The University of Paris (now known as the Sorbonne) was founded in 1150 A.D. The university was neither a place nor a campus, but a guild of teachers bound together as a universitas or corporation. Even today the buildings of the Sorbonne are embedded in the city of Paris. The student experience was and is remarkably diverse, with the city serving as an important part of the educational experience.

Institutions within Chicago's city limits struggled over the past century to maintain a campus environment built on a great lawn, separated from the city. This land-rich approach, with its underlying suspicion of the city, is being challenged today, and a new "urban" student experience is being defined. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, designed after WWII by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who in the mid-1900s arranged a series of severe, modernist buildings on a grass plain. The iconic campus became fixed--and counter to Mies' philosophy. Finally, a new administration, with the pro-active encouragement of Donna Robertson, dean of the School of Architecture, completed a new master plan and built two remarkable buildings designed by Rem Koolhaus and Helmut Jahn, the McCormick Tribune Campus Center and State Street Village residence hall, respectively.

The Koolhaus and Jahn buildings are part of a larger pattern. New buildings have recently been completed by Cesar Pelli, Ricardo Legoretta and Raphael Vinoly at the University of Chicago. These buildings are all remarkably urban in comparison to historic traditions. They are also unruly and visually challenging, recognizing that the urban campus can accept more visual "civic disobedience" than the Jeffersonian model, the conventional ideal of campus design. Throughout Chicago, institutions of higher education are utilizing architecture that challenges expectations and is emphatically urban.

Yet the more established institutions are still struggling to escape a century of development based on the ideal of that vast green lawn. It has been left to the institutions that are only now coming of age to truly embrace the 12th century idea of a universitas embedded in the city.

There is no better example of this new direction than Columbia College Chicago, located in the South Loop. Founded more than 100 years ago, the school initially borrowed space to fulfill its mission and for most of the last century existed unseen and unnoticed in the city.

Yet with time, the college's reputation in film, animation, theater, dance, photography, art and design grew. By 2000, with a student body of 11,000, the college occupied more than 1,000,000 square feet.

Under the leadership of Alicia Berg, the new vice president for campus environment at Columbia, our firm, Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, along with Searl & Associates and the Boston firm of Goody Clancy, undertook the development of an innovative master plan for the campus. Whereas the Sorbonne had grown ad hoc over 900 years, we explored whether it was possible to "design" a campus where the city and college exist in a seamless environment.

The work began with an exhaustive research phase. Four hundred students were interviewed to understand how they spent their day and how they moved from home to class and back. The college knew when they were in class, but had little knowledge of where they spent the rest of their time. This analysis and other work was used to define the students' experience.

On this foundation, the campus was not considered as an idealized environment separate from the city, but as an integrated experience, where architecture and other design interventions would symbolize Columbia's role in the city. The campus is Wabash Street, where the college's presence in the neighborhood is expressed by both large and small interventions. Yet the street remains what it has always been, an open-ended connector to the city beyond.

The student experience was traditionally controlled by the physical qualities of a geographically isolated campus. At Columbia College, it's now an open collage of diverse encounters grounded in the South Loop. Existing buildings and new structures are intended to focus on student activity and encourage interaction. Space is not allocated by departments, the common practice at most schools, but instead activities of different programs are clustered based on expected collaborations.

The intent is to take a very old idea and make it very new, international in its understanding of the arts and media, yet grounded in the sense of a neighborhood being a way of understanding a city.

Joseph Valerio is a founding partner of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates in Chicago.

Published: February 01, 2006
Issue: Winter 2006