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Yes, It’s a Dorm

Joseph Valerio finds a prime example of excellent urban architecture and explains why it's a success

Helmut Jahn’s State Street Village
represents urban architecture at its best.
If only it wasn’t strictly for students
    Standing in a crowd is a demanding social situation. Are you being polite? Are you in danger? Are you where you want to be? If you don’t want complexity, if you don’t want uncertainty, if you don’t want to rub elbows with your neighbor, well, there’s always Kansas City, the least dense city in the United States.
    On similar terms, buildings in cities are standing in a crowd. Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) State Street Village, the two-year-old dormitory (higher educational institutions have come up with a remarkable array of names to substitute for this dreaded ‘60s era word, but State Street Village is in fact a dormitory) is an emphatically successful urban building, a work of architecture that embraces its crowded site and the surrounding city.
    The building’s architect is Helmut Jahn. Well-known to Chicago, Jahn has created a wonderful paradox for Chicagoans. He recently completed 600 N. Fairbanks, a new condominium tower at the corner of Fairbanks and Ontario. Comparing the two buildings, buyers of the easily forgettable 600 building have to ask themselves, would I rather live here or on South State? The answer is obvious. State Street Village is a building to die for. But why?
    The dormitory’s success begins with its site, which is remarkably narrow. Squeezed between State Street and the “L” tracks, it runs for hundreds of feet along State, just east of the remarkable assemblage of Mies van der Rohe buildings, including the iconic Crown Hall. It has good neighbors who in their own way demand attention. In this context, the dorm raises its voice a bit to be heard, which is what urban architecture is all about.
    The building in section is roughly a square, with the top and west sides defined by a curved line. This section is extruded along a north/south axis running parallel to the elevated tracks. (Unquestionably Mr. Jahn’s most successful works are two-dimensional forms that are extruded into three dimensions, such as the United Airlines Terminal at O’Hare.) This linear form is chopped into six segments, each housing dormitory rooms on four levels. In the five gaps between the six segments are, alternatively, an entry and elevator or an open walkway allowing pedestrians to pass through the building, connecting the parking areas east of the tracks to the campus west of the tracks.
    Perhaps its most surprising feature is its relationship to the “L”, which passes within a few feet of its eastern edge. Rem Koolhaas, designer of IIT’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center, tried to teach us a lesson about the relationship between urban buildings and urban infrastructure. So just to the north of State Street Village, we have the $11 million stainless steel tube that is intended to isolate the Campus Center from the “L.” Although Koolhaas has delivered a number of remarkable urban buildings, including the Seattle Central Library, Jahn turns the tables on him. 
    The entry and elevator links, which cluster the six segments into three buildings, are entirely glass to the west and to the east, where the glass is only a few feet from the tracks.  Riding up to one of the upper levels and stepping off the elevator, you are often treated to the spectacle of a fast moving “L” train screaming past your face.  It is big, dynamic and urban, beating Koolhaas’ “isolation” gesture.
    But it doesn’t stop there. Each dorm room is an expression of modern minimalism. The ceilings and floors are raw concrete. The furniture is also minimalist, designed by Jahn in collaboration with Heltzer Furniture, which now operates under another name. It is raw, ethereal and all about where design is today.
    If this isn’t enough, wander up to the fourth floor, where the building opens to a series of rooftop terraces with unexpected and emphatically framed views of the Chicago skyline. 
    So if you just forked over anywhere from $495,000 to $1.3 million in the 600 N. Fairbanks building, put your unit on the market and register for classes at IIT, where you can rent a single suite for $5,700 a semester.
    But there is a larger lesson here. State Street Village is not a singular idea. It instead engages at every turn the surrounding city. Its extruding stainless steel form alludes to its neighbor, the campus center. Its length defines the edge of the historic Mies campus, while framing perforations that celebrate movement from east to west. It embraces movement and speed in its framing of the “L” trains, and its raw expressive interiors are hyper-modern. But best of all, for all its engagement in urbanity, its rooftop terraces provide a moment of sanctuary, a place of reflection. State Street Village has a symbiotic relationship with the city. It makes the city a better place, and in turn, the city makes the building a better piece of architecture.

Published: June 23, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living