Visiting Rem Koolhaas's McCormick Tribune Campus Center

Client: People Enjoying Buildings Worldwide -

The McCormick Tribune Campus Center Illinois Institute of Technology 3201 South State Street Chicago, IL

Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture 2003

According to statistics, a student and his or her parents decide within five seconds of arrival, whether or not to apply to a given university or not. With that test, Mies van der Rohe’s IIT Campus is in trouble. (It’s) a masterpiece invisible to the contemporary eye. Mies’s work has become unnoticeable without explanation.

Rem Koolhaas from his essay Miestakes

If you want to understand Rem Koolhaas’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, you have to start with Mies van der Rohe. The legendary architect served as head of IIT’s architecture department (then the Armour Institute of Technology) beginning in 1938 and was appointed to design a master plan for the campus. Thereafter his signature “less is more” steel and glass structures dominated IIT’s aesthetic.

Rem Koolhaas Tunnel Architecture

Enter Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. In 1998, they won an international design competition to provide a “maybe a little bit more could be more” shot-in-the-arm for the campus’s architectural standing. The site for the new student center would be located just a block north and east of one of Mies’s masterpieces, S.R. Crown Hall.

Koolhaas said he approached the project with admiration for Mies but not reverence. “I do not respect Mies, I love Mies,” he wrote in Miestakes. “I have studied Mies, excavated Mies, reassembled Mies. I have even cleaned Mies. Because I do not revere Mies, I’m at odds with his admirers.”

Koolhaas’s challenge, in addition to grappling with the master’s legacy, was to create a multi-functional campus center that would address the problem posed by the city’s famed elevated train (specifically, the Green Line). It rumbles along the north-south axis of the site and effectively bisected the campus, separating physically and psychologically the dormitories to the east from the main campus to the west. As students walked to and from class, they routinely cut beneath the tracks.

Koolhaas’s solution, a one-story structure which was his first completed building in the U.S., is a flamboyant departure from Mies’s studied right-angle elegance. The building’s most remarkable feature, a 530-foot oval tube made of concrete and steel, encloses and muffles the el as it passes over the student center.

When the trains plunge into the tube, there’s a palpable sense of theater,” wrote Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin after the center’s debut in 2003. “As well as certain erotic associations that Koolhaas maintains are strictly unintended.”

The center itself ducks beneath the tunnel at a broad angle and rises slightly on the other side of it. The interior is full of sleek and angular vistas, accented by orange highlights throughout.

Koolhaas also posted universal icons of male figures in action of various sizes throughout the space, and he played cleverly with the interior dimensions by digging downward to provide several more planes. The well-worn paths that students trod beneath the tracks were incorporated into the building’s design and criss-cross in the interior floor plan.

“Much of the center’s drama stems from the way he’s packed an astounding variety of levels, ceiling heights, materials, and finishes into the single story,” commented Lynn Becker, architectural critic for the Chicago Reader. “Mies is about reduction and subtraction, Koolhaas about addition and multiplication.”

Although Koolhaas departs from Mies, he does not leave him completely behind. On the northwest side of the building, visitors enter through a 20-foot image of Mies’s face, and the building’s northeast corner incorporates a pre-existing Mies building, the Commons Building. In a highly controversial move, Koolhaas integrated the Commons by using one of its glass walls as an internal wall in the new student center. The Commons Building now serves as a cafeteria. “When is Mies more beautiful, defaced or rebuilt?” wrote Koolhaas in response to his critics. “As ruin, or reconstitution?”

When the building debuted in 2003, The New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp gushed, “It’s Koolhaas à go-go, a masterwork for the young and curious... This building goes far toward explaining the excitement contemporary architecture has been generating in the United States for a decade... It reflects the view that architecture is a philosophy of urban life.”

However, the Tribune’s Kamin stopped short of dubbing it a masterpiece. “It’s a better testament to the abilities of Koolhaas the thinker, who has influenced a generation of students with his provocative prose, than Koolhaas the builder.”

Kamin chided Koolhaas for running over budget and, as a result, being forced to make aesthetic compromises that deprived the building of greatness. “The most glaring shortcoming is the use of a green, water-resistant drywall as a ceiling material that substitutes for plywood. This ‘greenboard,’ as contractors call it, blends well enough with the shiny green floors of the dining and recreation area, but it looks dull and unfinished elsewhere... But to focus solely on blown details, would be to miss some extraordinary work.”

Rem Koolhaas IIT campus center Jennifer Roche

Inevitably, the building, like all buildings, must settle into doing what a building’s got to do regardless of what the critics think. In this case, Koolhaas’s work is an active student center full of the scruffy hubbub of daily academic life. There are bustling food courts, a newspaper shop, lounge areas, a “hanging” garden, conference centers, computer stations, a bookstore, and an auditorium. Cardboard signs promoting pizza slices hang from the ceiling, and ping-pong balls, the same orange as the building’s accents, launch from their tables and bounce through the main corridors.

“18-year olds really have a different way of engaging with the world than you or I,” IIT’s lecturer in architecture Donna Robertson told Lynn Becker. “They’re used to responding to multiple layers of information and their response level is incredibly quick. They get this right away, and they love it.

How to visit

The McCormick Tribune Campus Center is located on the main campus of Illinois Institute of Technology, about five miles south of Chicago’s downtown.

You can reach it by taxi, bus, or el train. See the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus and train schedules and maps.

If you’d like to ride the el through the tube, take the Green Line south from downtown to the 35-Bronzeville-IIT stop. That’s also the stop you’ll need to get off at to visit the building. (If you are visiting the Campus Center from the south and want to go through the tube, you’ll need to ride the green line north past the 35-Bronzeville-IIT stop to Roosevelt. To visit the Center, you’ll then need to get off at Roosevelt, change back over to a southbound train, and ride back to the 35-Bronzeville-IIT stop.) The building is located about one block north of the 35-Bronzeville-IIT stop, just past Helmut John’s State Street Village (also completed in 2003).

If you are arriving by private car, there is pay parking for visitors on the north and east sides of the building. Street parking is available too.

The building itself is open long hours when school is in session. When you visit, you’ll encounter signs posted at each of the entrances stating that the student union is closed to the public. A thoughtful security guard told me that’s not really true – people who treat the place with respect are allowed. If this guard’s assertion is not enough to make you feel comfortable entering, the security guards sit at the northwest entrance of the building (the one featuring Mies’s face). Announce yourself (and your level of respect) and enjoy wandering around with guilt-free access. (They also have nice maps of the building’s history and floor plan that are free to visitors.)

The official website for the McCormick Tribune Campus Center is frustratingly short on details. The best site for confirming details of your visit is IIT’s other site on the building. It gives you contact information for the building’s manager and building hours. You can also get the times for their weekly scheduled tours or arrange a free tour (in advance) by an IIT architecture student.

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