The 1960’s were boom years for campus construction in the United States and Chicago was no exception. Mayor Richard J. Daley decided it was time to construct a quality public university accessible to the children of the city’s working class, something the city still lacked. Daley selected his favorite architecture design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for the project with architect Walter Netsch leading the design team.
Two themes dominated the project: Brutalism and Field Theory. Brutalism, a offshoot of Modernism, is an architectural style combining repetitive angular geometries with concrete as the predominate material. Field Theory is a design principle that rotates basic squares into complex geometric components that radiate out from cores. As such, the original University of Illinois at Chicago campus consists of simple yet massive concrete buildings arranged in concentric circles. Originally, both techniques were considered highly innovative.
Alas, time changes tastes and everyone from critics to students have since barraged Netsch’s brutalist buildings with criticism. The giant, looming, characterless structures failed to connect with their users who call them cold and inhuman. Indeed, the concrete has not aged well, appearing gloomy, with the narrow slit windows evoking thoughts of prison cells.
Field Theory has fared significantly better as an organizing principle. The campus exerts a feeling of cohesion and unity with heavy foot traffic along the multitude of paths that cut across the green. Although the sidewalks were designed along a meticulous geometric plan, this is not the experience of the pedestrian, who sees choice and opportunity in which way to go.
I was lucky to visit UIC on a crisp, clear day. The sun was prominent in the sky and gave the beige concrete facades a richer, golden color while casting deep shadows. The massive scale of the buildings and the unified plan that holds them together made a deep impression. Yet the entire experience felt like visiting aged ruins in some communist country, not Chicago’s largest university. Although UIC has since embraced a series of contemporary design styles, most notably with its new health facility, Netsh’s brutalism remains the defining aesthetic of the campus.