Koolhaas Encounters Mies

The Dutch master's student center at IIT provides a striking counterpoint to his "intimidating predecessor's" disciplined style

December 01, 2003 |

The McCormick Tribune Campus Center, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is, with Helmut Jahn's recently completed State Street Village student residence complex, among the first new buildings to be constructed on the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago campus in nearly 40 years.

Its angled surfaces and bright colors are a radical departure from the 18 highly disciplined International Style buildings on the IIT campus designed by the man Koolhaas calls his "intimidating predecessor," Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Koolhaas, head of the Rotterdam-based firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture, won the IIT commission in February 1998 against a field that included Jahn, Peter Eisenman, and Zaha Hadid.

In remarks at the opening of the $48.2 million center in September, Koolhaas said he wanted to create a building that would register with prospective students and their parents in the 12 seconds during which he contends they decide on a college or university. Koolhaas also acknowledged the difficulty of following in the footsteps of Mies, the university's master planner.

Mies fled his native Germany in 1938, having served as director of the Bauhaus School of Design, and became head of the architecture department at what was then known as the Armour Institute of Technology. After 20 years as director of IIT's College of Architecture, the designer of the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exhibition (and its eponymous chair), Mies resigned in 1958.

He died in Chicago in 1969, having bequeathed his adopted city 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Crown Hall and many others at IIT, and the Farnsworth House in outlying Plano, Illinois.

When the IIT campus was being built in the 1950s and early '60s under Mies's careful scrutiny, existing buildings to the east were essentially dilapidated tenements that were being removed under an early Federal urban renewal program, leaving vast unoccupied spaces that sent out troubling messages for decades.

Donna Robertson, dean of IIT's School of Architecture, says the new center is intended "to repair some of the misimpressions that our campus and our built environment were giving." Mies's philosophy for the IIT campus, located four miles south of downtown Chicago, was based on scattered buildings with an introspective focus. Koolhaas, by contrast, wanted a building that would bring people together. He envisioned a center that students, faculty, and staff would be likely to circulate through at least once a day.

The siting of the 85,000-sq.-ft. single-story facility— Koolhaas's first completed U.S. project — is remarkable. It was built beneath elevated CTA train tracks that separate IIT's dormitories and residence halls. Koolhaas's layout of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center was based on his observation of the paths students took as they crossed the once-vacant site. Incorporating these paths into his design, he created what he calls "programmatic islands" of interior space.

Koolhaas says the project was designed to assemble disparate elements — eating facilities, student services and mailboxes, gathering spaces, work areas for student organizations, a coffee bar — into a comprehensive package.

The goal, Koolhaas says, was to "reurbanize" the largest possible area with the least amount of built substance. "By not stacking activities, but by positioning each programmatic particle as part of a dense mosaic, our building contains the urban condition itself," he says. The one-story plan avoids a sense of claustrophobia because of the combined effect of a soaring ceiling and excavations of up to seven feet for features such as a linear space containing computer terminals.


The new campus center at Illinois Institute of Technology extends beneath a sound-reducing enclosure for elevated rail tracks.

"I think students view the center favorably, not only for the enhanced services, but also for the liveliness of the interior," Robertson says. "People thought of the Miesian aesthetic as pretty black, white, and gray. The color emphasis of the new building alone provides an alternative that the students welcome. They wanted something that was lively."

With a Mies building, says Robertson, the atmosphere is "very formal, symmetrical, and known, even though the space is considered continuous and unusual." With the Koolhaas student center, "the space continues on forever — in fact, it takes you back outside again. You see your path crossing with numerous other paths, and areas opening beyond each of these intersections that are for different program uses."

The dean says IIT students "like the juxtaposition of different program areas in unexpected ways. This lets you at one time, and from one vantage point in the building, understand the multiplicity of programs the building offers."

She says many of IIT's 6,200 students complained about the inadequacy of seating in public areas on campus. The new building contains numerous seating areas so that students can find a comfortable place to hang out or study.

Not everyone is impressed with the vibrant atmosphere of the new facility. Chicago Tribunearchitectural critic Blair Kamin likens walking into the student center to "entering an oversize pinball machine." But Robertson counters that "18-year-olds get it. They're used to responding to multiple layers of information, and their response level is incredibly quick."

The great elliptical sound muffler

The campus center almost died an early death. A controversy erupted before construction began, when preservationists contended the planned building did not appropriately defer to Mies's adjacent Commons building. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which put up money for the tube, wanted the student center separated by at least 12 feet from the Commons; it later ruled that the student center could directly attach to the Commons as long as the exterior walls of the transition were all glazed.

As a result, the student center was attached directly to the south side of the Commons, and to its west elevation by a short tunnel. The corner where the buildings meet is the location of the "Mies Courtyard." It was excavated to expose the Commons' foundation, which was clad in black-painted steel.

The roar of passing trains overhead rises to an ear-shattering 110 decibels outside. The 530x60-ft. concrete tube, which is faced with corrugated stainless steel panels, lowers the volume inside the building to less than 70 decibels.

"The elevated train has a huge impact on IIT's character," Koolhaas says. "It demanded an innovative technological concept for the train enclosure for an institution devoted to technology."

Construction of the $13.6 million tube (which was partly funded by a $9 million state grant) preceded most of the construction of the building. "From a construction technology standpoint, the tube presented more challenges than the building," says Jeff Masters, project executive with construction manager Gilbane Building Co. "Building an ellipse 50 feet in the air around an existing transit line was probably the single biggest construction challenge."

The tracks were originally supported by a steel structure that could be easily inspected periodically. To preclude future possible maintenance issues, transit officials decided to replace the steel columns with new concrete supports. The tube is supported by these massive concrete columns, which descend 62 feet to reach bedrock and are visible as they pass through the building. They contrast with the steel building columns, which form the 24x24-ft. grid that Mies specified for all campus buildings.

Extensive coordination was required with the mechanical and structural designers for the building. "The design was continually refined to make it fit Koolhaas's vision," says Masters.


Even though the campus center is a single-story building, multiple levels are provided on the interior. This sculpted linear channel contains a band of computer stations.

The implementation of Koolhaas's concept was assigned to Chicago-based architect of record Holabird & Root, under the direction of project principal Frank Castelli and project architect Greg Grunloh. One of their first challenges was to incorporate Koolhaas's penchant for nontraditional materials into the detailing of the building.

For example, about 60% of the floor area is covered with 1/8-inch aluminum plates. Since aluminum conducts electricity, the panels had to be connected by a network of thin wire and grounded to the building columns to prevent shocks to building occupants.

Koolhaas's initial plans to use plywood on the fascia and ceilings were eliminated due to budget limitations. Instead, the fascia was constructed with a synthetic material that critic Kamin said appeared to have been created by "a graffiti artist who tagged it with red and black zebra stripes."

The replacement ceiling material is a green water-resistant drywall, typically used in toilet rooms and as a backup for ceramic tile, which was given a clear polyurethane coating. Plastic grating normally used to provide chemical resistance for laboratory floors serves as louvers in a wall of the building's mechanical penthouse.

The sprayed polyurethane foam roof slopes downward from the east and west sides of the building in order to pass beneath the tube and to give prominence to spaces, such as the conference center, located along the periphery. As the elevation of the tracks decreases toward the north end of the building, the stainless steel underside of tube is exposed inside the building.

An orange polycarbonate infill bonded within exterior glazing gives vibrant color to the west side of the building, which faces State Street. The McCormick Tribune Center marks the first application of this product, according to its manufacturer, Panelite. The amoeba-shaped toilet rooms near the building's west entrance are enclosed with panels composed of a different Panelite product, which introduces natural light into these spaces. The panels consist of glass facings that embed a tubular polycarbonate core that is translucent when viewed straight-on but obscured when viewed from an angle.

Graphics are an important design element. Huge letters bearing the words "Illinois Institute of Technology," composed on the inside wall of three interior spaces, are visible to passersby. A monstrous digital clock with 10-ft.-tall numbers offers little excuse to tardy students.

The international symbol for a human was used as a graphic module by the New York City-based design firm 2x4 to create small icons that portray students exercising, operating a movie camera, and listening to music on their headphones. When viewed at a distance, though, the icons merge into a 25-ft.-tall portrait of the genius of Aachen himself.

As for Koolhaas's creation, one can only speculate what Mies's verdict would be. Less, or more?

Overlay Init