Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s New UChicago Arts Center Pays Homage to the City’s Rich Architectural History

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien‘s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts opens to the public this weekend at the University of Chicago, setting up shop just steps away from storied structures designed by Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen. The $114-million project has been over ten years in the making, and though sections of the building were open for use in March of this year, the facility is now fully completed and ready to make its debut with a splashy Logan Launch Festival. The festival will offer more than 40 events, most of which will be free, to further drum up excitement for the new landmark in the community.

“It was crucial in the siting of this arts center and then in the selection of Tod and Billie to design it, that we create a real landmark destination on the south side of the Midway,” said University architect Steve Wiesenthal to The Chicago Sun Times, referring explicitly to the Midway Plaisance, a narrow stretch of park that geographically divides the campus. Wiesenthal had been determined from the start to construct a high-profile new center for the arts that would, by virtue of its function and design, attract students to traverse the Midway. In addition, executive director Bill Michel has hopes that the new building will bolster the university’s arts curriculum, providing an enviable new home for the school’s visual arts and theater departments while spatially integrating these disciplines with cohabitant music, film, and digital media programs.

The building itself is a subtly eccentric design, eschewing the aberrant geometries of many conventional high-profile designs and instead mixing formal allusions to factories, warehouses, early modern brick houses, and slick modernist towers. The Barnes Foundation architects merged a horizontal, two-story base with a 10-story vertical tower, paying homage to two distinct local architectural traditions that both had widespread impact on the course of architectural history: the low-slung “prairie style” of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s mid-western residences and the great, glass-curtained skyscrapers pioneered by Mies that have become endemic to the Chicago cityscape. Yet none of these allusions dominates the Logan Center for the Arts. The building is defined by a playful tension between voids and solids, but its mostly hermetic facade clad in white limestone, suggests another typological allusion: the castle. “It is a kind of child’s idea of a castle, which is that you are discovering things all the time,” said Tsien to the Chicago Sun Times. “It’s somewhat magical and changing.”

So while some might find the new arts center a bit conservative, the modest expression of the Logan Center for the Arts comes with a reason: “We want to make buildings well and make them feel like they’re 100-200-year buildings,” Tsien added, “that they’re made to last.”

- Kelly Chan