Donna Robertson

Donna Robertson

After more than 15 years as dean at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) College of Architecture, Donna Robertson is stepping down at the end of this year. AN’s Midwest editor, Alan G. Brake, asked Robertson to look back on her accomplishments at the school, as well as the changes in Chicago’s architecture culture and built environment over the last decade and a half. After this year, she intends to continue teaching at IIT as well as focus on her practice, Robertson McAnulty Architects, and take an active role in Chicago’s civic affairs, including historic preservation, an issue of particular interest to her.


Why did you decide to step down now?

I had completed 15 years and that seemed like a good number. I also didn’t want to challenge Mies, who was dean for 20 years.

What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishments as dean?

The whole topic of Mies and beyond, which was an architectural question, played out in the continued dialogue of updating the campus. It was also a pedagogical question. I wanted to take the best ideas of the curriculum but not be bound by it. The big ongoing project was building a stellar faculty to execute that.

How did you go about building the faculty?

When I came in there were two main generations of faculty: people who had been taught by Mies and those who were brought in under Gene Summer’s deanship. There was some antipathy in the beginning, but we quickly discovered a lot of commonalities. It took some time to bring people together; my first effort was really leading the dialogue among the faculty to make us an academic community. Once that was underway, I then brought in the new generation: Jeanne Gang, John Ronan, Mark Schendel, Martin Felsen, and others.

We wrote up the undergraduate curriculum in my first year. That solidified the undergraduate degree, particularly the studio sequence. The graduate sequence was only updated recently. Now studio classes and the other courses support each other.

What were some other highlights of your tenure?

At the end-of-year show in my first year, some wag moved the bust of Mies into the center court—where I had thought the best work should be shown—and then tied a blindfold over Mies’ eyes to show that he would be ashamed of the work the school was producing, which of course he wouldn’t have been. That was pretty fun.

We’ve had other moments of excitement, such as when our students won the Art Institute’s Schiff Fellowship.

Another highlight was starting the landscape program, which was accredited the first year it went up for review.

Why did you decide to start a landscape program?

There was an appreciation for landscape among the Miesians. Ludwig Hilberseimer and Alfred Caldwell both taught in the school.

We’re still the only landscape architecture program in Chicago. This is a city that is so enamored with landscape. Not only is landscape design highly valued here, but there aren’t enough landscape architects in this city to fill the need.

How has the experience of working on the campus been?

It’s been fantastic. We’ve been working on how to rehabilitate the campus, building the first new buildings in 30 years and demonstrating that the university is still building important new architecture.

If you hadn’t known the campus in 1996, you’d have had a hard time imagining the difference. Today, the campus is livelier and the students are more engaged. The Koolhaas Student Center has transformed the quality of student life. That building got them to lift up their gaze and find each other.

We wanted to announce that IIT is going to build the buildings you want to watch, with both the OMA building and the Helmut Jahn dormitory. We had to build the Jahn building really fast, as enrollment was climbing. So we conducted a limited, local competition, and I think the result is really wonderful.

What are the challenges the new dean will likely face?

With a new dean, the main challenge will be defining the next era for the discipline. We as a school haven’t suffered yet from the continued unemployment in our discipline, but that is something rumbling on the horizon. I’m interested in how architectural education can be applied more broadly, expanding employment opportunity beyond just building buildings.

As the economy comes back, we want to get back to building out the campus plan. Add a new recreation center, a new science lab building, restore the chapel, work on the main building, among other projects. There will be more landscape improvements. The business school is moving to campus. It’s going to occupy existing space, but it will be a great addition. The whole redevelopment of the 35th Street corridor. Most of that has been out of our hands, but we will participate in the planning.

There have been tremendous changes on the near South Side. Has IIT been active enough in the area?

It’s been the most active of any university I’ve ever worked with. Everyone has very serious intentions. We’ve partnered with Bronzeville. We have an associate vice president for community affairs and outreach. We always have studios that relate to the surrounding neighborhoods. We are doing a classroom for an urban agriculture program in the area. Our plan for Dunbar Park, to the immediate northwest of our campus, is being built out. We’ve built commercial housing on our acreage, which was opened to faculty and is helping to bring the population back.

IIT works closely with neighboring institutions, the White Sox, the churches, and the other educational institutions. We’re currently studying the commercial entities that impact both our students and the neighbors. We celebrated finally getting the Metra stop in. The university worked with the neighbors on that for decades.

You came to Chicago from New York and New Orleans. How has the city changed in the last decade and a half?

I love Chicago’s lively design culture. When I came here, it was in the doldrums. I’ve seen it grow and flourish. Chicago is a great place to start a practice. It’s a very supportive design culture. We want to see people succeed and find engagement with the community.

There’s also been a profound shift in architectural taste. It was all very New Urbanist/Pomo. The most visible first shot was the mayor embracing the Frank Gehry band shell and Soldier Field for all its controversy. Taste has shifted toward more abstract, more experimental forms. There’s an appreciation of the new and for the trajectory of modernism, as well as a growing interest in landscape design and preservation and rehabilitation.

The IIT campus is one of many modernist developments on the near South Side. Modernist buildings have met with a mix of fates in many of these areas, some of which have been restored while others have been destroyed. What does this say about the appreciation of modernism in Chicago?

It’s a really interesting question. Skidmore’s white towers, the Michael Reese campus… There was a lot built at a time of utopian euphoria—the scale of thinking and the scale of execution were so large. Some succeeded and others failed. It’s easy to argue that the commercially viable projects succeeded, but public housing did not. But that’s not universally true. The Chicago Housing Authority has beautifully restored the Bertrand Goldberg towers and spruced up others.

We’ll see how they go with the third-third-third program [the ratio of public, affordable, and market-rate housing that’s being used to rebuild on the tracts of land where public housing projects once stood]. It’s hard to comment yet on its degree of success.

What excites you about Chicago today?

One of the things that blew me away when I came here was to see how Chicago really is “The City That Works.” For example, they relocated Lakeshore Drive for the Museum Campus. It was very exciting to see the will, the drive, and the patience to engineer and execute large-scale projects. There’s a whole coalescing of civic energies to continuously improve the city. The Bloomingdale Trail and Millennium Park are possible here. Columbia College, for instance, has done a beautiful job with a major quadrant of the city. The recent attention to the boulevards—what to do with Northerly Island: these are very important questions. Our projects generally do get done. I really do think they’re going to pull off the Bloomingdale Trail.

Then there are the continued improvements to the Loop itself, where the pattern of its use has changed over time. Attention to the visitor community, as well as the commercial community, has really transformed people’s experience of the city. The developments that are happening in other neighborhoods—Bucktown ten years ago, now Pilsen and Bridgeport—this awareness that Chicagoans have in their built environment is really gratifying.

Being at IIT has been an enormous gift for me. I can’t think of a more interesting school, with students from around the world. It’s a laboratory, a place of inquiry. The city is such a place of design excellence—it’s been a very stimulating place to be.