The University of Chicago is often praised for its rigorous academics, its serene location in an enclave on South Side, its superb bookstores and museums, and its traditional ivy-laden, collegiate atmosphere. It is less frequently cited for its impressive collection of buildings designed by notable modern, postmodern, and contemporary architects: Henry N. Cobb, Holabird & Root, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, SOM, Murphy/Jahn, César Pelli, Rafael Viñoly, Jeanne Gang—and the list goes on—are all represented on the campus. In October 2015, Chicago–based Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDTA) joined these prestigious ranks with their Gordon Parks Arts Hall, the latest addition to the University of Chicago Laboratory School.
Located at the southeastern corner of the university campus, the Lab School occupies two square blocks. The eastern block is dedicated to a playing field and sports facilities, while the academic buildings sit around the perimeter of the western block. The new arts wing is given pride of place along the north side of the block—being the first thing one sees as one approaches from the north, east, or west, this VDTA addition is the new face of the South Side prep school.
Set back from the street, it faces Scammon Garden to the north and the Lab School’s central courtyard to the south. Both are important exterior spaces used for recreation and instruction, and are extensions of the Main Lobby gathering space. The Scammon Garden in particular elegantly responds to the architecture; a simple green field meets the main entrance in a ripple of concentric circles, as though the building were a stone dropped in a pond of grass.
From the north, the building appears as a long rectangular form made of Indiana limestone and glass. This continuous curtain wall is intersected by an irregular procession of rectangular masses, or “vertical solar chimneys,” which punctate the long facade and recall, abstractly, the buttresses of a gothic cathedral. The limestone carries around to the east and west facades, connecting the hall materially to its context—the Lab School’s original limestone building was designed by James Gamble Rogers in 1896—while glass-enclosed corridors connect it to the existing structures that flank the new wing on the east and west ends.
Barbara Karant (left), Steve Hall (right)
The building has spaces for music and visual and performing arts education for the middle school and high school students. Arranged along the north side of the building, all the classrooms are treated to floor-to-ceiling glass and a wash of natural light. Visual arts and music are designated to the upper two floors with studio and rehearsal spaces as well as digital media labs. On the first floor, there are classrooms for the performing arts, a formal art gallery for the display of student work, the Studio Theater, used for cinema screening, and the 250-seat Sherry Lansing black-box theater that doubles as a sound stage. According to the architects, Gordon Parks Arts Hall is a symbol of the Lab School’s commitment to multimedia literacy and “should be understood as a place where work is created by hand, and then shown to a larger, real or virtual audience using every possible media imaginable,” said Joe Valerio, VDTA design principal.
The most prominent feature of the first floor is the 750-seat assembly hall for performances, meetings, and special events. A large cylindrical drum, the hall dominates the double-height lobby and intersects the southern wall of the building, jutting out into the courtyard. It is the one interior volume that makes its presence known externally, signaling its importance beyond the arts program and for the school at large.
While the architects refer to the project as “emphatically modern” in its formal articulation and in its “seamless connection between the outdoors and the interior,” it has a distinctly postmodern flavor. The east and west facades are marked by a gabled roof profile and a fenestration pattern which mimics the adjacent neo-gothic towers of Belfield Hall. This explicit contextual gesture mixes somewhat incongruously with the north facade, a modernist curtain wall that seems to buckle under some invisible pressure—is this a nod to the deconstructivist fold, or simply a flex of the firm’s digital muscles? Either way, the historicist references and not-so-subtle collage of architectural styles suggest the building belongs to a strain of contemporary-corporate design, a neo-postmodernism, where modern architecture is no longer the primary mode of expression but rather one among many styles to reference, mimic, and embellish.