McCormick Tribune Campus Center

McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago, Illinois by Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), 2003

The first completed building in the United States by Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and only the second building on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus since the sixties (beat by one month by Helmut Jahn's design for a dormitory across the street to the south), the McCormick Tribune Campus Center straddles Chicago's well-known elevated train tracks to connect the educational and residential areas of the campus designed by the great Mies van der Rohe in 1940.

Rem Koolhaas's design was chosen in February 1998 from a field of five finalists - including Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Helmut Jahn, and Kazuyo Sejima - in an international competition to design the new campus center, the focus of a new campus master plan by Mies's grandson Dirk Lohan. A possible reason for selecting Koolhaas is because his design comes closest to balancing the Modernist principles of Mies with contemporary, avant-garde architecture, whereas the four other architects' designs split between the former (Jahn and Sejima) and the latter (Eisenman and Hadid). While this is only speculation it helps in considering the school's wishes to be of its time without completely abandoning its past.

The winning design is comprised of two elements: a concrete tube, clad in corrugated stainless steel, that wraps the "L" to dampen the train noise and the main building, a one-story, 110,000 square foot structure containing the program spaces (Welcome Center, dining, auditorium, meeting rooms, bookstore, cafe, post office, offices, convenience store, and campus radio station) under the tube. Movement through the main building is along diagonal paths located according to research analyzing the walking patterns of students across the site. Seeking to accommodate students, the paths intersect to create island spaces and nodes of activity for the students and faculty.

Although the plan appears confusing, the building's interior spaces are surprisingly legible, mainly due to the predominance of diagonal views across the spaces stretching both in plan and section. By seeing across and through to other spaces one is always aware of his/her location in the overall building, with color playing a role: orange is prevalent on the west facade, green is used in the central dining area, and red saturates a narrow ramp of computer terminals, for example. Throughout the interior a multitude of unique materials are used, including wire mesh between panes of glass that bends light, wall coverings that create the illusion of movement, and translucent fiberglass with a honeycomb core for walls and tabletops.

In combination with the wide palette of materials, graphic designers 2x4 created a consistent graphic language for the Campus Center based on the international symbol for a human, with large scale graphics in some areas and, most strikingly, portraits comprised of the miniature symbols describing the different activities taking place in the building. What appears to be an image of Mies van der Rohe at the northeast entry (image at top) is actually made up of these small symbols. When split by the automatic parting doors they become Koolhaas's humorous play on Mies's lasting influence and stature at IIT.

Complications arose in the Campus Center's construction when preservationists protested to the architect's intention to reuse the Mies-designed Commons Building at the northeast corner of the site as part of new building, in effect destroying its pristine form. Since state funds were used for some construction costs, a ruling was made by Illinois in favor of the preservationists, so Koolhaas had to redesign a portion of his design to meet their demands. Fortunately this compromise does not affect the quality of the new building, and fortunately the Commons is accessible via the Campus Center in two locations and will be restored to its original state inside, extending the uniqueness of Koolhaas's design and its mutual existence with the ghost of Mies.