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Tribune photos of Roosevelt University's Wabash Building by Nancy Stone

Chicago Tribune: Skyline Sizzle, Roosevelt University’s bold new addition to the Loop

Roosevelt’s zigzagging new tower adds sizzle to the skyline, but can it build community?

Posted: 04/26/2012

Published by the Chicago Tribune, April 25, 2012

By Blair Kamin

Savvy architecture buffs tend to view look-at-me buildings with a wary glance. All too often, these designs are slick packages, not real places that ennoble our daily routines. Anybody who's witnessed the cacophony of shrieking skyscrapers in Dubai knows that.

Still, there is reason to think that Roosevelt University's striking new $123 million tower in downtown Chicago will amount to something more than an eye-grabbing envelope.

The 32-story tower, which flaunts a zig-zagging silhouette and an equally arresting skin of blue and green glass, represents Chicago's latest innovation in skyscraper design. It is a vertical campus, stacking everything from a student union to lecture halls to dorm suites within a single, all-encompassing structure.

Tribune photos of Roosevelt University's Wabash Building by Nancy StoneLocated at 425 S. Wabash Ave. and known simply as the Wabash Building, the tower is the nation's second tallest academic building after the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. More important, it marks the first time that the dramatic expansion of colleges and universities in Chicago's Loop has made a major mark on the city's vaunted skyline. Happily, that impact is worth celebrating.

The tower's powerfully sculpted exterior soars memorably above the mighty wall of historic buildings along Michigan Avenue, including Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler's adjoining Auditorium Building, which has served as Roosevelt's home since 1947. It achieves a genuine, artful dialogue between past and present.

On May 5, the university will hold opening ceremonies for the tower, which replaces a 1970s dorm high-rise and expands Roosevelt's classroom space by 40 percent. But any evaluation of the tower's inner workings — and thus, its overall success — must remain tentative. Students have begun filtering into the building, but they won't move into its apartments until August, when classes are also scheduled to get underway.

At this point, the tower is best characterized as a building of considerable promise. It appears poised to overcome the checkered history of high-rise dorms that many universities erected in the 1960s and 1970s only to find that these buildings bred anonymity and anti-social behavior. The folly of such buildings is encapsulated by the nickname wags have pinned on the Neo-Gothic Cathedral of Learning — “The Height of Ignorance.”

Yet the big question looming over the tower is: If you build it, will they come? In the boom years before the 2008 financial crisis, many museums and other cultural institutions built vanity projects that failed to attract expected crowds and raise revenues. If it doesn't increase enrollment, Roosevelt's tower — financed by bonds — could represent a post-boom example of the same phenomenon.

Designed by Chicago-based VOA Associates, which previously has turned out solid but hardly spectacular hospitals and school buildings, the Roosevelt tower owes much to the influence of the university's president, Charles “Chuck” Middleton. He's living proof that good architecture is impossible without good clients.

photo of Spertus Institute by Chris WalkerRealizing that land-locked Roosevelt had nowhere to go but up, Middleton was inspired by the 5-year-old Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies at 618 S. Michigan (left), whose signature design element is a folded, faceted facade of glass. This piece of architectural origami simultaneously draws natural light into a deep interior and offers expansive views of Grant Park. Middleton also liked the way the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing, now 3 years old, contrasted with the museum's iconic neo-classical building along Michigan Avenue.

The way was thus paved for VOA's chief designer on the project, Christopher Groesbeck, to make a strong skyline statement rather than a meek imitation of the Auditorium (at right in photo). For the uninitiated, that mixed-use marvel, completed in 1889, not only put an office building, a hotel and a theater under one roof but also served up a triumph of engineering, acoustics and decoration.

The new tower is essentially a thin slab, its narrow east and west walls canting inward and outward as they approach the building's slanted summit. Inspired by the stacked rhomboids of sculptor Constantin Brancusi's “Endless Column,” the idiosyncratic shape expresses the idea that education transforms students and is never truly complete.

But crucially, those canted walls also serve a functional role, creating big, bay window-like spaces on the building's ends. Groesbeck envisons them as gathering places — quadrangles in the sky, as it were. To encourage students to hang out, the spaces are outfitted with comfy chairs and benches. If the seats don't draw a crowd, the spectacular views — of the gritty cityscape to the west and the elegant, Beaux-Arts landscape of Grant Park to the east — almost surely will.

The tower's floor plans are laid out with equal thoughtfulness. Instead of placing the building's concrete-walled elevator core in the building's center, Groesbeck and his team, which included architects Jeffery Hrubec and Michael Siegel, pushed the core to the building's north edge. That opened large expanses for lecture halls and other big rooms. In turn, the architects expressed the core in the tower's north facade, where concrete panels shift from solid black at the base to a checkboard of glass and concrete at the top (left).

If that sounds like an architectural affectation, think again. Like the tower's variegated skin of blue and green glass, which becomes darker as the building rises, the gradations in the concrete animate the building's static surfaces. They also create a subtle dialogue with the Auditorium, whose stone walls shift from dark to light, and from fortress-like to fine-grained, as the building reaches skyward.

Even if such details are lost on you, it's easy to notice the tower's skyline impact. It is a taut, almost monolithic piece of architectural sculpture that fully takes advantage of its prime position across from Chicago's front yard. Like the Trump International Hotel & Tower, it assumes ever-shifting identities as the sun and clouds play on it. It is at once a foreground shape and a background building, its south front creating a perfect backdrop for the Auditorium's muscular tower.

To his credit, Groesbeck has avoided the trap of an architectural object that stands apart from the city around it, a plus that's evident at the building's Wabash Avenue entrance.

Tribune photos of Roosevelt University's Wabash Building by Nancy StoneThere, the tower's base is flanked by glassy “shoulders” that approximate the height the Auditorium and match the meticulously-restored, sliver-thin facade of the old Fine Arts Building Annex at 421 S. Wabash (left). The two historic bookends help the tower make a successful transition from sky to sidewalk.

There is also much to like inside — and much to wonder about.

The first five floors are devoted to student services and activities. Floors 6 to 13 are reserved for thoroughly modern classrooms and labs, as well as offices. Floors 14 to 31 house student apartments, with a total of 633 beds.

It's a logical mix, embedding functions that don't require lots of natural light, like the fitness room, toward the building's bottom. At the same time, the ground-floor lobby (left) and the dining hall above it manage to be expansive, light-filled and boldly-colored spaces — no match for the Auditorium's great interiors, but still able to project the image of a “new Roosevelt.”

Higher up, the best spaces are tiered classrooms (below) that should make students feel like they are suspended over the Loop. The apartments are unremarkable save for their views, which can be counted upon to make many a prospective student exclaim “I want to go here!”

Tribune photos of Roosevelt University's Wabash Building by Nancy StoneWhether that will happen is among the questions to which only time and experience can provide answers: Have the architects successfully isolated the thumping presence of fitness areas from the lecture halls above them? Will students wreak havoc with the building's recycling chute, which is among the features expected to win the tower a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification? Will the quadrangles in the sky lead to the serendipitous encounters of campus life?

Middleton sounds an optimistic note. On the tower's 13th floor, where the president has his office, there's a big open area that Middleton initially saw and considered wasted space. No more. Students already have begun congregating there. “It's the equivalent of a quad right in the building,” Middleton said.

Of course, quadrangles have also been known to be the sites of protests. “I'm sure that sometime, in the nature of the university, we will have that,” said Middleton, recalling the student-led antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s. If and when the protests occur, we'll know for sure that this tower is a thriving vertical community as well as a dazzling skyline object.

Tribune photos of Roosevelt University's Wabash Building by Nancy Stone; Tribune photo of Spertus Institute by Chris Walker.