Chicago’s $114 Million Arts Center Weds Warehouse, Castle

With its layered limestone brick and silvery glass, the $114 million Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts soars above the University of Chicago in a haunted take on campus-Gothic grandeur.

I was drawn to the Logan because I thought its respectful, unflamboyant architects, New York-based Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, might find a new way to nudge art and architecture into playing nice together.

In the Logan, Williams and Tsien struggle to hold a variety of tensions at bay. The tower’s layered planes appear ready to peel apart. The tower itself erupts from a broad, plain-spoken two-story base with a sawtooth clerestory roof.

This part of the center, which Tsien calls “the warehouse,” has the industrial style that visual artists often prefer. Its painted drywall and movable partitions say that it wants to be malleable and accommodate whatever the imagination throws at it.

The campus-facing northern entrance opens to a mystifying intersection of stairs and hallways. On the left is a cafe, while a turn to the right leads into a public gallery and a suite of painting and sculpture studios that are gorgeously lit by the roof windows.

Along the sprawling hallways, disciplines huddle in their enclaves in a layout that allows but doesn’t engineer sociability.

Three Theaters

One long corridor passes a pleasing outdoor courtyard before entering a second unpretentious lobby serving three venues: a 474-seat recital hall, a theater seating 105, and a 185-seat black-box theater.

These cluster near the southern entrance, which faces the city, intended as an explicit gesture of gown meeting town. The university hopes performances will draw in residents of bedraggled south Chicago neighborhoods who have historically felt ignored.

The building’s tower, which Tsien calls “the castle,” has the academic sobriety of the university’s 1920s college-Gothic style, signaling the importance of arts at an institution better known for economics and sciences. Williams and Tsien have distributed dance studios, music-practice rooms and classrooms so that people from different disciplines cannot help crossing paths.

Tower’s Crown

A top-floor wood-paneled room with a gorgeous corner window crowns the tower -- a tall and lovely destination for intimate recitals and gatherings.

One way people meet each other is descending the most beautiful fire stairs you are ever likely to see. Cast in austere pebbly concrete interrupted with railings in translucent glass, cavelike staircases lead to skinny landings where bands of sunlight slant through tall shafts of space. Split-level views open into two floors at once.

In those stairs you find the contemporary take on a traditional palette that has always distinguished these architects’ work. There’s a feel for the innate beauty of materials and an ethereal manipulation of space and light.

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects has won the American Institute of Architects’ 2013 Architecture Firm Award.

Kahn Acolytes

I think of them as the last acolytes of Louis I. Kahn, who saw his job as revealing what space or materials innately were, rather than willing bricks to do something acrobatic.

At Logan, Williams and Tsien are more easygoing than Kahn would ever be, accommodating every aspiration, no matter the price in coherence. Architecture gets out of the way in the warehouse; in the tower, assertiveness takes over.

This frustrates the side of me that looks for a singular aesthetic mission.

In a conversation in their office at the southern edge of Manhattan’s Central Park, they said they had learned not to overdetermine their designs.

The Logan’s ambivalence may prove to be its secret weapon: inviting students and teachers to make it their own.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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