Tower of power: A look at UofC's new Logan Center for the Arts

October 9, 2012

Some of the best collegiate architecture in the country is going on right now at the University of Chicago. The gray lady of Hyde Park has welcomed visually-exciting new buildings such as the domed Mansueto Library and the glassy, near-steampunk chiller plant on its south campus.

The streak continues with the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the new 184,000 sq. ft. home of the university's visual arts and theater programs. The $114 million facility has classrooms, performance spaces, theaters and more, and is punctuated by a remarkable 11-story tower that erupts from the southern edge of the Midway Plaisance at 60th and Drexel.
 
The center is the work of the noted New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, which won a 2007 design competition for the commission. Williams and Tsien, a husband-and-wife team who are in town for the building's formal launch this week, said the Logan's form was inspired by the silos and skyscrapers rising from the flat Midwestern prairie.
 
"Tod talks about the [Logan's] vertical building as being the silo and the horizontal building as being the plains," Tsien said. "But of course the vertical building is the tradition in Chicago. So we are also referring back to the city."
 
"The great thing about the Midwest — and I also come from the Midwest — is that there are these vast horizontal expanses and there are these amazing towers, whether it's the silos or the towers of Chicago," Williams said. "So that was the basic idea. And the idea of a tower of the arts — it's not just a silo that holds one thing. It holds lots of different kinds of life."
 
The Logan Center has much to say besides the tower, though. There are common spaces, nooks and plazas inside and outside the building designed to foster the gathering of students and staff. And disciplines aren't segregated within the building, "so that it would mix kids who would be practicing the piano with kids who would be putting on a play, with kids who would be doing dance," Tsien said. "That would get a sort of synergy happening with the faculty and with the students."
 
On the exterior, the building is alive with angles and corners. Pieces shift and jut with the grace of a dancer or the precision of a musical movement. The building sits next to the late sculptor Lorado Taft's former Midway Studios, which later became the longtime home of the university's Visual Arts program. The studios' modernist addition, designed by architect Edward Dart, was demolished in 2009 to make way for the Logan.
 
The photo below shows a striking and rather unexpected interior courtyard — fully accessible from 60th Street — on the backside of the tower. The open skybridge links the north and south sides of the building, as does the a glass-walled hall on the main floor that overlooks the space. Construction is nearly complete on a cafe that will feature outdoor seating on a portion of the plaza behind this view:
Williams said he and Tsien wanted "big windows that opened up to the outdoors." They got their wish, as the next image from the tower's upper reaches indicates. Here, floor-to-ceiling windows show off the Hyde Park skyline and a bit of the lake. And the windows can be manually rolled aside for an even better view:
The views to the south are also good, marking one of the Logan's most noteworthy assets: Though the complex faces north, it does not turn its back to the Woodlawn community to the south. There are south-facing windows on the tower and the center has a secondary entrance on the south end of the building that feels more like a main entrance than a backk door. Loading docks and service entries are on the western side of the center, rather than the back.
 
"So we're trying to address the north of Chicago and life to the south of Chicago," said Williams, seen in the photo below with Tsien. "And they can come together in this building."
The building is clad in Missouri-quarried limestone that has been cut in the shape of long rectangular bricks —visually similar to the Roman brick used by Prairie School architects a century ago. The stone has slight variations in color which gives the building, especially its tower, a sharper and more textured read that if it has been designed in, say, concrete.
 
"One one hand, we wanted to relate to the limestone buildings of the University of Chicago campus because that's what you sort of think of  — these neo-Gothic buildings that are limestone," Tsien said. "At the same time, we wanted to say 'We're on the other side of the Plaisance. We are a new building." 
 
The center was named for its benefactor, philanthropist and University of Chicago alum David S. Logan and his wife, Reva. The Logans donated $35 million of the center's cost. David Logan died last year at 93.