Text by Edward Keegan, AIA
Valerio Dewalt Train Associates’ Gordon Parks Arts Hall sails onto the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus like a 21st-century luxury liner: its block-long bulk carefully crafted with a sleek profile whose expression meshes with the surrounding buildings, while still illustrating compelling forms driven by ideas about architecture and education. The building anchors the northern end of a multibuilding subcampus that houses three of the four grade-based “units” that comprise the university’s pre-K–12 Laboratory Schools, which were founded by John Dewey as an experiment in pre-collegiate education.
Gordon Parks Arts Hall (GPAH) is the most recently completed portion of a comprehensive master plan for the Lab Schools that clocks in at more than 539,000 square feet, including new construction of an off-site early-learning center and renovation of the existing buildings (now nearing completion). Chicago-based Valerio Dewalt Train Associates’ (VDTA) principal Joseph Valerio, FAIA, clinched the commission for the plan in 2008, when he gave the school’s high-powered board a one-word answer for where to start their architectural explorations. “Research,” he said.
“Joe went into great depth, contacting futurists and educators,” says the school’s director emeritus David W. Magill. The result was a six-volume 2009 report called “Future of Education: Research.” The “Lab+” master plan positions GPAH as the principal new structure on the school’s two-city-block campus. The “front” door for the complex has always been Blaine Hall, which faces the Frederick Law Olmsted–designed Midway Plaisance. Gothic limestone-clad structures to the south, east, and west, added piecemeal since 1903, are an ensemble of dormered and gargoyled buildings that form a piece with the university’s larger campus, dubbed the “Gray City.” But the north end of the Lab Schools’ block always had a distinct role: Dewey built it at the outset, and conceived of its workshops as a “maker place.” “We saw the opportunity to honor this legacy by creating a building for the ‘makers’ of the 21st century,” Valerio says.
As a whole, the university (of which the Lab Schools are a part) has actively sought a more contemporary look to complement its older Gothic structures. Recent projects by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners (Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts), Rafael Viñoly Architects (Graduate School of Business), Diller Scofidio + Renfro (David M. Rubenstein Forum, in design), and Studio Gang (North Residence Hall and Dining Commons, under construction) all nod to this forward-looking initiative.
GPAH’s three-story plan is based on a double-loaded corridor, with the large spaces of the Assembly Hall—a 750-seat theater-in-the-round that sits just inside the entry—and the black box theater on the south side of the structure and learning spaces along the north. First- and second-floor teaching spaces are devoted to music, with the third floor set aside for arts and media. The theaters, which rise the full height of the building, are clad in a simple vertical metal panel system and face a courtyard and the Lab Schools’ 1962 International Style addition by Perkins+Will.
The building’s palette is quite simple, limited to five materials: an exposed concrete frame, a VS-1 glass curtainwall system, metal panels (used as a return on limestone faces), metal roof decking, and limestone (requested by the client) that matches the complex’s original Collegiate Gothic buildings. “We used limestone the least, but we wanted to get the most out of it,” Valerio says. And whether it’s the unusual pattern of three openings within the gabled entry façade or the vertical wall-mounted lighting throughout the corridors, seemingly random spacings are, in fact, based on the Fibonacci sequence: “We didn’t want a random pattern,” Valerio says. “It’s a hidden number sequence that kids could discover.”
VDTA’s six volumes of research on contemporary education revealed the importance of the classroom as the fundamental space for structured learning and the need to foster eye contact between teacher and student. These are central to the program, with a series of generous spaces along the north edge of the building. But the classroom’s pre-eminence doesn’t downgrade the role of less structured interactions. The team’s research notes that the most creative moments happen within the interstitial spaces.
Magill recalls that it was a conscious decision not to provide designed seating or otherwise structured spaces in the halls. “Kids will find these places, and then we can add accoutrements,” he says. Valerio is particularly pleased with the role the western fire stairs have begun to play. The egress stairs are tucked within a glass-enclosed gable that faces a limestone dormer in the 1904 Belfield Tower, creating a bright space that visually connects old and new, inside and outside—and draws groups of students between and after classes.
At Gordon Parks Arts Hall, VDTA has reconceived Gothic for the 21st century. “A Collegiate Gothic building doesn’t feel open and accessible,” Valerio says. But by drawing upon elements loosely derived from its Gray City environs, including Indiana limestone, gabled forms, solar chimneys that mimic high Gothic piers, and delicate glazing that accentuates the vertical, Valerio has crafted a structure that feels of its time and its place, and offers a road map for the integration of diverse—and functional—architectural forms.
Project: Gordon Parks Arts Hall, Chicago
Client: University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
Design Architect: Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, Chicago . Joseph Valerio, FAIA (design principal); Randall Mattheis, AIA (principal-in-charge); Sheri Andrews, AIA (project manager); Robert Webber, AIA (project architect); Steve Droll, AIA, Matt Gamache, AIA, Stephen Killion (project team)
Executive Architect: FGM Architects, Chicago . Joseph Chronister, AIA (principal-in-charge); Terrence Owens, AIA (project manager); Jack J. Krezel Jr., AIA (senior project architect); Anna Harvey, AIA, Michael Johnson (project architects); James Woods, AIA, (programmer/planner)
Mechanical Engineer: Arup
Structural Engineer: Rubinos & Mesia Engineers
Electrical Engineer: Primera Engineers
Civil Engineer: Environmental Design International
Geotechnical Engineer: Ground Engineering Consultants
General Contractor: Lendlease
Landscape Architect: Mikyoung Kim Design
Lighting Designer: Hugh Lighting Design
Sustainability Consultant: HJKessler Associates
Accessibility Consultant: LCM Architects
Theater Consultant: Schuler Shook
Acoustical/AV Consultant: Threshold Acoustics
Signage: Carol Naughton + Associates
Size: 90,000 square feet