November 12, 2009

To understand how Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed the elegant tower, workshops, and performance spaces for the Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, it helps to know that for 35 years they lived and worked on the top floor of Carnegie Hall.

The iconic performance center in New York contained many artists’ studios and homes, creating an arts community that exposed the renowned husband-and-wife architectural team to new ideas and influences. And that’s precisely the effect that University of Chicago artists hope to achieve with the new design for the Logan Arts Center that Williams and Tsien unveiled at a Nov. 10 reception.

Talking to a packed house at the Law School, the couple hosted an intimate tour describing how the 11-story tower and adjoining collection of studios and theaters will act as a “mixing bowl of the arts” and a beacon for artists around the world. The center will be a living bridge between arts theory and practice, using innovative design to foster artistic experimentation and multidisciplinary inquiry.

“We loved the idea of making a tower of the arts like the tower where we lived,” Williams says. “The vibrancy of the students and teachers is already here. We want to give them beautiful light and air and spaces that will be used and loved and changed for 150 years.”

The striking plans create 170,000 square feet of space designed to facilitate chance encounters and interactions. For example, studios for painting and sculpture will be next door to spaces for theater set design and construction, opening new opportunities for collaboration and insight. In the building’s 156-foot tower, classroom space will adjoin music practice rooms and performance studios, with a large “performance penthouse” at the top level.

The mingling of disciplines means that writers can draw inspiration from painters, and dancers and photographers can find common ground to discuss their art.

“This center will give us possibilities for continual exchange among fields,” says Larry Norman, Deputy Provost for the Arts. “We see it as a place for research, debate, and critique as well as for art making, performance, and exhibition.”

Engaging Conversation with Campus

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects was selected to create the arts center in 2007, following a design competition that attracted proposals from some of the world’s leading architectural firms. Other art spaces the acclaimed team has designed include the American Folk Art Museum and Lincoln Center’s Harmony Atrium, both in New York.

“Tod and Billie are known for meticulous attention to detail and the craft of building,” says Steve Wiesenthal, University Architect and Associate Vice President for Facilities Services. “They’re interested in winnowing a design to its essence. That is what they excel at.”

Located on the historic Midway Plaisance at 60th Street and Ingleside Avenue, the arts center is intended to rise from the landscape like a silo, with a”field“of low-lying buildings below. Williams says he wanted to take advantage of the Midway’s”outdoor room,“bordered to the north by the University’s neo-gothic spires. As the first prominent tower on South Campus, the Logan Arts Center will echo the northern towers in updated form, a beacon of light to draw in campus artists and the local community.

“The tower is intentionally set forward on the site as a way to engage conversation with the campus,” Williams says.

Influences for the center range from the nearby Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright to the architect Albert Kahn’s Highland Park Ford Plant in Michigan, Williams and Tsien say. The latter building helped inspire the sawtooth roof that will let natural light into spaces slated for working shops and artists’ studios.

Throughout the facility, the architects are using environmentally sustainable techniques, including a green roof, a rooftop design that could eventually accommodate solar panels, and locally sourced materials such as limestone from Indiana and Wisconsin. By excluding a third elevator in the tower design, the architects also are encouraging people to use its wide staircase, hoping that will spur conversation among artists of different media.

A Model for Arts at an Urban University

The facility is named for UChicago alumni Reva and David Logan and their family, who gave the University a $35 million gift, one of the largest gifts to support a university arts building in the United States. The total project cost is $114 million. The groundbreaking will take place in the spring, and the building is scheduled to open in spring 2012.

William Michel, recently named the Executive Director of the Logan Arts Center and currently the University’s Assistant Vice President for Student Life, says the new arts center will create a nationwide model of what it means to support the arts at an urban university.

“This has always been a place where artists bring critical and analytical skills to bear on their art,” Michel says. “The new center will create an environment that supports our students and faculty as they engage in critical practice with each other and in partnership with the arts community on the South Side and throughout Chicago."

John Boyer, Dean of the College, says the center will help visually define the Midway as the central pathway of the university, not as a boundary or border. Boyer, a historian who has written about the history of the arts at UChicago, says most students come to campus with an interest in one or more art forms, and so many of the faculty use film, drama, and creative writing as elements of teaching. Classrooms in the new center will draw programs from around the University, not only the arts, officials say.

“I think there will be an explosion of arts activity,” Boyer says.

Brittany Little, a history major who serves on a student advisory committee for the new center, says prospective students will be “blown away” by the center’s design—and by what will happen inside.

“I’m so excited for the students who don’t even know what’s going to hit them,” Little says. “This proves we can be creative and have the Life of the Mind.”

By Jeremy Manier and Lisa Pevtzow


Logan Arts Center Design Unveiling- Highlights