Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Brutalist Reliquary

The now demolished last of the second level pedestrian bridges that once connected all of the University of Illinois Chicago campus. (Photo by Matthew Messner) 

Walter Netsch's University of Illinois Chicago campus is everything a Brutalist project should be.  Even in its incomplete form the campus represents one of the most complete, and complex, examples of modernist field theory, rendered in concrete.  Time has not been kind to Netsch's UIC, and the campus  is being reshaped by additions, renovations, and demolition.  Like the ruins of Rome, the campus will eventually be all but completely consumed, leaving only a trace of its original grandeur.

Formerly known as the Circle Campus, named for the Circle freeway interchange just to the northwest, elevated “Pedestrian Expressways” once crisscrossed the campus tying the buildings into a field of  concrete suspended as the canopy of  Netsch's “Urban Tree” columns.  The center of the campus even  had its own interchange in the form of the Circle Forum Amphitheater.  Each major building was an ever more ambitious field theory experiment, as rotating geometries intersected into labyrinthine masses.  

Much of the campus was never finished.  The School of Architecture was only 40% constructed and the library is missing its wings.  As if to ensure that Brutalism can never strike again, new structures have been erected preventing the completion of the original design or rebuilding impossible.  The epic elevated walkways were demolish in the 90s, their material cast into Lake Michigan to produce a new reef.  This is just as well.  

In time the few remaining aspects will only hint at what once was.  Moments of confusing clarity will pop up in places where bridges go to nowhere and stairs lead into walls.  No longer will it be clear why these things happen.  Whether from an uncompleted building or a dismantled one, it will not matter.  Once the remaining artifacts achieve a level of “archaeological” abstraction we will be able to remember the campus as it should have been, if not how it actually was.