Lighting the Brutalist

Remake of Lincoln Hall, on UIC’s campus, is complete

12/16/2009 10:00 PM


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On the left, Douglas Hall demonstrates UIC campus designer Walter Netsch’s original vision. Lincoln Hall, on the right, has been transformed.

Lincoln Hall

A cluster of three buildings near the center of the University of Illinois-Chicago campus showcases the school’s architectural patrimony and hints, perhaps, at its aesthetic future.

Rendered in the Brutalist style by architect and campus designer Walter Netsch in the late 1960s, Douglas Hall will be familiar to anyone who’s passed by or walked through UIC. There are exposed concrete columns and tinted windows recessed behind them, thin slits that are angular and dark.

Inside, the predominant colors are gray, black, tan and brown.

Lincoln Hall, immediately south of Douglas, however, now sports classrooms walls painted a flinty red and light blue.

The building has been clad in a new glass-wall exterior, opening up the building to views from the outside. On days when classes are in session, a bustle of students and professors can be seen.

UIC completed the $13.7 million remake of Lincoln Hall in time for the recently completed fall semester. Grant Hall, just north of Lincoln, was the first of the low-slung three story buildings the school remade, and Douglas, too, will eventually undergo the same transformation.

Dave Taeyaerts, director of the school’s office of campus learning environments, said the school wants to respect Netsch’s original approach. But he acknowledged buildings are missing simple things like furniture, varying color schemes and natural lighting.

Lighting, for one, can actually improve academic performance, Taeyaerts said.

“What they didn’t know back in the late 1960s was how important natural lights and views are to learning,” he said.

Lincoln now offers an automated system which regulates the artificial lights, lowering them if enough natural sun is streaming into the building.

Lincoln Hall’s square footage was expanded in the remake, as the new glass curtain pushed out and around Netsch’s bare concrete columns.

Equally important was how interior spaces were recreated with a nod to how — and where — learning actually takes place.

Adjacent to Lincoln’s front entrance is a lounge area. There’s a half-oval brown couch, tall stools with circular tables and lights dangling from overhead.

Students, said Wendy Wagoner, who works in the campus environment office with Taeyaerts, are familiar with a multi-tasking, Starbucks-like atmosphere — thus the cafe-style front in the new Lincoln.

“They want to be able to sit down anywhere but be able to connect to wireless and be comfortable and do a variety of tasks,” she said.

In the hallways outside of classrooms, Wagoner installed wooden desks and computer stations, creating places for discussions, talk or computer work.

“We have them on all levels of the building. The idea is if you’re waiting for a class to start, or just coming out of a class, you don’t want to lose that idea, that connection, that cognitive flow,” Taeyaerts said.

If you have to rush down the stairs to a coffee shop, it could be too late: “By then you’ve lost your idea.”

Dan Wheeler, who teaches in UIC’s architecture program, commended the rehab of Lincoln, saying he liked the increase of natural light and the nod maintaining Netsch’s exposed concrete columns.

Other buildings on campus that clearly demonstrate the Netsch “bravado,” like University Hall, should be maintained, Wheeler argued.

“There are others that can be transformed,” he said.

Freshman Christopher Jefferson, a kinesiology student, was tapping away at a keyboard in one of Lincoln Hall’s informal spaces outside of a third-floor classroom near the end of the fall semester.

Jefferson noticed a big difference between Lincoln and nearby Douglas Hall.

“It’s sort of cramped,” he said of the latter building. “It seems dark all over.”


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