“A stone dropped in a pond of water,” was the metaphor architect Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) used to describe the design for the new University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UICC) campus.  Netsch proposed the campus be built in the Brutalist style, which featured the primary construction materials of concrete, Minnesota granite, and brick.  Netsch’s metaphor was used to organize the campus buildings by function on each ring out from the campus core.

At the campus core was The Circle Forum, a Greek-styled amphitheater built for plays, assemblies and concerts.  Around the Forum in the first ring was the Lecture Center, a series of six buildings designed with large classrooms and lecture halls. The roofs of these buildings made up The Great Court, a modern reimaging of the campus quad in granite and concrete that included four excedras that could be used for outdoor classes, smaller gatherings, studying or relaxing.  In the next ring were the classroom clusters anchored by two main student buildings, namely the Library (currently, Richard J. Daley Library) and the student union (Chicago Circle Center, and currently, Student Center East).  Still farther from the center were offices and laboratories, and on the farthest ring were the athletic fields.

While Netsch was the lead architect on the project for SOM, he did not directly design all Circle campus buildings.  C.F. Murphy designed the Chicago Circle Center while also designing the Illini Union (currently, Student Center West) for the University of Illinois at the Medical Center (currently, west side of campus), both built in 1964.  Harry Weese designed the Physical Education Building and the Education and Communications Building (currently, Education, Theatre, Music, and Social Work) for Phase Three.

Netsch’s design for Circle Campus won a number of prestigious awards, becoming a nationally known model for other “instant” campuses to be built in the 1960s and 70s.  There were, however, some serious problems once the campus was built.  The brick walls and fences surrounding the campus further separated it from the neighborhood, leading to its nickname “Fortress Illini.”  Many students and faculty found the concrete harsh and alienating.  Water from rain and snow dripped from The Great Court and walkways onto the ground-level walkways, often for quite some time after a weather event had passed.  Some of The Great Court’s granite blocks shifted, leaving dangerous tripping hazards that eventually forced this space to be closed.  When enrollment only reached 18,000 students instead of the projected 32,000 students, the walkways became superfluous, maintenance declined, and they slowly crumbled.  The Great Court, The Circle Forum, and the eleveated walkways were demolished during the 1990s in an effort to revitalize the campus core, but at the expense of Netsch’s original vision.

For more, see these UIC ARCHIVES collections:

  • 086 Photograph Subject File
  • 002-00-04 100 Years of Campus Architecture at the University of Illinois
  • 002-02-04-00-12 Use of Campus Space and Time by Undergraduate Students at Chicago Circle, 1970
  • 0046-11-20-02 William G. Jones Papers, 2005
  • 003-00-12 Chicago Circle Campus Annual Report, 1964-65 – 1969-70
  • 060-00-04 A Brief History of Chicago Circle Physical Development, 1976
  • 060-02-00-02 Assorted Reports on Space Needs at UICC, 1959-1985
  • 061-01-05 Architectural Renderings, c. 1965-1966
  • 003-23-00-01 The Historic Netsch Campus at UIC, 2008
  • 000-00-18 Walking About UIC: Reading Urban Texts. 1999
  • 070-00-01 Chicago Illini (student newspaper)
  • 003-21-02 Office of the UIC Historian — Research and Administrative Records

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