The University of Chicago’s Law School campus, designed in 1958 by Eero Saarinen, is a quintessential piece of mid-Century Modern architecture. In 15 years of working with the Law School and the university, OWP/P | Cannon Design respected the functional and Modernist aesthetic and built upon the strength of Saarinen’s original design with numerous renovations and additions. The redesign modernized and enhanced spaces to improve the quality of the student experience, better support 21st century learning methodologies and completely replace and upgrade the campus’ infrastructure to improve energy efficiency and technology. Ultimately in rehabilitating and recapitalizing the campus, OWP/P /Cannon Design served as stewards to Saarinen’s architectural vision for this prestigious law school.
Elevating the Student Experience
Throughout renovations of classroom, auditorium, lounge, and library environments the various deans of the law school understood the importance of elevating the student experience. Often previously perceived as a cold, somewhat sterile setting indicative of many mid-Century Modernist buildings, the goal of making these spaces feel engaging and expressing the highest level of quality was essential.
Within the classroom wing, a new concourse was created to provide supporting learning spaces just outside seminar rooms and provide accessibility to all. Acoustical wood panels were incorporated to enhance the acoustics and aesthetic quality of the spaces and create a sense of warmth. The auditorium was transformed into a more flexible, accessible space that now also serves as a large classroom with custom wood/upholstered seating with power/data access, writing surfaces, microphones for interaction, and one of favorite student features, cup holders.
Within the library, the student services offices were integrated into a single suite to provide students a single point to access all administrative resources needed during their term in law school, thus streamlining the student’s experience. This space was made accessible by means of a new stair within the reading room, which acts as a centerpiece for student circulation and activity. By relocating up to 30 percent of the book collection to an automated robotic retrieval book system on campus, the library gained significant area to support various student study spaces including, private carrels, quiet individual/team conference rooms, open collaborative custom study tables, lounge setting, and a media lounge.
Faculty offices integrated along the perimeter of the library floors were enhanced and revised to provide natural light into the library spaces throughout. Wayfinding elements, info kiosks and supporting technology access were imbibed throughout to ensure students were always connected and engaged. Student Journal spaces were consolidated to provide one collaborative environment with a “red zone” to encourage debate and socialization.
Changes to the Learning Environment
In the past 50 years, learning and teaching methods have changed radically and the spaces needed to support 21st century learning methodologies and address the more Socratic learning style integral to the law school. Classrooms were reconfigured to accommodate increased site lines between the students, integrate more comfortable, flexible seating to foster engagement, and the instructor is positioned closer to the students to increase interaction. Just outside classrooms and seminar room spaces have created opportunities for students to connect with each other to help support a more informal learning dynamic.
Similarly, throughout the entire campus, new informal and interactive spaces promote a rich, collaborative experience for students and faculty. The lounge at the heart of the complex, directly below the library tower, has flexible settings offering 24/7 opportunities for students and faculty to interact on both an academic and social context. As a means of maximizing value, a reading room space now transforms from a quiet study room to a faculty seminar space by means of sliding wood panels opening to a break area and mobile book islands being relocated to provide ultimate flexibility as a learning setting for all.
Updating Systems and Technology
The Law School’s buildings did not meet contemporary requirements for technology, building systems or energy efficiency. Composed of structurally poured-in-place concrete and single-paned glass, the mid-Century Modern buildings had poor thermal performance and were very inflexible. We provided new energy efficient mechanical systems with enhanced temperature controls and economizer functions. The design updated and installed new lighting systems with automated light controls utilizing timers and motions sensors to ensure efficiency, creating an anticipated reduction of cost of operations by nearly $0.80 per sq. ft. and maintenance costs by 20 percent. Modernizing the building’s systems improved energy performance and has increased user controllability. Ultimately, by renovating rather than building new, this recapitalization salvaged the structure of the notable buildings and key elements within, resulting in a sustainable response that addresses modern accessibility, systems, and energy efficiency requirements.
In the end, the University of Chicago Law School entrusted OWP/P / Cannon Design with the task of modernizing and reconfiguring spaces and systems while respecting the spirit and assets of the building’s intent. The newly recapitalized Saarinen structure creates a more humane, higher quality experience for students and offers a more effective, interactive learning environment, positioning the school for future success into the next century in a unique, Modernist space that inspires. All are proud of their recapitalized home.
A principal of the firm with more than 20 years of experience, Mark Hirons’ specialty lies in directing interior design for corporate environments. But it’s his ability to listen and thoughtfully respond to each client’s needs that really sets him apart. He has an ability to listen and thoughtfully translate each client’s needs into spaces that are meaningful and memorable, unique environments that exceed expectations. Mark’s clients include the University of Chicago, the University of Southern California, Herman Miller, United Airlines, and Office Max.