Modernist campus meets high-performance design
By David Vanderhoff
October 29, 2015
When Chicago architecture firm Valerio Dewalt Train Associates took on the renovation of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) largest lecture hall, it found a project of surprising complexity. Collaborating with Arup’s local office, it transformed Lecture Center A1 from a striking but problematic modernist room into a first-class 21st century learning environment.
Engaging with a complex legacy
Built in the 1960s to meet the growing demand for a public college in Chicago, the UIC campus was a highly progressive architectural project. Its designer, SOM’s Walter Netsch, aimed to create a radical new model for the urban university.
Constructed in concrete, granite, and brick, Netsch’s campus expressed a strong, unified vision. Lecture halls and laboratories radiated outward from a central forum modeled on a classical Greek amphitheater. Elevated walkways connected the buildings with vast ribbons of concrete designed to accommodate the foot traffic of a projected 32,000 incoming students.
Initially hailed as a revolutionary achievement, the design fell out of favor in the coming decades.
A new start
In recent years, the university has made major investments in its campus. In 2011, it hired Valerio Dewalt Train Associates to renovate Lecture Center A1. Their intent: transform it into a showcase venue that could be used for everything from large classes to high-profile speaking events.
For the design team, building on UIC’s history was critical. “The original campus design by Walter Netsch of SOM is at the heart of this whole project,” explained Valerio Dewalt Train Associate principal Randall Mattheis. “For all the design misses, there were very interesting things done. We wanted to engage with this architecture that has a certain amount of legacy.”
Redesigning for high performance
The lecture hall had been a difficult space for students and faculty alike.
“The architecture of the room is aesthetically interesting, but the space doesn’t meet the performance criteria of a good lecture hall,” Mattheis said. “It’s got this really strong geometry, it’s got a strong materiality, but it has some big performance gaps.”
The design team interviewed faculty members who regularly lecture there to understand how it could better serve their teaching needs. One common complaint: the acoustics. The hard surfaces and open brick walls of Netsch’s design created a less-than-ideal sonic environment with poor speech intelligibility. “It quickly became an echo chamber when you tried to listen to a lecture,” said Arup’s Ryan Biziorek, the lead acoustic and audiovisual designer for the project.
Improving cross-room communication was a priority. Teaching styles have evolved since the building was first designed: the traditional lecture — a single instructor holding forth to a captive audience — is giving way to varied, dynamic approaches. Faculty members wanting to engage students in discussion in the existing space were frustrated by muffled sound. According to Biziorek, “it was hard for a student on one side of the room to hear and understand what a student on the other side of the room was saying.”
The project team tested a series of potential designs, searching for the right balance of aesthetics and performance.
Valerio Dewalt Train Associates constructed a 3-D Revit model early in the process, allowing for sophisticated digital analysis early on. Working with the performance criteria outlined by Biziorek’s group, they developed several design options.
Arup then used a proprietary 3-D acoustic analysis tool that enabled them to inform both the sonic and architectural design by clarifying the relationship between the two. Its visual interface allowed the designers and client to understand how the sound would propagate through the space with different ceilings and wall shapes.
They considered many design iterations before selecting a solution, Mattheis said. “Some of these worked well architecturally, some of them worked well acoustically, and a few were effective for both. The modeling allowed us to make informed choices between several good options.”
The group paid particular attention to the ceiling’s striking geometry, a highlight of Netsch’s room. Although the original design included some acoustic panels, their configuration didn’t lend itself to meeting the faculty’s needs.
Lighting was another concern. For decades, the only way to change bulbs had been to erect scaffolding. Because of the cumbersome and expensive nature of this process, the school allowed many lamps to sit dark, undertaking replacement only once every three years.
Following an extensive investigation, the architects and engineers developed a design that dropped the acoustic panels and light fixtures below the structural beams while referencing the original lines. That way, said Biziorek, “we could get larger planes that directed the sound where we wanted it to go and wouldn’t be altered over time when items on the ceiling were serviced. Our analysis made the advantages of these larger planes clear.”
The walls were another key area of focus. The perforated brick in the original room acted as a tuned low-frequency absorber, reducing speech intelligibility.
The new design placed additional acoustic treatment throughout the room to reduce reverberation, making it easier for students and lecturers to communicate.
Form and function
The result: a top-flight learning facility that reconciles the bold vision of its original designer with the changing demands of a 21st century campus.
“In the end,” said Mattheis, “we developed a formal strategy for the room that respected the power of the original aesthetics. We built upon the essential elements, enhanced them with new visual focus, and delivered a room that looks and sounds great.”