By Tal Kopan
Photos by by Lloyd DeGrane

I think looking at buildings is a basic skill. We all use them—they’re a fundamental part of the visual environment, and they have an effect on our well-being."”
—Katherine Taylor

Many University students hurry through the Quadrangles to class, sweeping into Cobb Hall on autopilot. But a Spring Quarter Core course offered in Art History through the Chicago Studies program allowed students to stop and look around, as the classroom moved outdoors.

Instead of close readings of Marx and Durkheim, they analyzed the University’s architecture, focusing on buildings such as Cobb that line the University’s Quadrangles. Katherine Taylor, Associate Professor in Art History and the College, taught “The University of Chicago Campus,” which opened students’ eyes to their physical environment.

The Chicago Studies program allows students to engage with the City of Chicago. Offerings in the upcoming school year range from an intensive study of Chicago blues to the history of Chicago film to an introduction to Black Chicago.

‘An excuse to prowl’

Though she partly created “The University of Chicago Campus” as “an excuse to prowl and explore,” Taylor wanted students to engage analytically with their everyday surroundings.

“I think looking at buildings is a basic skill,” Taylor said. “We all use them—they’re a fundamental part of the visual environment, and they have an effect on our well-being—but I think that people don’t normally reflect on them very systematically.”

The class was encouraged to reflect on the University’s architecture throughout its history.

“Understanding a building’s historical environment is necessary if you want to talk about it,” says third-year Eric Mayer, who learned architectural terms to write about the subject more thoroughly.

Building a history

In studying the campus’ history, students analyzed everything from the original Gothic Quadrangles to plans for the future, observing how architectural concepts change. Third-year Kayla Higgins was surprised that Ida Noyes Hall was originally designed for women, and the Reynolds Club [part of Hutchinson Commons, the current center of student services on campus] was intended for men.

“I had no idea Ida Noyes Hall was supposed to be the women’s equivalent of Hutch,” she said. “A lot of the murals, especially on the top floor, speak to the old ideals for the collegiate woman, like gracefulness and strength. And it’s interesting that the Max Palevsky Cinema, home to Doc Films, was originally a women’s gym with a spectators’ gallery.”

Architectural eccentricities

“I really liked reading some of the architects’ manifestos because a lot of these characters are really eccentric,” says Higgins. “Adolf Loos hated all sorts of ornamentation and wrote that it was a sign that a society was corrupt and going to Hell. [Eero] Saarinen, on the other hand, advocated creating a relationship between the original Gothic buildings and modernist ones (when he added to the University in the 1950s). He rejected the approach what Mies van der Rohe would soon take with the School of Social Service Administration building, because Mies’ modern design really distanced itself from the buildings across the Midway.”

While Loos did not design any campus buildings, Saarinen, designer of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, was the architect of the Law School’s Laird Bell Quadrangle.

“Saarinen worked as a master planner for the University,” said Taylor, who is fond of Saarinen’s work. “In doing so, he got really interested in urban planning and how buildings should relate to what’s around them, and that was kind of new at the time.”

Art is all around

The students acknowledged that the lessons changed their view of the world.

“I still have my idealistic notions of helping everyone get along, and it seems like the built environment is one of the mediums you can use to help make that happen,” Mayer said. “I’ve been thinking about starting an RSO (Registered Student Organization) that would plant a community garden in one of the vacant lots at 63rd street. My inspiration for the idea stems from this class.”

Anna Lunn, AB ’08, says the class was valuable and the perfect conclusion to her education at Chicago.

“Art doesn’t have to be something you see only in a museum. It’s all around you to appreciate,” she says. “This class has helped me be more aware of the artistic forms around me and how I interact with them.”

Originally published on September 15, 2008.