Interview: Steve Wiesenthal, University of Chicago Campus Architect (2014)

 

with Stanley Collyer

 

aerialcollage

Finalists clockwise from top left: Studio Gang, Perkins and Will, Hopkins Architects, BIG

 

COMPETITIONS: Based on past and recent history, the University of Chicago seems to be concentrating on exceptional design. Just being in Chicago might be one reason; but you have instituted a competitive design process. How did this come about?

 

STEVE WIESENTHAL: For every project we undertake, we do an in-depth analysis about the best delivery process, the types of architects we think might be best for those types of projects, and, in the case of the residence hall—which is not just a residence hall, but dining commons, some class rooms, and some other community-type spaces—we had a pretty good idea programmatically what we wanted. The site is on the edge of campus and had on it a 1962 residence hall that was pretty much a fortress up against the surrounding community in Hyde Park. At the primary intersection of campus and community, there was a loading dock and a giant brick wall. We saw this site as an opportunity to dramatically change the relationship between campus and community and thought that what we really wanted to find in the architectural community was ideas that would create the best college housing experience for our students and layer onto that this notion that it would completely change the experience for everybody else on the campus. It’s a big site; we actually expanded it. We incorporated what had been a practice field for our athletic program. The idea was that we create a whole new quadrangle for the campus.

Again, I don’t think I would do a design competition for a high performance physical sciences laboratory building where you want to generate the program and design in parallel. The fact that we had a clear program and high aspirations for the urban plan of this, suggested approaching architects in a competition mode.

 

 

COMPETITIONS: How was the University of Chicago Residence Hall competition organized? Did you send out an Expression of Interest?

 

 

SW: We reached out to about 20 architecture firms and invited seven for interviews. From the first round of interviews, we invited four back to submit designs. I have been opposed to competitions as a way to select architects for projects, because there is always that risk of getting wowed by something that knocks your socks off, but really hasn’t benefitted from the collaborative effort of architect-client and many others in the process. So we organized this in a completely different way—much more interaction between the client side and the four teams, individually and collectively, than you typically would see in a competition where the teams are selected, given a brief, and then go off on their own and develop ideas. We visited each of the teams several times during the process, visited works that each of them had built, and then had a series of meetings, on campus as well, and kept our program manager, Hanbury Evans, engaged throughout.

 

 

COMPETITIONS: So this is what many would call a two-stage competition, after the selection of the architects, lots of feedback, back and forth.

 

 

SW: It actually became a third stage, when from the initial four presentations—it was amazing how many great ideas were in all of them—our selection committee felt that two in particular were most applicable and most directly met what we could imagine what would be the most successful projects for this site. It was fascinating how each one came up with such different approaches to this site. This was one of those situations where I wish we could have built all four. The final two were Perkins and Will and Studio Gang. We went international, and the two Chicago-based teams seemed to get in a powerful way how their proposal for the site for multiple real and imagined constituencies would work. It wasn’t that the building became subservient to the urban plan; but it worked more in a balance. As brilliant as the BIG and Hopkins designs were in their own right, they tended to be more inward-focused, prioritizing the student resident experience over the general public experience. In the end, it was the urban plan that drove us to the two finalists.

 

COMPETITIONS: How do you manage a shortlist phase of the competition? Who makes up the committee—colleagues here at the University? Is there an outside consultant involved?

 

SW: We manage it here, and that is one of my primary responsibilities as University Architect. But I consult widely, and I’ll reach out to other university architects about prior experiences or ideas sharing the concept of selecting. Despite the fact that the University of Chicago doesn’t have a school of architecture; by virtue of being in the city of Chicago, everybody here is passionate about architecture and following what is going on. So we have faculty representation on all of our committees, and we ask some for ideas as well. We also have trustees involved.

 

COMPETITIONS: Are any of the latter architects?

 

SW: No. I had that at the University of California, and that can be a blessing and a curse. We don’t have practicing architects as trustees, but trustees who, as civic leaders with other cultural institutions, are very much engaged in the ongoing development of the City of Chicago, as well as other cities they may come from. We manage the process in a consultative way, both within the profession and interested stakeholders in university projects.

 

COMPETITIONS: How many sessions would you normally say it would require to arrive at a shortlist?

 

SW: To get that first list down from 20 to seven or eight, I think we had two to three internal meetings; then we had interviews over a series of a couple of days. At the end of those two days, we decided who the final four would be.

 

COMPETITIONS: How about the level of compensation?

 

SW: Yes. It was $200,000 for the final four, and then we added to that for the last two. I wanted to make sure that competitions are the right way to select, for we all know that stipends often don’t cover everything. Are you aware of competitions where that has been the case?

 

COMPETITIONS: It is normally the exception that costs are covered. But there was recently one in Australia, the Gold Coast Competition, where the stipend was AD250,000, and Michael Sorkin, one of the jurors, told me that the feedback he got was that it did come close to covering expenses of the finalists.

 

COMPETITIONS: Was there much evaluation of the proposals along the way in the budget area?

 

SW: A key point. Not only did we do this as a design competition, we were challenged to come up with a way to implement this project for 10% less than we internally estimated that it would cost in a year earlier, to be able to house students in the fall of 2016. And we had forecasted it to be a year longer than that. So we indentified contractors as well at the outset. There were ten contractors that we reached out to, and I don’t believe in forced marriages. So what we did was share the list of contractors with the list of architects and encouraged them to form teams. Some of the architects proposed with contractors that were not on the list, and I don’t think that there were any that went the other direction. So this was contractually a design-build delivery method with the contractor in the lead. But we were looking for them to collaborate from the very beginning to both keep a handle on the budget, as well as magnitude. Mortensen with Studio Gang won the project.

 

COMPETITIONS: One of the stated reasons for this project was to draw upperclassmen back onto the campus. Any feedback on that?

 

SW: We had a student on our steering committee for this project, and we have solicited student feedback throughout. The sense is that we are going to be successful in that regard. The program was designed to create the types of singles, doubles, triples pods, location of study spaces, student hubs—the kinds of amenities that can help the transition from the first year through upper class in terms of transition towards increasing independence. The idea is that we have college houses of roughly 100 students each that have a mix of people throughout in the undergraduate program.

 

COMPETITIONS: You have laypersons on the committee, and there is usually a learning curve involved. So how do you avoid this from becoming a simple beauty contest?

 

SW: Part of the answer is: who the laypeople are and what their experience is, and part of this is education throughout the process. Also it’s about giving the architects a consistent framework for how to present and what to present so nobody wins by having a slick video, flyover, or that sort of thing. But really it’s the ideas we are trying to suss out and present them in a way where everyone is required to do the same number and types of renderings, plans, etc. We are trying to remove as a variable the element of showmanship in the presentation. We are letting the steering committee know we are doing that and to really be paying attention to the ideas represented and imagining the translation to who we are and what’s best for the University of Chicago. Frankly, here we are talking about a committee of highly educated people who get that right away.