The University of Chicago, Law School – Reflecting Pool

Designers: Eero Saarinen, Wolff Landscape Architecture, NHDKMP, Delta Fountains, OWP/P | City: Chicago, IL | Project Type: fountain, modernist
Date Visited: 10.24.12

Location: East 60th Street Chicago, IL 60637
Size: 13,050 sq. ft pool
Cost: $2.5 million
Official Opening Date: June 2008

The University of Chicago Law School wasn’t on my radar until I read that the Illinois ASLA Chapter awarded Wolff Landscape Architecture with a 2009 President’s Award for the redesign of its reflecting pool. It’s a good thing I came across this redesign and decided to visit because while the reflecting pool is impressive in itself, the UC Law School building is also a historic, modernist masterpiece.

In 1956, the famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen–who you may remember from my St. Louis trip–designed a modernist expansion of the University of Chicago Law School, mostly to house the ever-growing library collection.

Saarinen’s Design. Image Credit: storage.lib.uchicago.edu

Made of glass, stone and steel, Saarinen’s modernist building was planned with four wings and an outdoor reflecting pool and designed to complement, rather than compete, with the formal beauty of the nineteenth-century gothic buildings across the Midway. The centerpiece became the six-story, glass-enclosed library, which from the outside, looks like a giant glass cube.

Years later, however, it became clear that the building, as well as the reflecting pool, needed to undergo renovations. Though beautiful, the building was cited for faults, “including 7 foot, 6 inch ceilings in the library tower (fine for book stacks oppressive for people), lack of structural flexibility, and a spartan interior that seemed more suited to moving passengers through an airline terminal than encouraging students and faculty to stop and chat.” The outdoor reflecting pool required “nearly constant maintenance in the warmer months…[and] was more of an eyesore than an attraction” in the winter time.

For the recent renovations, UC Law School hired OWP/P as the lead architects and Wolff Landscape Architecture for the redesign of the reflecting pool. The result was a success that’s been met with numerous awards praising the designers for staying respectful of Saarinen’s original modernist design, whilst meeting program requirements for expansion.

As for the outdoor reflecting pool and courtyard, Wolff was able to retain the beauty of the modern classic while improving upon its foundations; by converting the pool into a zero-depth reflecting pool inlaid with black granite pavers, over which a quarter-thin sheet of water flowed, the pool became a work of art that mirrored the sky, clouds and D’Angelo Law Library. The new pool was also designed so that it would be attractive year-round. When the water is drained in winter, instead of turning into an unattractive, empty basin as it did in the original design, the new zero-depth pool would simply transform into a black granite plaza.

Wolff’s design also kept intact the original Pevsner statue.

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