FEATURE STORY — May/June 2010


Lincoln Hall Revisited

A $13.7 million renovation incorporates an array of Earth-friendly building features, the latest in classroom technology—and the student experiences of its designer

By Howard Wolinsky

Lincoln Hall

The renovated Lincoln Hall features an expansive curtain wall of insulated glass, which both encapsulates and protects the columns of Walter Netsch’s original structural grid.
All photos and drawings courtesy of Design Organization Inc. except where noted

Renowned architect Walter Netsch designed the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle in the Brutalist style, an architectural form that emphasizes function, ease-of-construction and an enormous amount of unfinished concrete, both for exterior façades and interior surfaces. (The moniker Brutalist itself is derived from the French term béton brut, or “raw concrete.”)

Tom Longhi BARCH ’85, project architect and associate with Chicago-based architectural firm Design Organization Inc., experienced Netsch’s Brutalist-inspired classroom buildings firsthand as a student. What he re­members most about buildings like Lincoln and Douglas Halls was the poor ventilation, harsh fluorescent lighting and absence of natural light (thanks, in part, to Netsch’s use of narrow window openings and tinted glass). “I think I got a headache just about everyday in those buildings,” he recalls.

So when he met with UIC’s building committee to present his firm’s plans for renovating Lincoln Hall, Longhi didn’t mince words. “I told them: ‘Those classroom buildings were some of the most miserable buildings that I’ve ever experienced from the inside.’”

On a tour of the renovated Lincoln Hall, which was completed last fall, Longhi told me his firm’s design goals for the $13.7 million project were to create a new building, inside and out—one that would be brighter, friendlier, airier and incorporate “natural light and an energy-efficient infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, Longhi concedes it was a bit daunting to be involved in an extreme makeover of a legendary Walter Netsch building. “Having been an architecture student at UIC, I was especially aware of that,” he notes. “Netsch was revered, but his Brutalist buildings were much criticized when I was a student.”

Pointing to the adjacent Douglas Hall, Longhi says that the classroom building’s exposed, sandblasted concrete facades were supposed to last forever; in reality, however, the freeze-and-thaw cycles of Chicago’s winters have taken their toll, damaging portions of the concrete beyond repair.

Radically different-looking from its predecessor, the renovated Lincoln Hall—as designed by DO project architects Longhi and Darin Couturiaux ’96 UI, MS ’98 UI, MARCH ’98 UI—is reminiscent of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist “less-is-more” aesthetic found on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus.

Gone are the precast concrete panels with narrow window openings. In their place is an expansive curtain wall of insulated glass, which both encapsulates and protects the columns of Netsch’s original structural grid. The design also pays homage to Netsch and the original design by retaining the building’s glazed corners and its modular spacing and rhythm.

In explaining the design, Longhi says, “It’s all about transparency. People can look in or out of the building.” Even the new classroom window shades, he points out, are semi-transparent.

“Transparency and visibility are a big deal,” adds David Taeyaerts ’88 UI, MARCH ’90 UI, director of UIC campus learning environments. “People can see the [activities] in the building from the outside, which makes the campus feel more alive.”

Natural light, informal study areas
The sleek and modern look also extends to the interior. Upgrades include new furniture and multimedia capabilities and electrical and plumbing systems. Materials made from recycled or renewable materials were used wherever possible. The building’s flooring, for example, is Marmoleum, which is fabricated from such renewable resources as linseed oil, cork and limestone dust.

Natural light penetrates throughout the building, thanks largely to its floor-to-ceiling glazing. The specified low-emissivity glazing has a triple-silver coating that offers a 15 percent to 34 percent im­provement in solar performance compared to traditional Low-e coatings, and it has a light-to-solar-gain ratio greater than 2.14. The natural illumination is further enhanced by the use of white ceiling soffits in classrooms and the full-glass-exterior walls at each end of the building, the latter of which Longhi says “brings light into the previously cavernous corridors.”

Natural light helps students learn, explains Taeyaerts: “Research shows that students in classrooms with the most natural light have scores up to 20 percent higher than those with the least natural light.” 

Wood is used throughout the interior to introduce natural materials and warmth. The interior color palette incorporates blue and red to enhance students’ creativity and attention to detail, respectively. “As the saying goes, ‘If you want to reinvent the wheel, you should be in a blue room,’” says Taeyaerts. “‘If you want to defuse a bomb, you should be in a red room.’”

Tom Longhi

Design Organization project architect and UIC alumnus Tom Longhi experienced Walter Netsch’s Brutalist-inspired classroom buildings, such as Lincoln Hall, firsthand as a UIC student in the early 1980s.

Full-glass-exterior walls at each end of the building help “bring light into the previously cavernous corridors,” says Longhi.

Classrooms are outfitted with adjustable lighting, ergonomically designed chairs and easily movable, large-surface work tables. They also feature such state-of-the-art technology as fully integrated audio-visual podia and ceiling-mounted projectors.

Other interior improvements include the removal of student lockers, another reminder that campus is no longer the commuter institution envisioned by Netsch. In their place are several learning “Oases,” where students can study individually or in groups. Such informal learning spaces are critical to today’s educational facilities, notes Taeyaerts. “As much learning happens outside the classroom as it does inside the classroom.”

Located on the first floor, the main Oasis has lounge chairs suitable for individual and group studies, as well as a countertop, and café-style tables and chairs appropriate for individual studies. It’s also equipped with digital signage, which keeps students abreast of campus events and highlights Lincoln Hall’s sustainable features.

Corridor Oases are located on each floor of the building, near the formal learning spaces “to facilitate serendipitous exchanges of ideas,” explains Taeyaerts. Two of the Oases on the second and third floors are equipped with a computer, LCD screen and collaborative software, the latter of which helps students working on group projects. Wi-fi is available throughout the building.

A hit with students and faculty alike
When Longhi is introduced as the new building’s architect before a class begins, students tell him that Lincoln Hall is their favorite on campus. They even urge him to redesign several other buildings.

“I like everything about Lincoln Hall,” says Margerita Montesino, a social sciences major. “I like all the light and I like the technology.”

Cynthia Klein-Banai, UIC associate chancellor for sustainability, says the Lincoln Hall project is the first at UIC to be designed with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green standards in mind. “The renovation offers a vision of the future, while preserving the essence of Netsch’s design.”

Meanwhile, standing at the second-floor bridge between Grant and Douglas Halls, overlooking Lincoln, Taeyaerts says that faculty members compete to schedule their classes in Lincoln Hall.

He also points to tour after tour of potential students being led into Lincoln Hall. “You see a steady stream of them,” he says. Student orientation leaders “just love highlighting this building.” 

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