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Chicago Circle Campus Construction




The site for the new campus consisted of 105 acres. But when the ball fields, walkways, parking lots and so forth were accounted for, the area set aside for academic life consisted of only about 34 acres – an area equal to that of Buckingham fountain and its lakefront plaza. To design the campus, the University chose the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, led by Architect Walter Netsch, who had planned the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Netsch designed the campus to flow like a “drop of water” in order to accommodate the projected 32,000 students. At the center was the Forum, a Greek-amphitheater built for plays, assemblies and concerts. Around the Forum were the lecture centers, a series of six buildings designed with large classrooms and lecture halls. In the next ring were the “classroom clusters,” anchored by the two main student buildings, the library and the student union. Still farther from the center were offices and laboratories, and on the farthest ring, on the south end of campus, were the athletic fields. A series of second floor express walkways, paralleling in some ways the expressway interchange the campus was named after, but with the more practical purpose of moving the enormous number of students efficiently, tied the campus together. Finally, an eight-foot tall brick wall surrounded the campus.

Overhead view of the “Great Court.” The “Great Court” consisted of the Forum and four miniature forums called "excedras" on the roofs of the lecture halls. Photo by Orlando Cabanban.


Walkways leading to the Forum.

Walter Netsch at the Forum. University Hall is in the background. Architect Walter Netsch at the Forum. University Hall is in the background. Photo by Orlando Cabanban.

Because of the pressure of student enrollment, Circle Campus was built in phases, with the campus core completed in around eighteen months, and other sections of the campus built from 1965 through 1969. For the second and third phases, Netsch changed the building designs, using his innovative “field theory” to construct three unique buildings, the Architecture and Art building, the Behavioral Sciences building, and Science and Engineering South.

Netsch’s design for Circle Campus won a number of prestigious awards, becoming a nationally known model for other campuses. There were, however, some serious problems with it. The brick walls surrounding the campus further separated it from the neighborhood, leading to its nickname of “Fortress Illini.” Many students and faculty found the concrete harsh and alienating. When only about 18,000 students came, the walkways became superfluous, maintenance declined, and they slowly crumbled.

Construction of the Behavioral Sciences Building.


    Walkways leading to the Forum. To the right, construction of the Behavioral Sciences Building, an example of Netch's “field theory.”    


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