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ARCHITECTURE New UChicago building gets assistance from Theaster Gates
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli

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An open forum with ample natural light, historic exposed quartz beams and polished woodworked benches greet the eye when entering the new Harris Building. The University of Chicago's ( UChicago's ) School of Public Policy has a new home that represents the vision of the school and its students, and professor/artist /educator Theaster Gates served as an advisor and mentor regarding the design process.

Designed by Farr Associates architects, the new building—called the Keller Center—has been 10 years in the making and was completed at the end of 2018. January gave graduate students of the public policy program a new space to call home, one that represents community, collaboration and policy in action. Its grand opening was May 3.

"It's a space where [students] can come together, learn, talk and challenge each other's ideas," Misho Ceko, the chief operating officer of the Harris Building, said.

He said he is impressed with the way the architects maintained the building's integrity and exposed its unique structures.

The old building is a mid-century classic and the city and the university see it as a historic piece of architecture, according to Gabe Wilcox, a senior associate at Farr who worked on the project. Because of the historical relevance, Wilcox said the exterior facade remained the same while the designers focused on an interior renovation.

The building's design is a mix of repurposed materials from the old building down the street, aspects of the new historic home and repurposed trees from Chicago's South and West Side parks that Gates got from the city. The trees, infested by the emerald ash borer beetle, were a hazard and had to be cut down but Gates reclaimed the wood for use in art and building fabrication projects. Through his Dorchester Industries Mill on the South Side, local residents milled the wood and received job training experience.

"It was a business adventure I don't think he's ever done before," Wilcox said of Gates' partnership, citing its large economic impact to the neighborhood.

In addition to repurposed material, the building encompasses sustainability, accessibility and policy laws the firm had to challenge, Wilcox said. With universal counter heights and desks for all types of people and closed-stalled bathrooms to make everyone feel comfortable, the designers were inclusive to the LGBTQ and disabled communities.

The policy on university building bathrooms did now allow the Keller Center to have gender-neutral bathrooms, Wilcox said, which is how the firm had originally designed the bathrooms. Although the architects felt disgruntled after losing the fight against the city's code of standards, the alternative was to add a sliding panel that can be removed between the two bathrooms when the law changes.

"[We] future-proofed [the bathrooms] so that the university doesn't have to tear up all the tiles and replace the bathrooms when the laws change—which they will," he said.

The building also has solar panels and runs on 11 percent solar energy. The other sustainable aspect of the building is its rainwater cistern on the ground floor. Although cisterns are illegal in Illinois, Farr Associates signed a variance with the City of Chicago and Departments of Public Health to get it approved, which is a typical process for building design, Wilcox said. The cistern, which holds 15,000 gallons and could fill the entire atrium, captures rainwater and uses it to flush the building's toilets, diverting rainwater from Chicago's sewer system. It also provides more usable space for the rooftop solar panels.

"It's a good policy story to say there is something so rational about doing this—why can't it be public law?" Wilcox said of the cistern policy. "It's something that needs to change."

Designing the Harris Building has been a learning experience for Wilcox, who said he previously did not think of policy moves in architecture. He said there were so many policy challenges when designing the building that he could not keep count.

"I tried to design beautiful spaces that are sustainable and socially responsible but I never thought I should be challenging code and law in the process," he said. "I will approach every project now with the belief that I could change something—change the law or the code to be a better socially responsible design."

The architect firm is known for this kind of progressive work and is transparent about its business practices to make sure it works with clients who support work that challenges and expands social practices and norms.

"From a policy perspective, it's important for us to make a statement on the importance of sustainability with the building," Ceko said. "Make it raw and let the space be itself."

The space has ample greenery outside, artwork to adorn the exterior corners, bike racks, a small shower room and UV bird-friendly glass to minimize avian deaths—another law that could be standard soon, Wilcox said.

With a laugh, Ceko said former students will think the Harris Building looks like a post-apocalyptic apple store and nothing compared to the "prison" of the old building.

"In many ways, it's this blackboard that we are putting content on—we are thinking about it, adding to it," he said. "The building is going to get banged up and to me that's the beauty of the space. See the space and how [it is] used and give it life."

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