brutalism and books on today's claass HAUS.
This might just be one of those buildings you will either love or hate, though I expect that some would say that about most brutal beasts. With its fortress-like hunks of concrete, the Northwestern University Library is not exactly a warm and fuzzy reading nook. But the concrete creation does make a statement, its weighty molded mass anchoring the suburban Chicago campus.
Completed in 1970, the bold and brooding library appeared at the height of Brutalism’s popularity, its brazen materiality and geometric repetition (said to resemble books sliding from a shelf) a striking contrast to Northwestern's more traditional structures (including the adjacent 1930s Neo-Gothic Deering Library by architect James Gamble Rogers). Designed by the always audacious Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the building's complex plan provides both programmatic flexibility and aesthetic variety, signaling a general ideological shift in how a library should look and function.
Born in Chicago, Walter Netsch studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before enlisting in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. In 1947, the young architect joined the ranks of SOM (later becoming partner), transferring to the firm’s Chicago office just a few years later. Perhaps best known for the ethereal US Air Force Academy Chapel, Netsch spent a long, productive career as an imaginative maverick- his signature "Field Theory" upending the prevailing Miesian orthodoxy. In Field Theory, the basic square is rotated to create complex geometric components that radiate from central cores (read more here, if you dare). To simplify- it is a highly versatile approach to the generation of structure, and one that in theory is uniquely suited to environment and purpose.
Netsch’s library for Northwestern (the architect designed more than a dozen libraries over the course of his career) is unconventional and complex, its main motivation to relate the individual to the institution's purpose. Netsch conceived the library as three research pavilions (holding the stacks) raised over a large ground floor that houses areas for reference and staff. In the center, a service core housing elevators and stairs link the towers and provide transportation between floors. In Netsch's original plan, a typical floor in one of the building’s pavilions included flexible spaces geared both to the individual and the group, all arranged around a radial stack system and central study area. Designed at a time when Netsch was still perfecting his signature theory, the library’s form was generated from placing a circle within a square and repeating the pattern of opposing orthogonal and circular forms.
To new students, the towering library of concrete and glass must seem intimidating, like a massive maze. Complaints are many and usually revolve around the amount of time it takes to learn the building's complicated layout (there also seems to be a concern for the lack of bathrooms). But Netsch's brutalist library remains a campus landmark, its frequent users eventually learning to love the building's radial stacks and shifting geometric exterior.
Perhaps Northwestern's most iconic architect, Walter Netsch designed a number of buildings for the university, including the Frances Searle Building, the Regenstein Hall of Music, and the Seeley G. Mudd Library for Science and Engineering. Netsch passed away in 2008, the last of Chicago’s second generation of modernists. But during his career, the architect (along with fellow iconoclasts Bertrand Goldberg and Harry Weese) developed a radical architectural language that worked as a counter to Mies’ corporate boxes of glass and steel. His philosophy, always innovative and often divisive, lives on in his individualistic designs for buildings like the Northwestern University Library, a concrete giant that pushed the boundaries of the postwar landscape.
Image at the top:
Northwestern Library by John Zacherle
[CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/0}, via Flickr.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.