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School of Style

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

“When art is the main focus, the space has to be ‘background,’” architect Mark Dewalt of Chicago’s Valerio Dewalt Train Associates says. Art may have been the main focus at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s new LeRoy Neiman student center, but Dewalt and his colleagues poured plenty of passion into that “background” too. 

The 40,000-square-foot renovation located in the city’s downtown Loop offers students, faculty, and staff a much needed home base, complete with dining, office, classroom, and gallery space. Housed in the first two floors of the historic Sharp Building, a brick tower designed by legendary architects William Holabird and Martin Roche, the center consolidated school functions that had previously been scattered in buildings across the city into one central hub. 

Since it’s for an art school, the multipurpose facility needed flexibility, so the project incorporated a minimal amount of fixed walls. “Galleries are always white boxes. Our challenge was to create a white box that was sculptural and had great vitality and was welcoming,” Dewalt says. The project team consulted with various members of the campus community throughout the planning and design process, hosted work sessions and presentations, and attended classes and campus events to get a better sense of the school’s culture. Renovation work included repairing floor slabs, installing new mechanical systems, and rebuilding the storefront system that faces the street. A monumental staircase was added to improve circulation and flow. 

The result is bright and open, and while it ties together formerly separate aspects of the school, it also stands out. “Sometimes I think that there is a default reaction to academic facilities based on Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia, which integrated a number of buildings around a single space presenting a unified whole. This isn’t the only answer,” VDTA principal Joe Valerio says. “In a dense urban core, a homogeneous design contradicts the energy of the city.” 

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