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The Kellogg Global Hub’s façade, including one of its balconies, viewed from below. Courtesy the writer.
Blue glass. Glittering glass. Glass on glass on glass.
Three years ago, this glass building was just another construction site filled with yellow cranes and orange cones and “CAUTION” tape woven into green mesh temporary fences. In 2016, when I graduated from Northwestern University, construction was booming at a rate unparalleled in my freshman, sophomore, or junior years.1 Everywhere you looked, there was something new and shiny rising out of sandboxes filled with displaced dirt: a mammoth athletic facility; the renovated arts and humanities building; a sciences library; that tricked-out residence hall; and the building that stood before me now: the Kellogg Global Hub, the university’s $250 million business school designed by KPMB Architects. I had only seen it in the Snapchat stories of fellow alumni who had visited the finished building on their trips to campus post-graduation. Now, for the first time, I was back on campus too. The Global Hub did not disappoint.
In short, it is spectacular. The building literally sparkles as the sun bounces off nearby Lake Michigan and is reflected onto the façade. It is curvaceous, undulating like the gently lapping tide. Inside, the main atrium is soaring. There are huge swathes of light.
But beyond its spectacle, there was something unsettling about this building and the others that had been completed since I graduated. Its bluish glass reminded me of the office buildings 13 miles south in the heart of Chicago’s business district, the Loop. I imagined people in crisp blue suits patrolling its corridors and I suddenly felt out of place, dressed in leggings with a chunky camera hanging around my neck, old sneakers, and an oversized sweatshirt whose cuffs were stained with splatters of acrylic paint. The other new buildings on campus featured similar corporate aesthetics that evoked 9–5 workdays and icy air conditioning and Starbucks Pike Place in venti paper cups.
A second similarity struck me: many of the newer buildings on campus had concrete neighbours. I had only recently learned about Brutalism in my graduate Art History course, excitedly discovering that Northwestern features an impressive array of these megastructures. Now, I recognised the trademark Brutalist textured concrete in the Donald P. Jacobs Center, which the Kellogg Global Hub replaced. Its next-door neighbour, the James L. Allen Center, is also of Brutalist origins. And just across the gleaming Lakefill campus stands University Library, the most infamous Brutalist building on campus, regularly maligned for its ugliness. Between the old and new, I sensed the confrontation of two very different styles.
I don’t believe this confrontation is merely aesthetic. Beyond their visual languages, these styles express a unique set of values and desires. Neither is perfect, but the danger in Northwestern’s new, corporate architecture is that it produces and propagates the very social, economic, and political realities that have come to define higher education’s most potent problems.
Fifty years ago, a parallel construction boom was taking place at Northwestern University in the form of nine buildings2 in the Brutalist style.
Brutalism began after World War II in Britain, where its iconic concrete materiality was developed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It was not solely an aesthetic movement, but rather an ethical one that rejected anemic British Modernism in favour of a bold, raw realism.3 The term was eventually exported worldwide, which is how it landed smack dab in the middle of Northwestern’s campus in the form of the University Library, completed in 1970.
A library is often perceived as the centre of a university’s intellectual life, but Northwestern University Library bears the brunt of the campus’ Brutalist scorn. Designed by Walter Netsch for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it represented the school’s desire to expand its capacity for books and accommodate growing enrollment while attracting students away from its competitors. Professor Virgil Heltzel wrote in a document titled “Comments by Members of the Library Committee” that “A university library is the very heart of an institution, since it pumps the life-blood of knowledge to all departments and all schools of the university.”4 Other committee members had similar thoughts. The new library would make the school a leading library centre of the nation and unify a student body divided among different academic programmes. Its Brutalist aesthetic was intended to make “a statement to the public and the academic community. It was supposed to represent the forward thinking of the University, signal an embrace of contemporary scholarship, and set the stage for future additions to Northwestern’s new Lakefill campus,” according to the abstract included in the archives on the subject.
Though Netsch’s version of Brutalism lacked much of the ethical dimension associated with earlier versions of British Brutalism, architectural historian and critic Michael Abrahamson points out that Brutalism didn’t wholly abandon a political ethos in the United States. Here, it served as a cultural weapon against Cold War homogeneity and as an attempt to produce variety within the larger spectrum of international modernism.5 A grander rejection of conformity, while maybe not as apparent in Netsch’s designs, is evocative of Brutalism at large.
Initially celebrated, the library and the eight other Brutalist buildings on campus are now decontextualised from these aesthetic and ethical origins. While the Gothic structures on campus are admired (Deering looks like it’s from a Harry Potter movie!, exclaims every prospective freshman) the series of monumental Brutalist structures are not so well received. The encounter of the old, Brutalist structures with the new, corporate-looking ones produces palpable tension. In the old, there is materiality, the subtle play of shadows, and a historical Brutalist context that often contradicts itself. In the new, there is Instagrammable smoothness, large planes of taken-for-granted light, and easily consumed spectacle. This intimate relationship of old to new, of one style to another, illuminates the threat that Brutalism poses to the homogeneity produced by some of the campus’ newer structures, including the Global Hub. The Brutalist structures present an underlying problem to administration, specifically to the campus as a locale of tourism and as an attractive learning facility for new students. The Kellogg Global Hub is not just an abandonment of its old Brutalist home, then, but an abandonment of the library too. It re-centres campus around the concept of networking, rather than the knowledge hidden in tiny library carrels with abysmal views.
The aesthetics and organisation of the Kellogg Global Hub are active in producing new social relations on campus. The way spaces are constructed dictates the types of interactions that take place within them. Even the slightest rearrangements can produce dramatic effects. A classroom that is set up in rows, for example, fosters a less collaborative atmosphere than one arranged in a circle. Collaborative is the buzzword at Kellogg, plastered across a long purple banner that hangs from the main atrium’s ceiling and drapes two storeys down. Words like dialogue and debate, and phrases such as creative exchange are its corollaries, emphasised by the school’s leaders. Beneath its atrium, the building’s oversized Spanish Steps are its main feature, modelled after the famous staircase in Rome. Set in two enormous stacks, they provide a welcoming rendition of the academic environment. But the stairs promote casual interaction and light socialising much more than engaged debate: pitches and a subtle hierarchy à la the CW’s once-beloved Gossip Girl and the high school hierarchy delineated by the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (No one sits higher than me!, shrieks Blair Waldorf). This hierarchy is already enforced in other parts of the building, where nearly every auditorium, classroom, study room, and air space is named with a plaque recognising its donors.
The building’s access issues secure its hierarchies. If the atrium is remarkably open, the Global Hub’s four wings are remarkably closed off as the offices of faculty and private classrooms. Every door is barricaded by a small, black card reader that projects green or red light, indicating its status as either an open room or one reserved for the card-holding elite. The building features a number of curvy balconies beyond the transparent, interior glass office and classroom walls—in stark contrast to the ordinariness exuded by its Brutalist neighbour—but it is unclear how to access these balconies without tromping through a series of cubicles and suspicious stares, all located behind one of the deterrent black card readers.
The main atrium produces a sense of surveillance that promotes the rise of the managerial class on campuses. It reminds me of the multi-storey glass enclosures featured in Apple stores, and affords the inclusion of large, open work and event spaces that are reminiscent of anonymous cafés. The architect Rem Koolhaas’ concept of the Generic City comes to mind: “The apparently solid substance of the Generic City is misleading. 51% of its volume consists of atrium. The atrium is a diabolical device in its ability to substantiate the insubstantial.”6 Here is where the building begins to assert something not just eerie, but all too real along the lines of: the university may seem solid, but is actually run by 51% “air” or “fluff,” i.e. the rise of the administrative, managerial class. In a 2015 New York Times piece, Fredrik deBoer notes that it is not uncommon for senior administrators to outnumber professors on college campuses.7 While remarkably open (as atriums tend to be), this one suddenly produces a haunting sense of top-down surveillance. Architectural historian Reinhold Martin describes this surveillance as the initial product of Cold War computer rooms that was then adopted into the structure of modern corporations.8 The main atrium resembles these Cold War corporations as “models of casual sociability and neatly packaged novelty, symptoms of an enforced togetherness”—Kellogg’s buzzword collaboration again comes to mind here—“under the sign of a consumerist ‘global village.’”9 Indeed, in Blair Kamin’s review of the building for the Chicago Tribune, he praises its atrium, but also calls atriums the prominent feature of business schools.10
The Kellogg Global Hub embodies a celebration of the United States economy after the Great Recession. What is remarkably absent in the building’s design is any engagement with what went wrong in 2008: the bailouts, the failure to prosecute any top bank executives, and the millions of Americans who lost their homes when the housing bubble burst. This lack of criticality is reinforced in the building’s name. The Chicago Tribune review notes that the new building is “portentously named the Global Hub,”11 and a 2017 piece written by alumnus Jeff Rice for The Daily Northwestern contextualises the university’s increasing desire to “go global.”12
Part of the global initiative involves expanding the Northwestern brand in the vein of New York University’s failed effort to establish campuses worldwide. In Rice’s words, “the committee’s proposal begins to look like a new kind of educational colonialism; the arrogance and insensitivity by the task force makes me cringe.”13 This criticism prompts a series of questions: in the vein of early Brutalism’s ethical dimension, what is the Global Hub really committed to? What makes it global? There are flags from about 50 countries hanging in neat rows in the Hub, but what do they symbolise? The school identifies a sympathetic question about how to situate institutions in a new, increasingly interconnected world. But instead of sincerely investigating that question and determining the stakes of it, it appears more like an exercise, one that proclaims the centre of the world is located on the shores of Lake Michigan.
What is also at stake in this building is the support of another bubble: the one formed by heavily inflated tuition prices. It is here, in its atrium, where consultants are born. Names like Deloitte and McKinsey and Bain form a shared language that unites the disparate worlds of science and humanities majors (not unlike the way committee members initially conceptualised University Library as a unifying force). As the late Marina Keegan wrote in The Opposite of Loneliness, 25% of her graduating class at Yale went into consulting. She expressed concern about such a significant number of students entering one profession and since the book was published in 2014, that number has only risen.14 Institutions provide access to the recruiters who descend upon universities in search of cogs that can operate their Excel spreadsheets for a handsome six-figure salary. Commercial-looking buildings become a method for the school to communicate with the corporate world, specifically to support the rise of the consulting industry that has the ability to prop up the cost of tuition and the value of a degree. These buildings oppose the imaginative origins of American Brutalism, which asserted the value of creation (over crunching someone else’s numbers). They transform students into commodities, rather than consumers. Students are exchangeable and generic—anyone can be a consultant! In the middle of this bubble is architecture, which is now starting to look more and more like a banal mall-slash-corporate playhouse at Northwestern and on campuses nationwide.
Like this new campus-corporate aesthetic, Brutalism was not a perfect style. There are many aspects of University Library, for example, that are no longer programmatically ideal. The tiny carrels on its upper floors are isolated and downright creepy at night. There is also irony in the fact that today’s managerial campus architecture resembles the same kind of top-down approach adopted during the Cold War era in the pursuit of a Brutalist campus: “What manifestly underlay the trajectory from the Brutalist building to the megastructure was the belief, or hope, that bigness—a total architecture, generated by teams of specialised designers and planners—could somehow control the late-20th-century city’s daunting chaos and complexity.”15 Late Brutalism, in fact, had much in common with the corporate architecture of today. Both embody moments of university expansion. This shift toward bigness and total style also represents the beginning of Brutalism’s failure. It bears similarities to the way corporate architecture manifests on campuses, as well as on Wall Street post-2008 Recession—some institutions are apparently too big too fail. But at its best, Brutalist architecture represented an empowerment of civic duty in the United States—a belief in the possibility of the institution, and an embrace of content over slick styling. Its failures should inform this generation’s campus buildings.
Architecture on campuses is not just the reflection of already-implemented social, economic, and political phenomena. It is, rather, a primary way these trends are introduced, developed, and mediated in the physical world. The Kellogg Global Hub is evidence that architecture is not just a symptom of the problems in higher education—the rise of administrators and student loan debt—but a cause. If we want to improve higher education, perhaps we should start by designing buildings that acknowledge and improve upon its failures.
1 According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Northwestern was fourth among all private universities in total dollars spent on new construction for the 2016–17 fiscal year. “On Which Campuses Is Construction Booming?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 May 2019.
2 By my own count.
3 Joan Ockman, “The School of Brutalism: From Great Britain to Boston (and Beyond)” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, ed. Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2015), 32–33.
4 Documents referenced are located in the Northwestern University Archives. Date of the quote is 7 January 1953.
5 Michael Abrahamson, “North America: An Introduction,” in SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey, ed. the Wustenrot Foundation (Zurich: Park Books, 2012), 117.
6 Rem Koolhaas, The Generic City (New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc., 1995), 1262.
8 Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 2–13.
10 Blair Kamin, “Northwestern’s new business school home promises valuable lessons,” Chicago Tribune, 24 March 2017.
12 Jeff Rice, “Rice: The hidden costs of Northwestern’s global expansion,” The Daily Northwestern, 3 January 2017.
15 Ockman, “The School of Brutalism,” 44.