In the early 1990s, IIT Main Campus was hardly the image of a respected landmark. The landscape was uninspiring, and a sea of surface parking under the El created a barren, unfriendly zone between the academic and residential parts of campus.
Keeping in step with the National Commission for IIT recommendations to visually improve the campus environment, a team of in-house talent proposed to President Lew Collens a competition to build a campus center. We felt a new building would help to aesthetically enhance the campus while also providing a place for the IIT community to congregate.
Lew championed the idea. He wanted a campus center that would not only change people’s minds about IIT’s location, but also send a message of our commitment to both Main Campus and the State Street renovation.
To initiate the open competition, we sent a letter of invitation to 56 firms around the world that represented all generations of architectural thinking. The five finalists comprised a very international group, with architects based in Rotterdam, Tokyo, Chicago, New York, and London.
The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation funded this aspect of the competition. Its sponsorship boosted the contest’s prestige, and the stipend allowed some candidates who otherwise might not have applied to do so. Each of them was given $25,000 and allowed two to three months to execute a design.
All of the finalists submitted a plan, which they presented to the jury—a five-person group that included alumni, academics, and practitioners—who in turn recommended a design to the Board of Trustees Facility Committee and Lew.
Lew wanted a campus center that would not only change people’s minds about IIT’s location, but also send a message of our commitment to both Main Campus and the State Street renovation.
The jury’s selection was a very deliberative process. We received two very strong entries, which led to a deadlock between the two schemes and a last-minute emergency meeting with the Board of Trustees Facilities Committee to break the tie. I recall Robert Pritzker reminding us that competitions were about finding a winner—that we must find a winner.
Rem Koolhaas, an award-winning Dutch architect who gained fame in the architecture world for his theory and for blurring the lines between urban design and architecture, was that winner. Ultimately, what pushed his design over the top was that it addressed student needs and was very student-oriented.
On opening day Mayor Richard M. Daley visited IIT, and we held a big opening-night party. Many prominent people in the architecture world attended, including the chair of the architecture program at Harvard, who had told Lew at the contest’s inception that it was the most important architecture contest of the last half-century.
Mayor Daley cut the ribbon, and the speeches were delivered from the top of the stairs above the Center Court dining area. Koolhaas attended and greeted guests as he stood at his favorite spot in the building, the top of the western stairs of Center Court. I believe he liked this spot so much because it’s possible to see all the pathways in the MTCC from that juncture and to survey the whole building.
While the campus community had reveled in the competition, and was now celebrating the debut of the MTCC, it’s important to remember how big a risk this project was for Lew. He remained committed to the building, even early on when financing had not been secured. The project garnered the university a great deal of media attention, so failure would have been a disaster. Because Lew remained dogged and helped to obtain gifts from the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which enabled matching gifts through the IIT Challenge Campaign, we were able to finish the project.
In hindsight, building the MTCC has been an enormous success in terms of bringing together the IIT community. In the previous student center you could often count on two or three hands the number of students that would be there on a Friday afternoon. Today it is easy to see a real sense of community.
There have been other benefits, too.
The College of Architecture has seen a major boost in enrollment, and I am convinced that the MTCC has helped with admissions recruitment in general. It also has spurred a tremendous influx of visitors to Main Campus.
Indeed, the MTCC is one of the city’s great new buildings, and its impact, along with the other elements of the Main Campus Master Plan, has been transformative for IIT.