The David Rubenstein Forum has opened on 60th Street, providing not only badly needed meeting space for the University of Chicago (currently retrofitted for use amid the coronavirus pandemic) but a striking addition to Hyde Park's architectural panoply.
Designed by the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who also created Manhattan's High Line linear park and The Broad contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, the zinc-clad, 97,000-square-foot, 166-foot-high tower features sweeping views of campus, surrounding neighborhoods, the downtown skyline and Lake Michigan.
"I think for us, the importance of the facility is really its vision and mission for providing a space for meeting on campus," said Associate Vice President Tracy McCabe on a tour. "The architecture, which was really our President (Robert) Zimmer's vision, and the uniqueness of it really followed from that idea."
There is a ballroom-sized University Room, which seats 600 and has currently been recommissioned for socially distanced Law School classes, the handsome 250-seat Friedman Hall auditorium and a board room for the U. of C. and Medical Center trustees. But McCabe noted that the Rubenstein Forum is not a typical conference center.
Most of the rooms are small and intimate, designed with U. of C. faculty's needs in mind for meetings of 15 to 25 people. Three two-story mingling space "neighborhoods" exist for meeting participants between sessions.
The rooms, McCabe said, "are designed for the participants to be able to speak to each other but also to relate to nature outside." And it's true: what sticks in the memory days after the visit is the knock-out serenity of Woodlawn and Hyde Park viewed through big windows on a placid October day, high up in the air.
One view of good things to come is the under-construction Campus South Walk, planned to one day extend from Cottage Grove Avenue all the way to the 59th Street/University of Chicago Metra station, which is due for a rehabilitation. For now, it will go from University to Kimbark avenues through a rain garden (which runs solely on runoff water) behind the Rubenstein Forum and ought to open in April.
"Reflecting where we are is always part of the university's approach to any new architectural project," McCabe noted. "There has to be a relationship. And a modern building is probably going to be more of a complement than a copy of neo-Gothic architecture, and cost is always an issue — sustainability, making sure our buildings are efficient, that they're going to last."
McCabe said the university has no intention of competing for external conference business with the Rubenstein Forum — though he said there has been some interest— and anticipates 80% usage for university and community use. Its administration is housed within the president's office; 65 people are projected to work full-time in the facility.
While impressive from the outside, the views and the interior architecture make the Rubenstein Forum worth a visit in person, albeit one that will have to wait until after the pandemic. Bar David on the ground floor is warmly decorated in dark blue and bronze, a pleasant change of pace from Diller Scofidio + Renfro's preoccupation with greyscale that permeates the rest of the building.
A large-scale art installation, reportedly pretty significant, will be unveiled soon in the building's lobby. And the all-inclusive meeting spaces will be reservable when not in use by the university community for less than the price to rent at a downtown hotel or the Booth School's Gleacher Center in River North.
"This is not meant to be a social event space," McCabe said. "It's not where you're going to hold your annual sales meeting. It's where you're going to hold your strategic planning session for your executive team, and that applies to organizations throughout the community, in addition to the community."