Law School Honored for Renovations

Law School honored for renovation of Saarinen-designed courtyard, reflecting pool
Susie Allen
University of Chicago News Office
September 4, 2009

The American Society of Landscape Architects has bestowed its highest honor on the Law School for the renovation of its Eero Saarinen-designed courtyard and reflecting pool.

The Illinois chapter of the ASLA will confer the President’s Award “for an outstanding advancement of the landscape architecture profession” at its annual awards banquet Dec. 4 in Chicago, according to Susan Sevcik, awards chair of the Illinois ASLA.

Saarinen’s original courtyard design featured a fountain and a reflecting pool in the Laird Bell Law School Quadrangle. For Wolff Landscape Architecture Inc., the challenge was to find a landscaping solution that would work in all seasons, yet stay true to the original design.

The pool was drained in the winter, leaving an empty basin for much of the academic year. The team developed and evaluated several alternatives to the reflecting pool, including filling the basin or turning it into a lawn. But in the end, landscape architect Ted Wolff said, “We all agreed that being respectful of the original design intent was critical.”

Wolff designed a zero-depth reflecting pool with a quarter-inch sheet of water covering a field of granite pavers. “When the water is there, it functions as the original reflecting pool, mirroring the sky, the clouds and the D’Angelo Law Library. When the water is drained in the winter, it looks like a granite plaza,” explained Wolff. “Once we got to that point, it solved the empty basin problem and respected the original design.”

Saul Levmore, Dean of the Law School, said, “It is difficult to improve on Saarinen, but I think this feature does just that.”

“In season, one can just hear the water flow over the edges, so that the sound and appearance lends a serenity to an otherwise intense environment,” Levmore said. “Day and night the pool reflects the façade of the building, and somehow makes us feel that we are teaching and learning in an important place. When the water leaves us in winter, there is a fine stone plaza.”

Sevcik said the project’s fusion of new technology and historical design impressed the ASLA jury. “They appreciated that the fountain is now a year-round attraction,” she said.

Wolff gave much of the credit to Saarinen’s original vision and the University. “I think the Law School is a modern masterpiece. Once something falls in that category of landmark, you want to respect that,” he said. “In some sense, it ought to look like we’ve done nothing there.”

The award is not the first for the Law School. The renovation of the D’Angelo Law Library garnered the 2008 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Rehabilitation from Landmarks Illinois.