The American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education has selected Illinois Institute of Technology’s newest campus building, the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, as a recipient of an Education Facility Design Award, Merit Award. The Kaplan Institute is one of nine state-of-the-art education facilities from around the globe to be honored by the committee this year.
Designed by John Ronan, principal architect at John Ronan Architects and a professor at Illinois Tech’s College of Architecture, the Kaplan Institute was conceived both as a home for the Institute of Design and as a hub for innovation and collaboration between students of all academic disciplines. As such, the building is based around two open-air courtyards that lead to the entrances, designed to function as “collision nodes” to facilitate chance encounters between students. “That was really the purpose of the building, to get students and faculty out of their silos,” says Ronan.
Ronan sought to design the building to fit within Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s master plan for the campus from the 1940s, but the Kaplan Institute, the first academic building added to campus in more than 40 years, stands out with its light, cloud-like appearance. That’s thanks to the extensive use of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene foil, a cladding material approximately one percent of the weight of glass.
Beyond its lightweight aesthetic, the layers of ETFE on the building form a dynamic façade, which communicates with a weather station on the roof. Inner layers are then pushed toward or away from the outer layers to moderate the amount of sunlight entering the building “like an organism, with skin that responds to the environment,” as Ronan puts it. The upshot, he explains, is to create a naturally lit and comfortable environment, one that can connect its inhabitants with nature—important, considering that many students and faculty spend several hours each day inside the building.
But while the structure deviates in many ways from Mies’ ideology, Ronan explains that it is still meant to adhere to his Modernist concept of “skin-and-bones” architecture.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we take this concept of skin and bones but update it to our own time?’” says Ronan. “You know, what would the skin and bones of our time be like? And the skin would be more like a real organism, it would be responsive, and the bones would be more advanced in the way that they’re designed, actually serving to heat and cool the building. I think it’s a concept Mies would have loved.”