Gallery 400 Blog


A People’s Tour: Architecture & Activism

A People’s Tour: Architecture and Activism at UIC spotlights the architecture of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) campus and the student activism taking place within these structures. This roadmap will guide you on the tour given by Gallery 400’s Megan Moran and UIC’s Latino Cultural Center’s Lena Guerrero Reynolds on February 13, 2018. The tour was offered in conjunction with the exhibition Félix Candela's Concrete Shells: An Engineered Architecture for México and Chicago on view through March 3, 2018. This tour is an intersection between those two themes as the public spaces shaped the activism here, and how the activism shaped the university spaces in return.

Tour Distance: 2.2 miles
Each building on the tour has an accessible entrance.

Stop 1: Gallery 400: 400 S. Peoria St. Chicago, IL 


Let’s start with some context about Félix Candela's Concrete Shells: An Engineered Architecture for México and Chicago , on view January 19-March 3, 2018, before setting out for today’s walking tour of UIC.

The exhibition focuses on architect Félix Candela’s geometric designs and his influence on contemporary architecture with his continuous curved surfaces of minimal thickness made from concrete. The mid-20th century’s built environment saw some wild shifts in architectural style world-wide. The Second Chicago School of Architecture emerged out of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Bauhaus movement. Think of Federal Plaza located downtown with it’s black steel frames, soaring glass windows, and lack of ornamentation. This structure poses a stark contrast against some of the earlier constructed buildings on Dearborn adorned with stained glass and ornamental brickwork. Van Der Rohe created flat and open spaces creating a calm and organized layout within the bustle of the city. The style would later become known as an architect working in the International Style. UIC campus designed by architect Walter Netsch, was created in response to that style, contributing to Modernist architecture in Chicago that undoubtedly drew Candela’s interest.

Born in Spain, Félix Candela fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the anti-fascist People’s Republican Army as the Captain of Engineers. After the war, Candela was exiled to Mexico as a Spanish-refugee. He spent the next three decades of his career in Mexico, creating remarkable thin-shelled structures using concrete, earning him the nickname “the Wizard of Shells.” Candela’s innovation and accomplishments were recognized by awards and honors from all over the world, including offers from universities. He accepted a position in the School of Architecture here at UIC in 1971. As student protest exploded onto university campuses worldwide, Mexico City emerged as a real hub of activism in response to harsh military suppression, marked by the massacre in Tlatelolco square in 1968. Candela’s daughters were active leaders within the student protest movement. Prominent architects who undoubtedly had contracts with the Mexican government were asked to sign a sort of affidavit declaring their allegiance with the government, and Candela refused to sign. So while it is true that his appointment at the School of Architecture at UIC was a great career move, the opportunity arose at a time when Candela would very likely have been ostracized and his family threatened under the oppressive government regime. While not much is know about Candela’s time at UIC, we can imagine that he had some empathy for student activism that was taking place on campus during his tenure here.

Stop 2: UIC pedestrian bridge connecting Peoria Street to West Harrison Street


Cross the bridge halfway, and take a few minutes noticing the many transportation routes crossing and looping below. From this view, we’re reminded of the urban context of this campus. From densely packed immigrant tenement housing to today’s students, many have crossed paths in the near west side. This spaghetti bowl of on-ramps is named after Mayor Jane Byrne, but at the time it was called the “Circle interchange,” becoming the namesake for the campus. In looking for a replacement for the temporary U of I campus on Navy Pier, Mayor Daley pegged this area for “urban renewal” in the 1960s, to the great disapproval of local residents. The proximity to downtown and new transportation options were too much to pass up.

Standing here we can see the Sears Tower built by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, and the building would stand as tallest in the world for nearly 25 years. Just a few years before the creation of the Sears Tower, Skidmore Owings and Merrill selected Walter Netsch as the lead architect at UIC where the Circle Campus was born.

Stop 3: UIC Art and Architecture Building, 845 W Harrison St, Chicago, IL 60607

Architecture Candelatour

We’re now at the Architecture and Design Studios, a spot where Félix Candela spent most of his time on campus as a faculty member from 1971-1978. The Brutalist style took its name from “beton brut,” french for raw concrete. Based on the metaphor of a stone dropped in a pond of water, the center housed a great plaza and amphitheater amid lecture centers, and each ripple outward held buildings with common functions.


These concrete pillars once flanked a bridge directly across to University Hall, and a walkway underneath led from the CTA station to the main quad. The student population was expected to expand quickly, from 5,000 to 32,000 students in a few years, so Netsch designed an elevated walkway system that could move a large number through quickly. The entrance to most buildings was on the second story connected by broad concrete paths of this “pedestrian expressway”. 

Brick walls and chain fences surrounded most of the campus, which created a sense of alienation to neighbors, but also sent a message to students. Civil rights activism and protests against the Vietnam war were ramping up in universities across the country, in part of a global wave of student protest in the 1960s that prompted violent crackdowns from administrators and campus police. Even though many buildings here were designed earlier, by the time they were built protest was on everyone’s radar, so the narrow slit windows, steel chains, and brick walls inspired the nickname “Fortress Illini.” University Hall, the tall building just across the way, had a separate set of elevators and staircases for the top floor so they could insulate administrators from takeover.

Maintenance problems led to the destruction of these walkways with draining issues, and the shifting of granite blocks on the great court causing dangerous tripping hazards. Enrollment only reached 18,000 students, so the walkways were deemed unnecessary. As maintenance declined, the structures crumbled, and much of Netsch’s unifying design was demolished in the 1990s.

The Art and Architecture Building exemplifies Netsch’s Field Theory aesthetic. In response to other mid-century architects like Mies Van Der Rohe’s International Style, Field Theory was an effort to “escape the boredom of the box.” Inspired by the double helix, Netsch placed a square at 45 degrees on another square and clustered those units into star-like bursts. Unfortunately only 40% of this building was completed, and creating a maze of a structure.

The walled-in nature of the building was useful to protesters in early 1970. Protests broke out in response to the Cambodian Invasion and the Kent State massacre, that left the campus looking “battle scarred” by Thursday, May 7th, 1970 according to a school newspaper. “Clenched fists and slogans of the strike had been painted on walls and second-level walkways all over the campus.” The school was shut down for almost a week, but the Dean of Students opened this building to protesters, and it was referred to as “Strike Central Headquarters,” as a hub for coordinating peaceful demonstrations at universities and high schools throughout the city and a citywide march downtown on May 9th. Today, five posters remain plastered to a ceiling upstairs, and rumors are that they were made during the protesters occupation by letterpresses and woodtype that are still in use in the print studios today. Take some time to walk around before heading to the next stop.

Stop 4: Jane Addams Hull-House, 800 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60607
Tuesday-Friday, 10am-4pm, Sunday 12-4pm


Founded in 1889 as a social settlement, Hull-House played a vital role in redefining American democracy in the modern age. Addams and the residents of Hull-House helped pass critical legislation and influenced public policy on public health and education, free speech, fair labor practices, immigrants’ rights, recreation and public space, arts, and philanthropy. Spend time in this space learning about settlement houses, space accessability, use, and the destruction of 11 buildings and displacement of the neighbhorhood during the construction of UIC.

Stop 5: Student Center East: 750 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60607


UIC’s Student Center East, a hub for many things on campus, and a central space utilized to bring attention to various student grievances over the years. We’ll highlight just a few.

1968 Anti-War Protests: In 1968, a series of protests erupted in this building when a tabling event seated a war recruitment table next to a pacifist socialist organization and the Students for a Democratic Society. The groups got into a heated discussion over the Vietnam war, and at some point freshman Mio Villagomez jumped up on his table saying, “It is not a part of university society to have killers on campus!” Demonstration grew to a crowd and lasted two days with one student getting arrested and 16 facing disciplinary hearings. Among the crowd, a shoving match sparked between a black and white student, broken up by University police, who ushered the black student Maldonado de Vargas, into a coat room. When he emerged with a cut over his left eye, black students were enraged and initiated a 100-person sit-in on University Hall’s 27th floor. Biology professor James Diez provided them with food overnight and they jammed the elevators the next morning until they could get a meeting with Student Government. They demanded the officer who assaulted Vargas be disciplined and the white student expelled, and demanded “black students receive respect from all staff and faculty.” A resolution was passed to study the issue, but in many ways it was shelved for years.

1971 Baby-in: In the late 1960s, a student-run babysitting cooperative was founded and housed in the Circle Student Center as a service for young families and single mothers attending classes. When the administration tried to shut it down in 1971, the Circle Women’s Liberation Union joined the co-op to stage a “baby-in,” where University students and staff occupied the main lobby here where the bookstore is now to raise awareness about the need for institutional childcare. Administrators conceded and by 1972 the Circle Children’s Center opened on west campus.

1991 Kiss-in: In the early 1990s, a series of anti-LGBT offenses occurred on campus, including assaults and a widely circulated flyer that listed the home phone numbers of students and faculty, with the heading “Call a Queer,” dangerously targeting them for harassment. Students organized a “kiss-in” during the lunch hour at the cafeteria upstairs in 1991, which grew into a riot in which more than 30 people surrounded the protesters, shouting epithets and threatening violence. Many were physically restrained and one was arrested. It took police over 2 hours to calm counter-demonstrators who argued that the “freaks” should be arrested for making them “look at that,” referring to the kissing students. In response, a petition was organized demanding the formation of an LGB student center and other actions to improve campus life, the center was founded in 1994 and is currently located in Behavioral Science Building.

2001 Leave-out: In 1999 and 2001 a couple of supreme court rulings severely weakened the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), calling into question the definition of disability and preventing employees facing discrimination at work from suing for damages. In response, UIC PhD student Sarah Triano, one of the leaders of the Disabled Student Union gathered students together to protest. Using new technology like email and do-it-yourself websites, they organized a peaceful protest that would go from West campus to East. Plotting the path, students learned that many sidewalks on the way were not accessible. They contacted the Mayor’s office to demand the city make the path accessible to wheelchair users - stating if their demands were not met they would take to the streets and shut down traffic on the Westside! In response, the city sent crews the day before the protest to make accommodations. It was called “Leave Out for Equal Justice” rather than “walk out” because not everyone had the ability to physically walk. As a result of this protest and others like it across the country, the ADA Amendments Act was passed in 2008, which states that rights of all people with disabilities will be protected.

This is a critical question why architecture and design exists the way it does today, and it was because people fought for it, on campus and beyond.

Stop 6: UIC Latino Cultural Center: 803 S Morgan Street

Lcc Candela

Welcome to the UIC Latino Cultural Center (LCC), 1 of the 7 Centers for Cultural Understanding and Social Change. Each center represents a unique history of campus struggle, as students have fought to shape the spaces here over time. The university may have been designed to be unique and different, but in many ways it replicated the power structures of society, and exacerbated imbalances that came to define the 20th century inlcuding the GI bill that prompted UIC’s first students disproportionately helped white families rise into the middle class, and Urban Renewal that displaced residents in the near west side was paired with generous government support for suburban mortgages and restrictive covenants that determined where people could move. Cold war fears and social forces like these helped various white ethnic communities of the historic neighborhoods be effaced in an Americanization of “us” vs. “other,” and UIC’s early attendance and early design showed a clear preference for a whiter “us.” Its bridges and walls expected more people to drive in and park than walk in from surrounding communities of color. Cultural centers emerged as a response to this imbalance, as a way to make space for those who previously felt unwelcome, and to physically represent their presence on campus.

The LCC has roots back to Candela’s time here on campus. By the 1970s, less than 2% of the student population represented the Latino community. In 1973, students, faculty, staff, and community members started an activist movement to change that story, which led to a sit-in at University Hall where they attempted to meet with administrators. Campus police were called to forcefully remove 39 for “state trespassing.” This arrest fueled further protests until peaceful resolutions could be reached with the creation of the Latino studies program, recruitment services, and the LCC by 1976. Originally an old locker room, this space was opened, and covered in a mural in 1983. When they tore down the plaza overhead and redesigned the building in the 1990s, most of the mural was destroyed, so students again mobilized to bring about this mural. The Awakening of the Americas is the largest contemporary indoor mural in Chicago, it was painted in 1996, led by local Pilsen muralist Hector Duarte and each new generation of students brings a fresh eye to its meaning. The gallery is a hub for public programs and student organizations like the Fearless Undocumented Alliance, United Students Against Sweatshops, and more.

Do you remember that story we told at the last stop about Maldonado de Vargas who emerged wounded from the coat closet in 1968? Protests following that incident eventually led to the creation of the Black Studies Program in 1970 along with plans for an African American student center. Unfortunately administrative promises fell to the back burner after that for some time. In the 1990s, a series of racial and sexual attacks occurred in the student commons and dorms, so students renewed demands for safe spaces and the black cultural center. They gathered several meetings, none of which the Interim Chancellor attended. Frustrated students walked out of a meeting and marched to the Chancellor’s Office on the 28th floor of University Hall. During this occupation, they discovered that the University had in fact earmarked money in the budget for the creation of a black student center, though no such center had been planned. When the Chancellor arrived, students insisted on speaking to him in front of the press, a successful tactic which led to the creation of the African American Cultural Center, which continues to provide a space for dialogue and programming for dismantling anti-black attitudes on campus. They host a library space and a gallery to display artwork and host public programs as well as classes like the museum studies students you see here.

We already mentioned the Kiss-in that led to the Gender and Sexuality Center, and student-led movements led to the creation of other centers here too. The Women’s Leadership and Resource Center was founded in 1990, the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center was established in 2005. In the early 2010s the university began plans for the consolidation of the centers into one space, which students fought vehemently, with protests on the quad and news articles. After that, the centers underwent an in-depth study about their work and their goals, and ultimately decided to formally join forces as the Centers for Cultural Understanding and Social Change. The Disability Resource and Cultural Center joined the CCUSC in 2012, as an acknowledgement of disability culture and the important intersections students have with other cultural and minority groups on campus. The most recent cultural center is the Arab American Cultural Center, which was created after several islamophobic incidents occurred on campus. For Lena's master’s thesis in 2016, she researched campus cultural centers which can be found in every state and at both public and private institutions, nearly always created out of student protest movements. The last two types of centers are particularly rare, but the way we coordinate intentionally is also rare.

When people feel welcome, when they see themselves reflected back in a place they’re part of, it helps them identify with the space and fight for their inclusion in other ways. The centers help with some direct services, but primarily they help build community which helps students develop a bicultural identity so they can succeed in their studies. Today there are continuing struggles to diversify UIC students, faculty, and staff, but there is no ethnic majority today, a rare thing indeed.

Stop 7: Candela Inspired Structure on UIC East campus


While teaching at UIC, Candela explained to his colleagues that the shells he constructed in Mexico were of a specific time and place. Candela was the architect, designer and engineer while constructing his concrete shells, but in the United States, these were distinct jobs executed by different individuals, teams, and often separate companies. The way in which Candela constructed his structures would have been extremely expensive in the US with labor costs in how he used a hand-crafted method of packing the concrete literally by hand. With this type of construction, came a risk of collapse and the need to rebuild which was highly frowned upon in the US.

When teaching Candela did not teach students how to recreate his shell structures. Instead, he emphasized how to use structural innovation to solve design challenges. Nonetheless, engineering students at UIC were entranced with Candela’s hyperbolic paraboloids and designed this public sculpture inspired by his work after his departure from UIC.


Take a moment to walk in and around the sculpture. What is its function here in this place at UIC? Does it serve any purpose? How does this student-made piece achieve or fall short of Candela’s aims? Is it an adequate legacy to Candela’s time at UIC?

Thank you so much for joining us on our People’s Tour. If you’re looking for additional tours, check out UIC’s Alt Tour

Tour written by Megan Moran and Lena Guerrero Reynolds.