The newly renovated Keller Center, home to the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy on Chicago’s South Side, is crafted from a 1963 building designed by the architect of New York’s Radio City Music Hall and D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Edward Durell Stone. On the outside is a colonnade of delicate columns etched with a hexagonal motif. Stone’s original interior sported wood paneling, pea-green paint, and purple carpet—the sort of swinging-’60s vibe where you’d expect to be greeted by a door person dispensing cigarette holders.
Now, there are burly concrete slabs and columns, and a monumental staircase sheathed in black steel, surrounded by break-out spaces, glass-walled classrooms and meeting rooms, and open-office workstations. It could be a coworking space, or tech office, or a library lounge—it’s largely a neutral container.
Until you get to its core. The building’s four-story atrium is dominated by terraced stair seating created in the shop of renowned Chicago artist Theaster Gates. The medium-hued wood—milled from ash trees in the city that were destroyed by the emerald ash borer—has a mild echo of the rich, tactile materiality common to Gates’s work, often harnessed through repurposing grubby, devalued matter (like tar and roofing tiles) into sculpture. Gates’s stair warms and defines the building’s heart as a social condenser.