Ratner Athletics Center, Univ of Chicago, Chicago, IL

The Gerald Ratner Athletics Center is located on the campus of the University of Chicago, on the south side of Chicago, Illinois.  The building complex is used by college students, faculty, staff, and community residents and is surrounded by other neighborhood and university buildings such as classrooms, a hospital, theater, library, dormitory, and parking garage.

The 150,000 square foot building contains a natatorium (an indoor swimming pool), a competition-sized gymnasium, a practice gym, a dance studio, weight lifting rooms, exercise rooms, locker rooms, and offices.

The building was a design partnership between two architecture firms: Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects(formerly Cesar Pelli Architects) of New Haven, Connecticut and Cannon Design (formerly OWP/P Architects) of Chicago, Illinois.  Pelli Clarke Pelli was the main design architect, responsible for the overall 'look and feel' and design of the building. Cannon Design served as the Architect of Record and was responsible for designing the building details and structural engineering, figuring out how it was to be constructed, developing the set of construction drawings, and overseeing construction.

Building Statistics

Building name
Gerald Ratner Athletics Center

The University of Chicago

Chicago, IL

Grade levels
university undergraduate and graduate students

Number of students at the university

Building size
150,000 square feet

Design Architect
Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects (formerly Cesar Pelli Architects). New Haven, CT

Architect of Record
Cannon Design (formerly OWP/P Architects). Chicago IL

Timeline / Project schedule
Schematic Design, 2000
Design Development, 2001
Construction, 2002 - 2003
Building Completion, 2003

Define the Problem

In 2000, the University of Chicago began a project to build a new gym, pool, and athletic facility to replace the the older gyms constructed in 1904 and 1932. The university staff knew they needed a modern and inspiring building with a strong identity and many new features to appeal to students.

Yet one of the problems in designing an athletic center, is that the athletes and coaches typically want a boxy building without windows. Recreational staff want light and airy buildings that would invite the public in. The architects had to figure out a way to resolve these competing issues.

Collect Information

To gather information on the projects, the architects spent some time walking around the site and talking photographs of the nearby buildings.

The architects also met many times over the course of a year with staff and teams of student advisors to learn about their needs for a new athletic center.

Brainstorm Ideas

Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects quickly developed many small study models to figure out the overall form of the building. A second round of study models show how the parts of the building could be arranged. Early brainstorming ideas included a central tower and a roof without the cables or steel masts holding up the roof structure, but in the end, these designs were not developed.

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Develop Solutions

A more finished model was built by the architects to show the University of Chicago administrators for approval. A side view of the gymnasium building, shows the tall steel masts designed to hold up the roof structure. The Ratner Athletics Center contains two main parts - the competition gym and the pool.

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Throughout the design process, Cesar Pelli presented many ideas to the school's staff for feedback over several months. The university wanted this to be a special building that would serve as a focal point or gateway on the north end of campus. In the end, the university saw the schemes with the tall steel masts and cables and said "wow!"

Final Design

Over the next year, the architects worked closely with university officials to refine the original design. Then work started on the all the detailed architectural drawings (called construction documents) needed to actually construct the athletics center.

Cannon Design's architects and engineers worked closely with the general contractor responsible for constructing the building. Other important collaborators - such as mechanical / plumbing engineers, advisors on the design of the pool, acoustical engineers, and lighting designers - were brought into the process for their expertise.

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Build It

Using the construction documents drawn by the architects, engineers, and the various project consultants, the building comes together. For nearly 2 years, the general contractor was responsible for constructing the building.

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Study the Construction Drawings