In 1974, the Department of Art History moved into the new Cochrane-Woods Art Center (CWAC), facing a newly-founded art gallery (now the Smart Museum of Art) across a courtyard. Edward Larrabee Barnes designed the complex at the same time as his acclaimed Walker Art Center, which established his reputation for designing art buildings. Pairing an art history building needing windowless auditoria for slide projection with a gallery needing abundant wall space for display, Barnes oriented both toward the courtyard. Largely blank exterior walls paneled in the university’s standard limestone give way to large, welcoming windows and main entrances inside. Entered from two sides through monumental metal gates partially designed by the Chicago-based sculptor and then-faculty member Virginio Ferrari, the courtyard constitutes the shared outdoor lobby for the department and museum.
The buildings satisfied a decades-old ambition for a purpose-designed center for the arts on campus. A grand Gothic project for a building housing art history, studio art, and art exhibition, by the well-known architect Paul Cret, was foiled by the financial crisis of 1929. It would have been built next to the Oriental Institute or south of the Midway. A new opportunity arose in the 1960s as part of bigger plans to develop a north campus, after urban renewal brought land clearance around 55th Street. Simultaneously, Regenstein Library (1970) was slated to be built in the former Stagg Field stadium, pushing the athletic field northward.
In this context, Barnes was originally commissioned to design a mixed-use “student village” between Regenstein Library and 55th Street, to which the arts would bring recreational as well as academic benefit. It featured a diamond-shaped quadrangle framed by student housing, flanked on the west by a new gymnasium and athletic field and on the east by new buildings for art exhibition, art history, music, and theater. North of the visual arts buildings was a second courtyard-centered complex for the performing arts, with a funnel-shaped gateway between them to channel students from Greenwood Avenue into the village. Bridging the gateway was to be a third-floor library shared by art and music, mooted once both departments ceded their collections to Regenstein’s centralized stacks.
Characteristically, Barnes proposed buildings with simple, strong geometric shapes, emphasizing the spatial relationships among them and the flow of people between them. While financial constraints thwarted the scheme as a whole, generous gifts from the Woods Charitable Fund and the Smart Family Foundation enabled construction of the CWAC and the Smart Museum of Art.