Rem Koolhaas' Chicago campus centre is both a homage to and a slap in the face for its former lecturer, one Mies van der Rohe. And some are finding that hard to swallow …
A giant head of Mies van der Rohe swallows students entering the McCormick Tribune Campus Centre at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. This Pythonesque gesture is the work of influential Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his graphics team, 2×4. The $48m, 10,600 m2 campus centre is Koolhaas' first American building, and it opened last month to the unmistakable rumblings of controversy.

IIT is very much Mies' domain. He headed the architecture department there for 20 years and, more to the point, he designed it. So traditionalists, among them some of the architecture faculty at IIT, are agog at Koolhaas' irreverent incursions into this set piece of post-war modernism. Where the campus was all refined materials and immaculate lines, its new heart is animated by cool graphics, web-like pathways and even an orange plastic wall. So much for "less is more".

For Koolhaas and his practice, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, part of the challenge was to enliven and connect what had become a desolate and diffuse campus. IIT has doubled in size since Mies taught there, but the number of students has almost halved. The clearest symbol of the campus centre's role as a bustling intersection is the elevated rail line that runs right over it. A rattling blight, you might think, but by encasing it in a sleek steel muffler Koolhaas has made a virtue of it – students call it "the Tube".

Those attending IIT will probably thank Koolhaas for stepping onto the shrine-like campus and cranking the volume up a few notches. His detractors will no doubt argue that, compared with Mies' timelessness, in a few years the centre will be as dated as a dad who still says "groovy".