The Commons

 1953 - 1954

The Story

The Commons was intended to be an "amenities center" for the IIT campus with a dining hall, grocery store, barbershop, and laundry. By that time, Mies was uninterested in designing a building for specific program needs, so he delegated the project to Gene Summers, a 23-year old architect who had only been working in Mies' office for two years at that point. Summers proposed a scheme somewhat like an enclosed shopping mall: an open area with flexible space on the perimeter for program needs. The plan appealed to Mies as it allowed the interior space to be experienced all at once, with sky and trees visible from all points.

In many ways, the Commons serves as a precursor to S.R. Crown Hall. However, the design process had two significant flaws. First, the wide variety of activities required a large space for utilities. As functions were added to the building, the center core became increasingly bulky and unwieldy, clouding the usual clarity of expression in Mies buildings. Second, Mies insisted on using prefabricated materials. The dimensions of these materials did not correspond to Mies’ carefully planned grid dimensions. Therefore, many of the steel pieces had to be cobbled together, resulting in a jumbled expression of Mies’ ideals. Some experts have speculated that it was this trouble at the Commons that caused Mies to move away from prefabricated materials and transition to custom-made pieces at Crown Hall.

Over time, the Commons Building’s unfortunate location, separated from the rest of the campus on the wrong side of the elevated tracks, wore into its utility and usage. Most of the functions planned for the Commons inevitably moved across State Street to the Hermann Union. As Rem Koolhaas said in his proposal for IIT’s new campus center, "The Commons Building is lost in a no-man’s land, a building in a void, doubly marooned within the larger space-wreck of the IIT campus. The Commons was intended as an object in a designed context. Since its construction, the strip that faced Mies’s campus on the east side of State Street has become derelict and is now completely abandoned to parking."

This dysfunction formed the basis of Rem’s design for the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, which won IIT's design competition for a new campus center. By enveloping the Commons Building within his new building, he resurrected purpose for this obsolete space. As intended almost 50 years ago, the Commons Building is now integrated into the context of campus life. Rem noted, "Together, the consolidated Student Center became an urban block that could begin to reestablish the intended Miesian dialectic between fullness and emptiness, city, and campus."

Why it’s important.
Originally: Because the Commons is a one-story building, Chicago building code did not require fireproofing. Thus, the structural steel frame and its meticulous detailing are able to be truly exposed. Now: Restored in 2003, it’s nested within Rem Koolhaas’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center, which has revitalized the aging IIT campus. But as such, it’s been the focus of both controversy and applause.

What people say.
"It is a mistake to read Mies as a master of the freestanding, or the autonomous. Mies without context is like a fish without water." Rem Koolhaas, 2001

While you are there.
Rem Koolhaas’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center, completed in 2003. Note the Miesian allusions within the new space, such as the interior courtyard, placement of columns on the grid and use of I-beams.