Minerals and Metals Building

 1942 - 1943

The Story

Formerly the Armour Research Foundation (ARF) Metals Building, the opening of what is now called the Minerals and Metals Building marked the first step toward the realization of Mies' master plan for the Illinois Institute of Technology's Main Campus.

Not only was it the first building Mies designed for IIT, but it was also his first construction in America. Dedicated on January 11, 1943, the building is unusual because it was completed during World War II. At the time, very little was built, especially projects using steel, in order to conserve metal for the war effort. In fact, IIT had even donated the steel fence around Ogden field to the government’s scrap metal drive.

In the interest of best serving the country, IIT also contributed by becoming the Midwestern center of wartime technological training, offering tuition-free programs for “women’s defense training” and “white–collar men whose jobs were ruined by war-time restrictions.” With programs in engineering drawing, industrial chemistry, and ordinance inspection, IIT was determined to “train experts who will see that the metals in Uncle Sam’s guns, ships and tanks are flawless.”

Therefore, construction on the Minerals and Metals Building was no doubt deemed a necessity for the war effort, even with its use of steel. The dedication ceremony was kept short and simple to comply with wartime restrictions. Still, in spite of the dour political atmosphere, IIT’s press release was full of hope, describing the building as “virtually a utopia for investigation of metals and minerals.”

The press release also pronounces that the building “strikes the theme that will be carried out” in the new campus plan. As was hoped, the theme struck was a modern one. At its 15th Anniversary Exhibition in 1944, the Museum of Modern Art honored the Minerals and Metals Building as an outstanding example of modern functional architecture. More recently, Franz Schulze described its use of glass and steel as a “revolutionary structural effort.”

Despite these proclamations of the building’s importance, historian Kevin Harrington reminds us that Minerals and Metals is “not something made by the God of Crown Hall.” Rather, he urges us to understand the building as part of the development of Mies’ architectural language. As his first American building, Minerals & Metals reflects Mies’ transition from forms that had been “dear to his heart” during his days working in Europe to new forms that were “possible, necessary, and significant.”

Through multiple rounds of sketches, Mies made a “Herculean effort to adapt to the new conditions of building in America.” Although the building is visually reminiscent of the Bauhaus in Dessau, its structural premises are very different. It is in the Minerals and Metals Building that we first see Mies use the rolled-steel I-beam as part of his structural grammar.

However, what really caught the attention of the architecture community was the visible, irregular steel frame at the south end of the building. Critics declared it an homage to Piet Mondrian or Theo van Doesburg and the tenets of de Stijl. The critics were wrong. Although Mies was aware of both artists’ work, his avant-garde use of steel was actually a map to the inside of the building, inaugurating a technique he would use over and over again at IIT.

In the many years since the war ended, Minerals and Metals has served a variety of purposes ranging from research lab to lecture hall. Most recently it has become the model shop for IIT’s Department of Architecture, rumored to be the country’s largest model shop. The interior of Minerals and Metals now resembles the machinery-filled space that it was originally designed for.