Mies van der Rohe is Born
On March 27th, 1886 Ludwig Mies was born in Aachen, Germany. He would later incorporate his mother's maiden name ("Rohe") into his own as he rose to prominence in the architectural community.
Mies Moves to Berlin
Leaving his home of Aachen, Germany on the advice of a fellow architect, 19 year old Mies moved to the city seeking great architecture and a place in a notable firm. His family remained forever in Aachen and ran their masonry business while Mies was making a name for himself in the cultural capital of the time.
The Riehl House was Mies' first building. He was twenty-one at the time and was working for Bruno Paul. Here, Mies reiterates much of Paul's classical German style with an austere stucco exterior and a pronounced roof that emphasizes the idea of shelter and home. The interior space pulled inspiration from English cottages and Japanese architecture, in addition to Paul.
Mies joins the staff at Peter Behrens’ atelier
Bookbinder, visual artist, graphic designer and architect, Peter Behrens was as innovative as he was multi-talented. His first building - a home for himself, the contents of which he also designed- is a prime example of Gesamtkunstwerk. As a "total work of art" Haus Behrens utilized every artistic medium to create a complete aesthetic experience. Following success of his home he designed the AEG Turbine Factory, once again designing the structure as well as its contents. He was one of the first designers to embrace industrialization as a way to provide well designed, useful objects to the masses. In 1907 he founded his own architecture firm in Berlin which included three architects who would later write the history of modern architecture: Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.
Impressed by the work he did for the Riehls, the Urbig family commissioned a home from Mies in 1915. Mies' first design called for a modern flat roof, but this was rejected. The new plan offered a more traditional hipped roof with five dormer windows.
Such revisions were common, and led many architects in the early 20th century to revert to conventional aesthetics. While Urbig House may be overly elaborate in decor, it is finely made, demonstrating Mies' attention to detail and mastery of planning and construction.
Friedrichstrasse Office Building
Although it was never built, Mies' design for the Friedrichstrasse Office Building remains one of the most important structures in 20th century architecture. For the Friedrichstrasse architecture competition, Mies ignored several rules dictated in the guidelines and presented a radical concept to the committee: a skyscraper made entirely of glass and steel. The design didn't win, much less receive an official mention. Decades later, this style has come to dominate corporate architecture.
Mies and Le Corbusier meet in Stuttgart, Germany
At different points in time both Mies and Le Corbusier worked at Peter Behrens' atelier. Nearly two decades after their training with Behrens the two had their first meeting at the Weissenhofsiedlung, which featured houses by both architects and the artistic directorship of Mies.
Set on a hill overlooking Stuttgart, Germany, these twenty-one houses and apartment buildings comprise one of the most celebrated communal endeavors in the history of modern architecture. The ultimate success of the Weissenhofsiedlung owes much to the artistic director, Mies van der Rohe, whose strategy was to invite a group of the most famous European architects to design individual buildings in conformity with a plan that he designed.
With their highly geometric structure and restricted windows, the form of these apartments appears to affect their function. Such lenience to practicality would never be seen in Mies' work following this low-cost housing project.
Seeking to make a comfortable lounge chair that maintained the restraint of his minimalist aesthetic, Mies arrived at the Tugendhat. Here, the cushions of the Barcelona meet the cantilever frame of the MR, arriving at an elegant solution to the overstuffed club chair.
Perhaps the most iconic work from Mies' oeuvre, the Barcelona Chair at once gives life to and is born from its materials. Like the MR and Brno Chairs, it is composed of steel and leather. The steel bar legs ease up and over to support the seat and back of the chair. Mies' gift was to endow grace in otherwise monotonous substances. The Barcelona Chair attests to his mastery of form, function, and beauty.
The Barcelona Couch was first used in the New York apartment of Architect Phillip Johnson in 1930. Scholars cite Lilly Reich as a co-designer. Reich also designed the interiors for the Johnson project.
The Barcelona Pavilion
Mies built the German (or Barcelona) Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. It housed the ceremonial reception space for German industrial exhibits commissioned by the German government. Mies united sophisticated materials with a fluid open plan, which together endowed the space with an unprecedented modern elegance. The architecture's mass is balanced by a pond (featuring a sculpture by Georg Kolb) and a shallow pool on either end.
Made of steel and leather, the Brno Chair expresses Mies' regard for simplicity. The chair is named after Brno, Czechoslovakia, where it debuted in the Tugendhat House.
Lange and Esters Houses
These two houses sit side by side on the Wilhelmshofallee in the artistocratic quarter of Krefeld, Germany. They were commissioned at or about the same time by Josef Esters and Hermann Lange, two executives of the silk weaving mills, or the Vereingte Seidenweberein A-G, which make Krefeld famous. Mies worked on the two designs concurrently and the construction of each was begun within a day of the other's. Lange and Esters were collectors of contemporary art, so it seems fitting that their homes are now contemporary art exhibition spaces for the Kunstmuseen Krefeld. The lawn-turned-sculpture garden features works by Richard Serra and Claus Oldenberg.
Mies assumes directorship of the Bauhaus
Following the resignation of Hannes Meyer who had taken over for Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe became the director of the Bauhaus. Though he had turned down the position when Gropius left he accepted it the second time around, sensing that the school needed a greater emphasis on form and function rather than politics. Such lenience to beauty won him the animosity of the radical members of the student body. Mies focused the curriculum on architecture and interior design with greater intensity such that all other subjects, like fine arts, fell by the wayside. When the Bauhaus closed in 1932 Mies promptly revived it, if only for a few months, as his own school.
Also known as the Barcelona Table, the X Table made its first appearance in the Tugendhat House.
Brno, Czech Republic
The Tugendhat House occupies a graded site overlooking a broad valley, with a magnificent view of the city of Brno and the old Spielberg Castle. The house was designed as a large and luxurious villa for Grete and Fritz Tugendhat. This was the last major home Mies built in Europe.
Mies dealt with the extreme slope by dividing the front and back of the house into public and private facades. Facing the street, the building is only one story, but it's two stories on the garden side. The home's decor boasted several of Mies finest pieces of original furniture, including the Brno chair, the Tugendhat chair, and the X coffee table.
Marcel Breuer, Mies' peer at the Bauhaus, constructed the first tubular chair in 1925. It became known as the "Wassily," for another Bauhaus member, Wassily Kandinsky, and marked a shift in modern furniture design. Soon after, Mies created the MR Chair. By reducing the chair to its main parts and reconfiguring their relation to each other—clearly delineating the leather seat and back supports from the metal frame—he arrived at a fluid, refined cantilever form.
When it debuted, the chair was both lauded for its aesthetic accomplishments and laughed at for its aeronautical tendencies: the chair would propel the sitter forward should he try to stand up. This has since been fixed.
The MR Chair is available as a side chair, an armchair, chaise lounge and adjustable chaise lounge.
MR Lounge Chair
Like the MR Chair, the MR Lounge Chair features tubular stainless steel and a cantilever frame. Mies began with the iron rocking chairs that were the standard in 19th century Europe. He then injected them with modern materials and a minimalist aesthetic. This was another instance in which the architect reused a conventional, classic form to produce a work of sheer innovation. The MR Lounge exists as a chaise lounge, an armchair, an armless chair, and an adjustable chaise lounge.
The Modern Architecture-International Exhibition opens at the Museum of Modern Art
It was at this exhibition that the term "International Style" was born. Rather than emphasizing the social, art historical and technological aspects of architecture the curators, Philip Johnson (who later collaborated with Mies on the Seagram Building) and Henry-Russel Hitchcock, emphasized pure appearance. The exhibition was critiqued by architects and writers for clumping everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Walter Gropius under the same genre and overlooking crucial differences, and even crucial similarities, for the sake of categorization. The show ultimately proved to be an important moment in architecture's history, if only because of this controversy.
The Bauhaus closes
After 15 years of operation the Bauhaus is shut down by the Nazi regime. The modern aesthetic and "un-German" flavor of the school did not suit the nationalistic, neoclassical taste of German leaders. Many of the artists involved with the Bauhaus were exhibited in the Entartete Kunst exhibition, curated by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. The show hoped to ridicule the featured styles and artists, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Unique to the Lemke House is its courtyard. No other house by Mies would feature this relation to green space. It's also the last house built by Mies in Germany, and he emigrated to the United States soon after. Like the Lange and Esters Houses, the Lemke House exists today as a contemporary art exhibition space called the Mies van der Rohe House.
This private residence was built for Karl and Martha Lemke. They purchased property on the banks of Lake Obersee in Berlin in 1930, and construction of Mies's design began two years later (while he was the director of the Bauhaus). The home features floor-to-ceiling windows that open to an outdoor terrace. The interior is furnished with pieces designed by Lilly Reich and Mies.
The Lemkes lived there until they were forced out by the Soviet army in 1945. The house was then used as a garage, and in the 1960's the Stasi, or state security for the former East Germany, used it as janitors' living quarters and to store laundry. The building was protected with landmark status in 1977 and went through major restoration in 2000 through 2002.
Commissioned by Verseidag, the large silk-weaving company in Krefeld, Germany, this factory appears to set the precedent for Mies' work at IIT.
Mies meets Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin
The meeting between these two great architects, both living legends in their time, was momentous—particularly for the men themselves. Mies had long admired Wright's work and infused his own buildings with Wright's sense of spatial relationships. And although Wright turned away calls from Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, he warmly welcomed Mies to his summer home at Taliesin. The German architect, unlike his peers at the Bauhaus, did not overemphasize functionality, instead tempering usefulness with elegant materials, fluid space, and an original aesthetic. This won the respect of Wright. Mies' afternoon visit to Spring Green, Wisconsin turned into a four day stay, ending with a personal tour of Unity Temple, Coonley House, and Robie House in Illinois.
Mies emigrates to the United States
Mies left Germany in 1938 to head the Armour Institute, which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology. Many members of the Bauhaus, including Joseph Albers, Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy, also moved to the United States at this time.
Minerals and Metals Building
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, USA
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.
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, USA
Alumni Hall was Mies’ first academic building on the IIT campus. As such, it framed the
architectural language that guided the majority of other academic buildings. To align with the
campus grid, Mies established a modular bay 24’ long, 24’ wide, and 12’ tall, which proved
ideal for flexibility and efficiency, allocating space for classrooms, labs, and offices.
This module is delineated in steel on facades of most campus buildings. But unlike the
earlier Minerals & Metals Research Building (4), in which Mies was able to expose true
structure on the end, the steel grid of Alumni Hall only suggests the actual steel structure
within, an adaptation in response to a city mandate to fireproof classrooms, which forced
Mies to encase the structural steel in concrete. Thus, the columns you see are actually
mullions that hold the brick and glass panels. The fireproofing also instigated Mies’
tireless effort to resolve the corner detail, a solution which would reappear in modified
versions in almost all later buildings.
You may also notice that the steel mullions stop short of the ground. Why? Some believe
that Mies wanted to express their true non-bearing role; though rust, a more practical reason, has also been cited.
Philosophy behind it.
Beinahe nichts—almost nothing. Mies didn’t want these buildings to be self-consciously
architectural. Rather, he moves toward the absence of architecture—architecture as a
function of life. These buildings may seem forcibly barren until seen
as one unit within the campus context. Only then does the beauty of the full experience emerge.
Why it’s important.
Mies first developed his trademark corner in response to challenges created by fireproofing.
The skin’s corner bricks are stripped away revealing, at last, the true structural column.
At the same time, he reinforces the distinction between structure and skin while avoiding an
awkward junction of brick and steel at the corners.
What people say.
"Sometimes something has such a logic that it is a necessary form, although maybe in your
heart of hearts you would like to make it simpler." Myron Goldsmith, on the corner detail.
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, USA
“We’ve got to expand our idea of what constitutes beauty from a technical point of view.” —Peter Land, IIT Professor of Architecture, in regard to the importance of restoring Wishnick Hall
Wishnick Hall, originally called Chemistry Building, was Mies' fifth structure on the IIT campus. According to Franz Schulze, Mies' biographer, it established the “stylistic consistency of Mies’ IIT classroom buildings." Like Alumni Memorial and Perlstein Halls, Mies used repeated modular bays as the basic building blocks of his Chemistry Building. Each bay is divided by an exposed steel I-beam, meant to demonstrate the distinction between structure and enclosure. However, Wishnick differs from previous classroom buildings with its three-story rise, acknowledging a move toward the second phase of Mies’ master plan for the IIT campus.
Chemistry Building was completed in 1946, and then renamed and dedicated as Wishnick Hall on October 17, 1966 in honor of Robert Isidore Wishnick. Since its completion in the mid-40s, almost every IIT graduate has taken chemistry in Wishnick’s main lecture hall. As such, the building is both a significant point on the campus and in Mies’ career.
Robert Wishnick graduated from Armour Institute of Technology in 1914 with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. He later received a LL.B. from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He founded Witco Chemical Company in 1920, and donated $1 million to “Investment in Tomorrow—The IIT Campus" after making a small fortune. As an active member of the alumni community, Wishnick was elected to IIT’s Board of Trustees in 1936. In 1953, he won the Alumni Service Award, and a decade later, the Outstanding Alumnus Award.
“In recognition of his leadership and support of the University, and the institutional development program,” IIT chose the much-traversed Chemistry Building to be named in Wishnick's honor. He attended the dedication ceremony with his wife, Freda, and the youngest of his three children, William. News reports of the ceremony describe how Mr. Wishnick was “visibly moved to tears” by the honor of having such a building named after him.
Wishnick Hall's position as a main hub on campus made its dedication a great honor. Even still, heavy use over nearly half a century meant that by the early 2000s, the building had suffered a good deal of wear and tear. With the help of the Mies van der Rohe Society, funding for the renovation and restoration of both S. R. Crown and Wishnick Halls was raised in 2004. Following the restoration of Crown Hall, work on Wishnick began in 2006. For Crown Hall, efforts were focused on reviving Mies’ vision. Work on Wishnick was complicated by needing to balance preserving Mies’ design with the need for state-of-the-art laboratories, especially for IIT’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. Ultimately, that balance was achieved by renovating lab spaces on an individual basis, while restoring the lobby, auditorium, and hallways to their original state, along with a full restoration of the building’s envelope.
Restoration efforts were overseen by Greg Grunloh, an IIT alumnus and employee of the historic Chicago architectural firm, Holabird & Root, with the assistance of Sandra Bishnoi, Rong Wang, and LCM Architects. Preserving the building’s character was the top priority, and any updates were kept hidden in order to return the building as closely as possible to its original design. Particular efforts were made to match the original ceiling tiles, which are no longer produced. These provided good cover for some of the new mechanical and electrical work. Additionally, the building’s authentic air returns, near the doors, were salvaged and then fitted with air conditioning units, an improvement which has preserved the building’s original appearance almost seamlessly.
The final phase of the restoration, replacing the concrete porch, was completed in summer 2008. The building continues to serve as IIT’s home for chemistry, with facilities for everything from introductory classes to innovative and advanced research. Its successful restoration also means that Mies’ vision has been preserved, paying due tribute to the building’s historical significance in defining the campus’s architectural theme.
In many ways, Perlstein is a culmination and amalgamation of many ideas Mies was developing on the IIT campus—in particular the expression of structure, modular organization, construction detailing.
This building conforms to the structural bay of 24’ square and 12’ high, which provides an easy measure of comparison for building volumes. For example, Perlstein measures 12 bays long, 5 bays wide, and 2 bays high, with the entrance of 3 bays located on the southern end. The modular grid continues inside. Interior columns are set into the 24’ square grid of the campus plan—with doors, windows, and walls placed into it as needed.
Mies uses the grid to organize the interior into three zones: outer, inner, and circulatory. Spaces requiring natural light, such as classrooms, are located within the bay along the outer periphery; while auditoria, toilets, and other functions not needing natural light are located in the middle. An interior courtyard garden, another Mies trademark and the first of its kind in the United States, provides natural light for offices and conference rooms within the interior zone. Circulation corridors, 12’ wide and 12’ high, wrap between these two zones.
"Mies felt that the module was a very important thing to determine," George Danforth recalled, "so that the buildings wouldn’t be positioned in a haphazard sort of way in the future, that it would be the guiding principle." The modularity also instilled uniformity, and thus economy, in building components. Yet its true genius lies in the way it underlies—not overbears—the logical organization of space.
Why it’s important.
One unique aspect of Perlstein is the juxtaposition of two different structural systems. Originally built for Metallurgical & Chemical Engineering, it housed a large two-story lab which is expressed on the northern facade. Structurally, the lab is a one-way, gothic-type system, whereas the rest of the building is a two-way, classically based system.
What people say.
"They could just run through and place the doors, in relationship to the module, of course, because they related to the spaces inside—laboratories or offices as the case might be. So all of this becomes a fabric, a kind of weaving that works together or hangs together." -George Danforth
The Promontory Apartments
The Promontory Apartments mark Mies' foray into high-rise buildings. Notably, it was the first tall building to exhibit its construction materials. Concrete, beams, and columns were left in plain sight, winning the praise of critics. The design of the building gave the most units possible a view of Lake Michigan, and the aesthetic was just as thoughtful. This project resulted from the relationship Mies struck up with Chicago developer Herbert Greenwald, a collaboration that yielded over a dozen major buildings and complexes, including the Commonwealth Promenade Apartments and 1300 Lake Shore Drive Apartments.
Plano, IL, USA
It—two parallel planes held in suspension between the earth and sky by only eight steel columns—seems simple, but Mies worked through 167 drawings to come to his final, fearless design. Like Einstein’s equation, its simplicity exudes an elegance through a thorough attention to detail. However, Mies did not create the Farnsworth House to be an iconic glass box viewed from afar. Rather, he hoped to create a space through which life unfolds both independently and interdependently with nature.
Edith Farnsworth, a brilliant doctor, first met Mies at a cocktail party in Chicago. Familiar with his work, she asked if he would design a small weekend retreat for her on the banks of the Fox River. Upon visiting the 64-acre site, largely within a flood plain, Mies perceived the true power already present within the natural landscape. Thus began his quest for a transparent structure that would minimize the boundary between man and the natural world. With an open floor plan of only 2400 square feet, he created three distinct spatial interfaces: a transparent house, a covered terrace, and an open deck. His budget was $40,000.
Edith Farnsworth nurtured a sophisticated intellect and daring stance. Though charmed by Mies’ quiet, bold genius, she was certainly aware of his minimal form and bravely gave him freedom to create—a visionary and rare move which allowed Mies’ own vision to grow. For some time, she and Mies enjoyed a deep friendship fused by common interest and parallel intellect, often spending days and evenings together both on and off site. But as time wore on and expenses skyrocketed, Edith’s patience and enthusiasm waned. She sold the house in 1975 to a British Lord after living there periodically for several decades. In 2003, the Landmarks Preservation of Illinois and the National Trust purchased the house for $6.7 million. Edith, who died in 1978, never lived to know her house as one of the most widely acclaimed 20th-century structures.
860-880 Lake Shore Apartments
860 - 880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL, USA
About the buildings.
The materials are common: steel, aluminum, glass. Yet these buildings are renowned for their structural clarity and composition. Using steel straight from the mill, Mies built with the eye and intent of an artist, striking the perfect balance between rational structure and irrational spirit. The vertical windows and columns emphasize height. He relied not on applied ornamentation, but rather on clarity of form achieved through elegant proportions—window width:height, spandrel:column, bay:facade—and exacting detail. Prior to this point, structure was hidden within architecture. Here, Mies merged the two by exposing the steel, realizing his own words: "When technology reaches it true fulfillment, it transcends into architecture."
While each building alone is symmetrical, comprised of 21’ square bays (5 across, 3 deep) with a total of 288 apartments, the buildings are related informally within this small site (.78 acres) to create a dynamism similar to that found on the IIT campus. For the living spaces above, the building’s slightly offset, perpendicular relationship creates an openness which seizes the breathtaking lake views. At the pedestrian level, the open plan creates a flow of natural greenspace amid the plaza, unprecedented at that time in a city.
I-beams are welded to the mullions and columns, as without them, according to Mies, "the buildings did not look right." These I-beams, which are structurally unnecessary, have been criticized as decorative, impure, and untrue—seemingly antithetical to Mies’ pronounced beliefs. But Mies seemed to accept this. Like the IIT corner, the purpose is more aesthetic than functional.
Why they’re important.
Beyond structural clarity and open plan, they set the standard for tall building design, as seen in Bunshaft’s Lever House (1952) in NYC and, later, Mies’ Seagram building. The alternative design for his Promontory Apartments served as primary inspiration.
What people say.
"Since 860-880 LSD were completed, architecture has veered a divergent course through modernism, brutalism, advocacy architecture and the erratic excesses of postmodernism. 860-880 has survived all those fashions and, though often very unpopular during those periods, emerges today even stronger and clearer as everlasting, exemplary buildings of the 20th century." Helmut Jahn. 1996. In testimony for Chicago Landmark Status
While you are there.
Look east to Lake Point Tower (1968), by Shipporeit & Heinrich who perhaps were inspired by Mies' glass tower (unbuilt) of 1922. Its curves playfully reflect light as well as provide greater wind resistance.
50 x 50 House
One of Mies' most famous unbuilt projects, the 50 x 50 house was conceived as a solution to the problem of mass housing, a genre of architecture he had never paid serious attention to in the past. In 2009, the artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovallé constructed a half-scale version of the house in which the floor and ceiling were reversed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, USA
“Too often we think about architecture in terms of the spectacular. There is nothing spectacular about this chapel; it was not meant to be spectacular. It was meant to be simple; and, in fact, it is simple. But in its simplicity it is not primitive, but noble, and in its smallness it is great, in fact, monumental.”
The decision to build a Chapel at IIT originated in the years after World War II with a proposal from the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago's Bishop Wallace E. Conkling. Conkling wanted to increase the local presence of the Episcopal Church and thought IIT's campus was the perfect location. Since the war had soured the relationship between science and religion for many, Conkling saw the Chapel as a place where students interested in the future of technology could form a positive union of the two, calling it a "great educational project of the atomic age."
Construction on the Chapel began in 1949. Original plans were for a Chapel complex, complete with a Parish house and meeting hall. However, the final design was the simple structure that students now refer to as the “God box.” While records are unclear, it seems that this reduction in scope was motivated by a need for the Chapel to be non-denominational. Although it was sponsored and administered, in part, by the Episcopalian Diocese of Chicago, the administration mandated that the Chapel be open to students of all faiths. This was in order to truly achieve the Chapel's goal of engaging the student body “in the search for virtue while we become proficient in the search for things.” In addition to Mies’ aesthetic preferences, this attributes to the understated appearance of the altar and cross, along with the oft-discussed curtain that hangs behind them.
In spite of its humble appearance, the Chapel is an important point in Mies’ oeuvre, both historically and architecturally. Although he said later in life that he would have liked to build a cathedral, that dream was never realized, and the Chapel remains Mies’ only foray into the world of ecclesiastical building. The building stands apart as Mies’ only masonry building outside of Europe. Unlike his other work in America, the walls constructed of blonde bricks in an English bond pattern are not merely decorative, but also support the small building. This marks a break from Mies’ usual division of structure and enclosure. According to Mies, the simple walls are intended to draw the eye upward, making the Chapel a space for contemplation. Rather than encouraging “a longing to become lost,” Mies intended that visitors would feel “the hope of finding oneself” in the small space.
Since its completion in 1952, the Chapel has hosted a weekly service on Sundays, as well as weddings and a plethora of other events, both religious and secular. Following the completion of Wishnick Hall, the Mies Society chose the Chapel as their next renovation project because of its architectural significance. With the help of Dean of Architecture, Donna Robertson, the Mies Society began restoration on the Chapel in 2008. Based on studies done with students, Robertson identified the roof as needing immediate replacement and that was done in the summer of 2009, along with the restoration of the rest of the exterior.
With with the generous assistance of Mies van der Rohe Society members, including lead gifts from Barbi and Tom Donnelley, Colin and Tracey Kihnke, the Regenstein Foundation and Jane Moore Black, Carr Memorial Chapel will be fully restored by the end of Summer 2013. Restoration work included: roof replacement, repairs and replacement of exterior glass and steel, reconstruction of exterior brick corners, refinishing of terrazzo floor, cleaning and repairs to interior brick, upgraded mechanical and electrical components, refinishing of wood doors and benches, cleaning of concrete ceiling panels, lighting replacement, renovation to create ADA-compliant restroom and passageway, and accommodations for air conditioning. In addition, new drapes behind the altar, donated by Donghia, Inc., fulfill modern technical requirements. Created in consultation with Mies’ assistant, Gene Summers, the curtain was specially woven in Italy to match the original. It is made of a blend of fire-retardant fibers and pongee silk, and its pleating restores the original, more elegant pattern chosen by Mies. Cornel Erdbeer, president of Ludwig Interiors, donated his expertise in pleating and sewing to achieve a clean and simple appearance. With its hanging, we restore Mies’ sense of textural balance and coherence of palette, as the heavy silk and creamy color complement the travertine altar and cement-and-brick structure.
The McCormick House is one instance of Mies' "Steel Frame Row Houses." It is reported that its steel-framed walls were brought from the factory to the site only under special allowance by the police for the transport vehicles. In 1994, the house was moved several blocks from its original location to a public park where it now operates as the Elmhurst Art Museum.
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.
Esplanade Apartment Buildings
Following the success of the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Mies and Greenwald conceived five major project proposals for Chicago's North Side. Esplanade was one of them. The first buildings ever built with an uninterrupted aluminum and glass curtain wall, the Esplanade also features colonnades and a private sun deck.
Commonwealth Promenade Apartments
Mies worked with developer Herbert Greenwald on these two mid-rise apartment buildings after the success of their collaboration on 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments the year before. The original design and development plan accounted for four, but this was eventually scaled back. The project bears many similarities to the Esplanade Apartment Buildings, which were designed around the same time, and both of these new developments were heavily influenced by 860-880.
S.R. Crown Hall
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, USA
S.R. Crown Hall is, by all accounts, a masterpiece. Since its completion over 50 years ago, Mies van der Rohe’s “home for ideas and adventures” has inspired students, architects, and admirers.
The project to build a new home for the School of Architecture and Institute of Design came about more than a decade after IIT's campus development initiative began in 1943. The minutes of the IIT Buildings and Grounds Committee tell us that Mies’ plans were understood early on to be “of the most advanced design, incorporating only steel and glass in its exterior design.” The cost of such a structure was daunting, and construction was delayed.
However, in 1954, Henry Crown, an IIT Trustee and industrial mogul, donated $250,000 from the Arie and Ida Crown Foundation (named for his parents). The donation was a show of good faith, meant to encourage gifts from other donors toward the $750,000 goal, and it eventually succeeded. Crown had made his fortune from his company, the Materials Service Corporation, founded by him and his brother Solomon in 1919. After committing his life savings to the venture, Sol died just two years after the company was founded, at the age of 27. S.R. Crown Hall is named in his honor.
The University broke ground on December 2, 1954. But, further problems arose with the design. IIT professor, David Sharpe, recalled that city inspectors told Mies he “couldn’t build it as a classroom building, because the [steel] columns would have to be fireproofed” with sprayed on concrete. “Mies didn’t want to put concrete on these...[so] they said we could build it this way if we classified it as a warehouse.” Inspectors also mandated that railings be added to the porch. Mies strongly resisted on the grounds that the porch, modeled after the one at Farnsworth House, was meant to float and railings would interrupt the illusion. The railings were eventually installed.
A final obstacle came in the form of a fire. On March 25, 1955, a heater, meant to dry the fresh concrete poured for the foundation, exploded. Shooting gasoline across the basement floor, the explosion set off the fuel supplies of other heaters, causing a large fire that burned the wooden forms and supports that had been laid for construction. The accident destroyed nearly one half of the brand new first floor and resulted in nearly $100,000 in damage, delaying the project even further.
The troubles of construction however, were worth it. Crown Hall was completed in 1956, and has since become the place where aspiring architects come to worship at the altar of Mies. With its low rise and columnar steel frame, Crown Hall looks like what the Greeks might have built for Zeus, had they known about I-beams. The translucent glass at floor-level speaks to contemplation and curiosity, while the clear glass higher up encourages visitors to lift their gaze upward and outward. Describing the moment when the floor-level, gun-slit windows are opened and the space is cleared for the exhibition of recent work, Ben Nicholson says “The effect is monumental, for it gives the appearance of the building having transubstantiated and elevated to a point where it seems as if the whole is rising from itself.”
And although the cool, spiritual quality of the physical space is disrupted for most of the year by the chaos of studios and projects, Mies’ aura maintains its presence in the intellectual space. The IIT College of Architecture has made a few small adjustments to Mies’ original curriculum, but undergraduate architecture students still learn in a sequence that was largely designed by Mies. In fact, the progression from materials-based drafting through professional-style studios is said to mimic the progression Mies, himself, followed informally.
At the age of 45—five years before the usual age for consideration—Crown Hall became a monument in addition to being a temple. Named a National Historic Landmark in 2001, the building was recognized a testament to Mies’ genius. By using steel frames to hang the ceiling, rather than columns to support it, the building marks Mies’ first major success in creating a clear-span structure. While Mies had used a clear-span design at the Farnsworth House, completed five years before Crown in 1951, the massive increase in scale (Crown is an enormous 120 by 220 by 18 feet high) allowed Mies to clearly and coherently realize his dream of creating a universal space.
Illinois Institute of Technology Master Plan
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, USA
Mies arrived in Chicago in 1938 to become the Director of Architecture at the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) with the understanding that he would redevelop the curriculum. Soon after, he was awarded the commission to redesign the campus and its buildings, an unexpected opportunity to shape a university that no other modern architect was given.
The campus excels in defining the relationships of campus to city, buildings to campus, and voids to buildings. The first scheme of 1939 required the removal of State Street to allow for a central open plaza with perimeter buildings raised on steel columns. In the realized plan, clusters of buildings placed on a grade create a series of informal open spaces through a playful shifting of solid (i.e. buildings) and void (i.e. green space). A 24-foot square grid invisibly overlays the campus to guide its order. Then, by sliding the building volumes beyond one another rather than aligning them, Mies created expanding and contracting views, which offer a variety of unexpected experiences, reflecting the spatial concepts in the Barcelona pavilion on a much larger scale. Buildings define plazas without enclosing them, combining the intimacy of a Harvard quad with the openness of Jefferson’s U.Va.
Mies was dismissed as campus architect in 1958. Afterward, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill added buildings based on Mies’s plan, most notably the Paul V. Galvin Library and Hermann Hall, which served as the student union until the opening of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center in 2003.
Why it’s important.
The campus plan stands as the first instance in which Mies used the grid as an organizing principle. According to Phyllis Lambert, it was "perhaps an idea derived from the 5-acre Chicago city block, an American urban grid distinctly different from the winding streets, enclosed squares and axial alignment of European planning."
What people say.
"It is the beautiful ambiguity of the IIT campus that the status of its built substance oscillates between object and tissue, that its modules imply potential extension yet end emphatically, that its structures hover between recessive foreground and prominent background." Rem Koolhaas, 2001
Mies retires from IIT
As his commissions increased Mies had less and less time to run the architecture program at Illinois Institute of Technology. At the age of 72, Mies left IIT and began focusing on his own projects. Skidmore, Owings and Merril took over the on-campus projects he did not complete.
The Seagram Building
New York, New York
This 39-story, 516-foot tall office building was commissioned by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Corporation, purveyors of Seagram liquors. Noted for it's amber toned windows and public plaza, the Seagram is Mies' largest work. The architect worked around New York City's zoning codes mandating that skyscrapers recess or "set back" as they rose by recessing the entire building. Like the Chicago Federal Center and the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Seagram's plaza features a monumental sculpture by Alexander Calder.
American Federal Building
Des Moines, Iowa
This two story steel and glass structure was built by Mies in 1962. The American Federal Building, along with Meredith Hall at Drake University, are the only works designed by the architect in Des Moines, Iowa.
The 2400 Lakeview Apartments consist of a single building made of reinforced concrete, aluminum, and grey-tinted glass. As with all Mies' work, this building derives beauty not from ornamentation, but instead from the essentials of architecture: materials and construction. In the ground floor lobby the elevator core appears as a solid block of marble. Nearby, red Barcelona Chairs echo the color of the wood paneling along the mailboxes. These warm hues complement and balance the coolness of aluminum and glass. Discussing the 2400 Lakeview Apartments, Mies said, "Our imagination went into the construction. We used our ideas not for the form but for the constructional possibilities."
Chicago Federal Center
This 42-story office building is located on Dearborn Street in the Chicago Loop. The project was commissioned by the General Services Administration of the US government as part of a plan initiated in the 1950s to update federal administrative and judiciary facilities nationwide. Begun in 1959, it was designed in full by 1964, with many changes made in the process. Construction was not completed until 1973. The chief designer among a group of architects, which included Schmidt, Garden & Erikson, C.F. Murphy Associates, and A. Epstein & Sons, Mies saw no reason to adhere to the traditional symbolism of government.
School of Social Service Administration
969 East 60th St , University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA
This low-rise, wholly symmetrical building sits on a raised plinth of travertine similar to Crown Hall. Built a decade after the completion of Crown, the Social Services Administration building merges many of the architectural solutions accomplished in both Crown and the Commons. However, the SSA is appreciably heavier, almost seeming to be stuck on the ground. Gene Summers was the project architect, and he was assisted by Dirk Lohan, Mies’ grandson.
"Summers’ predilection for bringing the enclosure to the ground was imprinted from the Commons Building at IIT," writes Phyllis Lambert. "The strength of his design and leadership, his ability, like Fujikawa, to bring projects in on time and on budget, and a practical bent similar to that of Mies himself, afforded Summers a major position in the office. Beginning with Seagram, from 1956 to 1966, he was Mies’ right hand man, directing all projects in the office other than housing schemes."
"Symmetry was a big part of Mies’ work," Summers recalled in 1996, "and it was also something that I really caught onto fast, and I loved these symmetrical plans. Now, Mies would take exception and not really call them symmetrical. Because to him a symmetrical on both axes, because that’s a static type of composition. But symmetrical about one axis was important to him. It was important to me...This was a kind of twist on something not modern. I mean that is not a modern concept. That’s a classical concept. And, you know, I loved the fact that you could make a classical composition with a modern building."
What people say.
"Gene Summers’ work is characterized by his interest in symmetry, substantive detailing, engaging enclosure, and conceiving of the building as sculpturally objectified. These tendencies characterized the work in Mies’ office after Seagram." Phyllis Lambert. 2001
While you are there.
Visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, the one building that Mies wanted to see on his first trip to Chicago in 1937. For a period of time, it served as University of Chicago’s Alumni House, but now is open for tours.
Lafayette Park, just northeast of downtown Detroit, is a 78-acre housing development designed and realized by Mies van der Rohe. The first urban renewal project in the United States, it was founded by developer Herb Greenwald to help keep the middle class in the city. Alfred Caldwell, Mies’ longtime collaborator, did all landscape design on the project, and Ludwig Hilberseimer handled the urban design (in the only professional collaboration between Hilberseimer and Mies).
The complex is a collection of one- and two- story townhomes, a small neighborhood shopping center, and two high-rises set adjacent to a 19-acre municipally-operated park also called Lafayette Park. The buildings are planned along three roadways that enter the development from the west. Mies planned for Lafayette Park to embrace the automobile from the beginning—after all, Detroit is the Motor City. However, he does not show off the parking areas, instead sinking them about four feet below the level of the sidewalks and laws of the townhomes. A resident peering out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of his unit would scarcely be able to see them.
Some of the land around the townhomes themselves is carefully left as green space to serve as a passive recreation area for the children who live there. The development is adjacent to a public elementary school, one of Detroit’s best, and Mies carefully designed the circulation of Lafayette Park to allow children to get from their townhome to school without having to cross a street.
The townhomes are the most spectacular aspect of the development, and the most unique buildings in Mies’ oeuvre. Two-story townhomes are located on the north and south ends, with one-story courtyard townhomes in the center. The townhomes come in floor plans of two and three bedrooms, with an average size of 1400 square feet. The courtyard homes also each include a walled courtyard, and every home has a full basement below. Interestingly, Mies eliminated outside Dumpsters by placing all trash and maintenance functions in a communal tunnel connecting all units in a row at the basement level.
The interiors of the townhomes are cleanly and clearly articulated, as would be expected of Mies’ work. For example, although the units are narrow, both ends have floor-to-ceiling windows. In order to provide the largest possible area of vision in the glass, the blinds are specially designed to retract into a pocket in the soffit above the ceiling. In a two-story unit, both ends of the first floor are public spaces, with a galley kitchen on one side and a hallway also containing the staircase on the other. Between the kitchen and hallway is a small service core that includes a powder room. The staircase features the classic handrails that Mies uses through his many commissions, including at Crown Hall, though here the open treads are wood over a metal frame. The second floor contains the bedrooms. The second floor of each unit doesn’t necessarily line up with the floor below, rather varying in order to allow the maximum amount of possible useful space in the bedrooms.
Lafayette Park was always designed to be inhabited by middle class families and professionals, as it continues to be. As such, Mies was not able to use the highest quality finishes, as he commonly used in his other projects. The walls and ceilings are plaster and the floors are carpet or vinyl tile. The walls of the basement are exposed cinderblock. In order to attract the buyers at the price point desired, Mies compromised on materials, but made up for it with the elegance of the units’ views, layouts, and amenities.
Mellon Hall of Science
One of many academic buildings designed by Mies, this low-rise structure is located at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
The National Gallery is located on a sloping site along the north bank of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, Germany. The second and final museum of Mies' career (the first being Houston's Museum of Fine Arts), the Gallery was his only commission from the government of West Germany. This provided him with an occasion to return to the city where he begun his architectural practice.
It was completed one year before Mies' death. To all appearances, he saw it as the final major effort of his life, and his opportunity to create a truly large universal space (which he had dreamed of in his unbuilt design for the Chicago Convention Center). The site was on a grade, so Mies placed smaller galleries, office and storage spaces, and the Museum's sculpture garden on the lower level. This formed a base for the major exhibition hall on top, and also made it so that the garden is sloped.
Mies dies in Chicago, Illinois
In the summer of 1969 Mies was rushed to Wesley Memorial Hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Two weeks later the combined force this pneumonia and cancer of the esophagus, which Mies had been living with for three years, overcame the architect. On August 19th, at the age of 83, Mies died.
Nuns' Island, Canada
Located in Montreal, Quebec Île-des-Soeurs, or Nuns' Island, is home to three apartment buildings and an Esso gas station designed by Mies.
This urban planning project covers a 5.5 acre area in downtown Toronto, Ontario. Like the Chicago Federal Center, this complex is composed of two office towers along with a single one-story structure that houses the Toronto-Dominion Bank.
One IBM Plaza
330 North Wabash Street , Chicago, IL, USA
It’s hard to resist the sublime and symbolic liaison between the iconic 20th-century American corporation and the iconic modern architect. The resulting building—the structure formerly known as One IBM Plaza—has became synonymous with corporate power.
In September 2013, the building will reflect the changing face of capitalism with a new tenant, the American Medical Association. Just as much a behemoth as its predecessor, the physician’s trade group will take over a significant portion of the building, which will be renamed the AMA Plaza.
With black anodized aluminum to gray-tinted glass, Mies and his colleagues crafted a uniform skin that lends the building an air of a single imposing and impressive volume. It exerts its presence in Chicago's distinguished skyline through strength and clarity of form—the culmination of a meticulous lifelong study in structural expression, material simplicity, proportion, constructive detail, and organizational scale.
As one of Mies’ few projects consisting of only a single building, IBM is positioned on the riverside to capture views of the lake. Set on an elevated plaza on the north bank of the Chicago River, its presence is striking particularly as one crosses the River on Michigan Avenue or Lake Shore Drive. Not unlike the corporation for which it was built, it projects a contrasting personality—black monolith in day, luminous beacon at night.
Why it’s important.
One of Mies’ last American buildings (and his tallest at 52 stories or 670 feet), it was completed in 1970, a year after his death. As such, his participation was more that of an overseer. As Phyllis Lambert said, "Architecture is a collaborative building art, and the contribution of Mies’ office colleagues is indisputable; but it was ultimately his own sober and magnetic guidance that sustained the oeuvre."
While you are there.
Turn west to see the "corncob buildings," officially known as Marina City, built in 1964 and designed by Bertrand Goldberg, who studied under Mies in Germany at the Bauhaus. A comparison of the two buildings illustrates Mies’ words, "Form is not the aim of our work, but only the result." While Goldberg’s and Mies’ buildings take wildly different forms, both are representative of "structure follows space" modernism, with the aesthetic exposure of structure.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library evokes the solemnity of public institutions. This is the only library and the only building in Washington D.C. designed by Mies. Inside, stacks of books echo the rows of fluorescent lights. Outside, the sheer mass of the structure is felt as it stretches down the city block. The project was completed several years after Mies' death by his architecture firm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is the first museum Mies ever built, and his only one in the U.S (his second and final being Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie). He was hired to design two additions to the Caroline Weiss Law Building. This existing structure was built by William Ward Watkin in 1924 in the neoclassical style, complete with Greek columns.
Mies designed Cullinan Hall as early as 1954, and later the Brown Pavilion between 1965 and 1968. Cullinan Hall features 30 foot ceilings along with 6,800 square feet of open floor space, making it ideal for formal events and Modern and Contemporary art showcases. Brown Pavilion brings the total square footage of Mies' additions to 10,000.