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.