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.