Mies Resurrected
 -by Lynn Becker

Mies van der Rohe's masterpiece, S.R. Crown Hall at IIT, is reborn after a major restoration.



Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe detail

“Almost nothing.” That was Mies van der Rohe's goal as an architect: to use the emerging technology of his time to liberate the world from the fortress-like rock piles of the past. In 1921, he proposed a skyscraper whose walls were made entirely of glass, but it would take another quarter century before he could achieve his vision. It would happen, not in his native city of Berlin, but in his adopted home of Chicago, to which he had emigrated in 1938 to become the architect for the new campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, located in what is now called Bronzeville, along State Street from 31st to 35th. And even there, he was kept in bridle. The buildings that came closest to his ideal remained, not his early structures at IIT, which mediated the innovations of metal frames and broad expanses of glass with traditional brick infill and end walls, but Burnham and Atwood's 1895 Reliance Building, and Willis Polk's 1918 Hallidie Building in San Francisco, often credited with creating the first curtain wall in America.

The road to Crown Hall was a long battle. Mies's original 1940 campus plan was centered by two major showcase buildings, a student union, and a library with large exposed trusses on its roof, placed on either side of 33rd street. However, money remained tight, and the first new structures on campus, such as the 1941 Metals and Mineral Research building, were smaller, and deceptively simple.

It would take the prosperity that followed World War II to finally scratch Mies's itch to create the great Farnsworth Housemodernist monument, his entry into the sweepstakes of architectural immortality. At the end of the 1940's, he had commissions for glass-walled structures, both in high-rise form, at the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, and as a low, continuous single span at the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois. Soon after, back at IIT, Mies was finally able to design a building for his own department of architecture. The gloves came off. Mies placed the building, not at the center of campus, along 33rd street, but at its edge, with its main entrance facing south. A far more utilitarian back entrance in the north facade faces the rest of the campus.

Crown Hall was to be much more ambitious and daring than the campus's earlier building, and Mies had to overcome initial resistance from school trustees, who thought it too expensive. When that obstacle was overcome, there were the city building inspectors. A
ccording to former Mies student and current IIT professor David Sharpe, they 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. But then the city said, well, if you're going to have to do that, you're going to have to sprinkler it. This was the first sprinklered building on campus”

Sharpe spoke at an IIT symposium that brought together George Danforth, one of Mies's first associates in George Danforth, Donna Robertson, David Sharpe, George SchipporeitChicago and the man who succeeded him as Dean of the School of Architecture in 1958, Dever Rockwell, Danforth's former architectural partner, and IIT professors David Sharpe, Peter Roesch and George Schipporeit - all former students of Mies.

At the symposium, Roesch talked of the next obstacle, a construction fire that took place before the metal work was put up. "Where we're sitting now collapsed, after an hour of the form work burning underneath, and there was a delay. It was in the winter, when they had to heat the forms so the concrete didn't freeze."

Mies van der Rohe Crown Hall at IIT travertine porchMies had designed the stairs so they would be uncluttered by handrails, but it was not to be “It looked beautiful without handrails," remembers Roesch, but “the building inspector came and said, well, this is not a warehouse, you're using it as a school. Mies . . . really was so upset by that, that he had to put these rails up." Today those handrails are famous for their minimalist elegance.

Crown Hall was finally completed in 1956. It would be where Mies would exorcise his dual obsessions: maximum transparency, and the largest possible building, achieved through the minimum possible structure. “You walk in there,” says Gunny Harboe of Austin AECOM, preservation architect for the restoration “and it really makes your jaw drop.” Mies created a "“magnificent one-room schoolhouse,"” in the words of IIT Dean of Architecture Donna Robertson - a single room, 120 feet wide by 220 feet long and 18 feet high, whose
roof is suspended from four enormous plate girders, allowing the interior to be completely free of Mies van der Rohe Crown Hall interiorcolumns, an unobstructed 26,000 square feet, over half a football field. The floor is gray terrazzo, the aggregate a composite of Virginia and Tennessee marbles, set on a 2 1/2 by 5 foot grid, . The ceiling is made up of foot-square white acoustic tile, separated from the outer walls by a one foot recessed soffit that makes the ceiling appear to float in one continuous sweep. Along the building's perimeter, structure has been pared down to an ultra-light steel frame for an infill made completely of glass. Each of the ultra-clear upper panes is a spectacular 11 1/2 by 9 1/2 feet. The combined weight of all the building's glass is over 22 tons. "What Mies did" says Mark Sexton, project architect along with his partner, Ron Krueck, of Krueck and Sexton " is that he not only made it structurally, incredibly efficient . . . but he also made it incredibly beautiful. He blended structure and architecture in a perfect balance, almost like a tree or a leaf."

"Almost nothing," at long last. "Through the use of almost nothing," says Robertson, "(Mies) creates an almost sacred space." "It's a puff of air," is how Alfred Caldwell, another legendary Mies colleague, admiringly described Crown Hall, remembers associate dean Peter Beltemacchi. "That's everything in architecture," Beltemacchi adds. Everything fits together perfectly, with simplicity and grace. The result is a communal space that eloquently expresses the idea of freedom within order.

At night, says Harboe, Crown Hall becomes a pure, “glowing box.” Stuart MacRae of IIT's Graham Resource Center likens the nighttime view to a Japanese lantern, and while it's Frank Lloyd Wright who's best known forMies van der Rohe Crown Hall south facade being influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, you find the same kind of purity, of stripping down to essentials, as the bedrock of Mies's work. Still, Mies' ambitions for Crown Hall were anything but modest. IIT professor and historian Kevin Harrington notes in the AIA Guide to Chicago that, at the building's dedication, Mies said, “Let this building be the home of ideas and adventure . . . and in the end a real contribution to our civilization.”

In its early years, Crown Hall hosted a number of notable events - an exhibition of works by Picasso, a show where Fiats were driven up a ramp into the building to be put on display - but none more memorable than the evening students turned Crown Hall into a nightclub for their annual dance, and brought in Duke Ellington and his orchestra. “That was really a jumping evening,” says George Danforth. “We haven't had anything like it since.” Sharpe recalls some Peter Roesch, Dever Rockwellof the students egging on the band's trumpeter to “break the glass. He said he was going to break the glass. And he played, and he looked around. No glass popped out. You could just see the veins on his throat,” but a Memorex moment was not in the offing, although, remembers Beltemacchi, “the glassed bowed out because it was so loud.”

“We were anxious that night," says Sharpe, " to see what Mies would say when he came into the building. Mies walked in and he stopped, and he just kind of looked around. Mies wouldn't say anything, just lit his cigar and started smoking. After the end, Mies came to talk to us, and tell us that this was a very nice evening." (More on this event)

Mies and his German compatriots may have been more familiar with jazz than their students. "I was working in his office," remembered Danforth, accomplished as a musician as well as an architect“ and I said, 'Mies, I can't be with you tomorrow because I've got a concert at Ravinia', and Mies said, 'What is it?' And I said, 'It's Benny Goodman,' and he said, 'Ah . . . Sving?'”

Next: Crown Hall: Decline and Rebirth.

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© Copyright 2005-2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.


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