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Less is More: A Mies Odyssey to Illinois Institute of Technology & Beyond

In Architecture on December 19, 2013 at 12:01 AM

December 19, 2013

To the Chief Builders of the Future:

A planned tour of the Illinois Institute of Technology earlier this year brought me to the southside of Chicago and, specifically, the royal landmark of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (or “Mies”) and his planned architecture program. Architects of the future could learn much from making this worthwhile trip.

“Give me your tired, your poor,” and your highly-skilled.

As some background, Nazi Germany rejected Mies van der Rohe, the architect, and other like-minded, avant-garde Bauhaus school architects in the 1930s, according to the history books (just like Bangladesh rejecting the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus from his country this year). Bauhaus in German means “house of construction.” Effectively ostracized, he was invited to bear fruit and multiply in America. Eventually, he took root in Chicago; albeit, after an initially cold reception from one established architect of the day, i.e., Frank Lloyd Wright, who offered introductory remarks at a ceremony in 1938 welcoming the newcomer to the city. The story goes that Wright walked out of the ceremony after some brief opening statements (apparently, the event was held in the prestigious Palmer House hotel). An academic search committee headed by John Holabird invited Mies to America, like Solon summoning immigrant merchants and other craftsmen to early Athens.

“Architecture is the most practical of the arts.”

The Greek Thales reminded us to “know thyself.” Plato, from Laws, projected the ideal city-state (or “polis”) to be 5,040 citizens. The philosopher Wittgenstein designed for his sister what he thought was the ideal house. And one well-known Atlanta resident has described the ideal musical venue (which, apparently, is not located underneath the Graveyard Tavern in East Atlanta; he says it’s too wide). Regarding different ideal objectives, Mies van der Rohe had an ideal project for architectural education in the 20th century and beyond. Once handed the keys to the new Chicago school, therefore, he was given a clean slate to produce his vision for education in what one expert refers to as “the most practical of the arts.” As a first order requirement, by illustration, you begin your studies in his program by learning how to correctly sharpen a pencil! Many believe that Crown Hall represents the ideal architecture class room (apparently, this Mies namesake is echoed in other surrounding Chicago landmarks like Crown Fountain). And at least one architectural critic describes Mies skyscrapers as the only type that successfully embraces an open plaza theme.

Ludwig Mies is his own words.

A few interesting pieces on Mies and his view toward education can be found here and here. Below is an excerpt from his 1938 address on education,

“Any education must be directed, first of all, towards the practical side of life. But if one may speak of real education, then it must go farther and reach the personal sphere and lead to a molding of the human being. The first aim should be to qualify the person to maintain himself in everyday life. It is to equip him with the necessary knowledge and ability for this purpose. The second aim is directed towards a formation of the personality. It should qualify him to make the right use of his knowledge and ability.”

Final thoughts regarding the Chicago international-style architecture.

Major takeaways from this style architecture are many. Notably you learn by traveling to the Illinois Institute of Technology that this great German-American architect favored rich simplicity, whether in natural primavera wood walls (or as Frank Lloyd Wright would say, “Natural with a capital N”), raw travertine marble staircases, flexible floor plans, open-ceiling rooms or neutral-tone, jet-black signature Henry Ford-like structural support beams.

What makes Greek architecture special versus Roman architecture seems to have been fully grasped by Mies van der Rohe, represented in his ability to take advantage of creating buildings in and from the default Natural surroundings. For that reason, he seems to uniquely embody a powerful architect’s architect that can both listen to and act in line with what is being demanded by the commissioner who is paying him to build and by posterity that is paying the commissioner; and all while echoing the ancients and building in a pure and durable manner.

From earlier this year, here are several Chicago photos from Illinois Institute of Technology and elsewhere in the city. Federal Center in downtown Chicago is pictured, which houses maybe Lord Van der Rohe’s greatest work, instilled in the smaller Post Office building. Also featured is a Bronzeville marker dedicated to Walter T. Bailey, located on the perimeter of the campus; and, finally, pictures of various Mies-influenced buildings visible from the Chicago River on the northside.

Now, if only the “Core House” concept can be realized and put to work.

Thank you, Mies van der Rohe Society.

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