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The Lasting Effects of Mies van der Rohe's Masterplan for IIT

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"The appointment of Ludgwig Mies van der Rohe is in line with the current expansion program of the institute and is one of the first important steps in making the architectural department of Armour one of the foremost in the United States." When the Tribune covered Mies van der Rohe's appointment at the Armour Institute in the fall of 1938, which would later be merged with the Lewis Institute in 1940 to create the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Bauhaus figurehead's reputation preceded him. A September 13 article from that year recounts his four-day visit to see Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesan, when Bertrand Goldberg served as an interpreter, with the air of a celebrity, saying the "little call" was filled with "a practically continuous flow of conversation." Mies Van der Rohe was brought in to reshape architectural curriculum, but his appointment also came with the opportunity to reshape the campus. His master plan would not only introduce bold lines and a stark grid to the school's layout and become the setting of the biggest collection of Mies' work in the world, but also become a touchpoint in city planning.

"IIT is the first modernist campus," says John Ronan, an architect and IIT professor. "That is, it represents the first important collection of modernist educational buildings in the U.S., and its significance extends beyond campus design to the design of the city, in that it became broadly influential in its application to city design, specifically the relationship between buildings and open space."

Mies' initial scheme was based on a 24-square-foot grid, which brought order to the campus layout and served as a guiding principle (some have said it was based on the Chicago city block). With a redirected State Street allowing for an open, central plaza, van der Rohe had room to shift alignment and cluster buildings, creating subtle flow instead of endless rows of square structures. He also had the ability to play the work on Alfred Caldwell, a Prairie School landscape architect, against the multi-story buildings.

Mies even built the system from the bottom up, focusing on rooms and furniture, which informed the shape and role of a building, which in turn directed future campus growth. His concept of "universal space," which was exemplified in Crown Hall, with its 18-foot-high interior that can transform from auditorium to work space, was a further expansion of his focus on flexibility.

"Mies buildings at IIT are conceptualized as a fixed exterior and a changeable interior which could adapt to changing uses over time, an idea which has become commonplace today, not only in educational buildings but other building types as well," says Ronan.

"Crown Hall is the most architecturally significant building on campus, as it represents Mies' idea of "clear construction" in its most pure expression," says Ronan. The 120-by-220 foot "universal space" and center of the architecture school, crowned with 18-foot-high ceilings and supported by a series of steel girders, is a National Historic Landmark. But more importantly, it's a symphony of proper proportion. Light streaming in through large panes of glass, open work spaces and high ceilings offer the buzz of connection and the space for contemplation. During a dedication speech for the building, Mies spoke of the its purity and durability, "properties which very well could symbolize the character of the work which we hope will be performed in this building."

While Mies was dismissed as IIT's architect in 1958, and others, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Rem Koolhaas have expanded the campus, they've always done it based on his plans. According to current Dean of Architecture Wiel Arets, the flexibility and durability of Mies' work, and the energy that those draw from spaces such as Crown Hall, are timeless.

"He was interested in Greek and Roman architecture," says Arets, "it's not what we need, it's what the space wants to tell us. He wasn't making a building here, he was building a cathedral."

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Mighty Mies [Curbed Chicago]
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