Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Mies van der Rohe - just the last name itself looks like a work of architecture with its four equal sides. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is the master of modernist architecture, which - to many Chicago visitors - is an architectural style that's often underrated. Mies' black box steel-frame buildings have no intricate details or Greek columns. Heck, their interiors have no marble staircases or glimmering mosaics, so what's the big deal, right? Well Mies ushered in a new era in architecture and you can find his work all over Chicago.

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Coming to America

Back in Germany in the 1920s, Mies had served as director of the Bauhaus, the famous, innovative  design school. The non-traditional, modernist styles of the Bauhaus were rejected by Nazis and the school ended up closing. The Illinois Institute of Technology wooed him to Chicago to be the head of the architecture department. How could one say "Nien"?

"Less is More"

Modernist architecture is about simplicity, efficiency, and modern materials. Byproducts of the world wars included technological advances in materials, like steel and glass, and these advances changed the shape of buildings to have big windows, basic forms, and modern heating and cooling systems. Mies took these new technologies and added poetry to the visual form of his buildings. "Less is more" was said to have been his mantra, and this meant that the superfluous details of early Chicago skyscrapers - like columns, pediments or terracotta ornamentation - were just clutter. The beauty in Mies buildings lies in their clean forms, the natural light that flows in through giant windows, and the meditative repetition of stark lines.

The Federal Center (230 S. Dearborn)

Federal Center, Chicago
To engage with the genius of Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, you have many options. A great place to start is downtown with the three buildings of the Federal Center. The squat little box of the post office and the wide expanse of the Federal Center Plaza balance the verticality of the two black skyscrapers. As you look at the buildings with their cutting steel grids, notice the way that the texture of their facades changes depending on your perspective. This beauty can only be found with the spared down simplicity of the modernist style. And just fyi, Alexander Calder's "Flamingo Sculpture" was not originally part of the plan at all, but doesn't its giant curve provide the perfect contrast?

The Illinois Institute of Technology (3300 S. Federal St.)

If you truly want a Mies pilgrimage, then hop on the green line CTA train for the 10-minute ride south to IIT campus. The Mies van der Rohe Society offers regular architectural tours of the campus. Mies designed the layout for the IIT campus as well as most of the buildings, including his seminal work of Crown Hall. Crown Hall houses the College of Architecture, and inside this inspiring open space there are no fixed walls other than two measly supports. Mies put the mechanics of the building, including the restrooms, all in the basement so that the main floor would be eternally flexible space, able to adapt with the changing needs of an academic institution. Once you really start to learn about Mies' approach to architecture, you realize that it is much more complex than the simplicity expressed in the buildings.

330 N. Wabash (Formerly the IBM Plaza, aka IBM Buidling)

IBM Plaza, Chicago The IBM Plaza skyscraper, soon to be renamed AMA Plaza, wrestles with Marina City and Trump Tower for skyline notability on the north bank of the Chicago River. Not many people know that a small (but crucial) work of Mies van der Rohe is easily accessible just a block off of The Magnificent Mile. The Arts Club of Chicago has his "floating staircase" and, a little northward, you can find the 860-880 Lakeshore Drive Apartments. This two-building complex gazes out over the Lake Michigan just north of Chicago Avenue. Built in the early 1950s, these towers were not warmly welcomed among the more historic architecture of the area, but tenants and landlords wanted modern lifestyles with fitting architecture, so Mies was hired to design more apartment buildings, such as the Commonwealth Promenade Apartments that overlook the north end of Lincoln Park.

Illinois Center (Michigan Ave. & Wacker Dr.)

Mies was busy with plenty of highrise office towers and apartment buildings in Chicago. Walk along Michigan Avenue south of the river and you'll pass by the multiple buildings of the Illinois Center. You'll see a very Miesian big black box skyscraper with the curvy red awning that's actually a sculpture, and that's a copy made by one of Mies' students.  

To learn more about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or to request a tour, visit the Mies van der Rohe Society.

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