Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall, modernist architectural masterpiece, hasn’t looked this good since the day it went up 49 years ago. The structural steel is freshly painted in "Mies Black." There’s brand-new glass, a restored south entrance and much better ventilation. The $3.6-million restoration began with repairs to building wiring, upper-level woodwork, rest rooms and the south entrance. Over this past summer, the steel and glass were done. Yet to come are improvements to landscaping, fire safety and energy efficiency. "Clearest Embodiment"
Located on the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in Chicago, Crown Hall houses IIT’s College of Architecture. Mies, who headed the college from 1938 to 1958, wanted to make a special place for it and Crown Hall differs in proportions and design from the other buildings he designed for IIT.
According to Mies, Crown Hall was the "clearest embodiment" of his belief that "structure is the essence of building." With wide travertine marble staircases on its north and south sides rising to spacious entrances six feet above ground level, this 120 x 220 foot rectangular building suggests a floating pavilion temple. There is no exterior decoration, just the steel structure that holds it together, a flat roof and walls of clear and frosted glass.
In his biography of Mies, Franz Schulze provides this description of Crown Hall. "Four pairs of wide flange columns 60 feet apart on center rise along the two long sides of the rectangle to connect the plate girders that cross between them. The roof is suspended from the underside of these girders and cantilevered 20 feet in the long direction from the outermost of them. Since these great steel bents are exposed to view from the exterior, their structural function is unmistakable." The steel exoskeleton creates a single rectangular room, an unobstructed "universal space" with 18-foot ceilings. Mies wanted Crown Hall’s interior to be completely open so it could be adapted easily to meet changing needs.
Crown Hall’s big space is filled with drafting tables where architecture students work beneath floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the outdoors in. It is such an inspiring place that IIT takes applicants for admission there while classes are in session. As a result, young people are signing up for the School of Architecture in record numbers -- 600 students this fall vs. 350 three years ago.
According to Robert J. Krawczyk, assistant professor in the IIT College of Architecture, students can expect that IIT’s five-year program will prepare them for practice. Most of the professors, Krawczyk among them, spent years on the firing line -- and they are very results-minded. A current craze among IIT’s architecture students is "What Would Mies Do?" armbands.
Crown Hall is a City of Chicago Landmark and a National Historical Landmark. Lesser architects have imitated Mies many times, but they cannot equal him because they lack his passion for detail and superb sense of proportion. "I don’t want to be interesting," he once said. "I want to be good."24-foot Grid
Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) fled Nazi Germany for Chicago in 1938 and directed IIT’s College of Architecture for 20 years. When he arrived, the school was called the Armour Institute. It merged with Lewis College, took its present name, acquired 110 acres of slum land on Chicago’s near south side and cleared them.
In 1939, Mies began to design a campus for IIT almost from scratch. This part of Chicago is very flat and he laid out the campus in a grid with 24 feet as the unit length. Classrooms are standard 24-foot size with 12-foot-high ceilings. Buildings are two- to three-story low rises with flat roofs. Modularization cut material and construction costs, and made it easy for later designers. Delayed by World War Two, the first Mies-designed campus building went up in 1946. Overall, he designed seven.
Today’s campus is divided east and west by elevated tracks with dormitories for married students on the east, academic units to the north and west, and fraternity houses and dorms to the south. Wide walkways, much green space and many box-like buildings characterize the campus. The landscaping that Mies envisioned was never completely implemented and a recent IIT Master Plan calls for planting 500 trees. Landscaping by Crown Hall will be restored to cut energy costs."Take That, Grampa!"
Crown Hall, Mies’ final IIT design, went up in 1956. Though the building had been fixed from time to time, the windows were in poor shape, the exterior steel had sun-faded from robust black to flaccid gray, and the south entrance was dilapidated and unsafe. In addition to this, the building gobbled energy. IIT hired engineers, who studied the building for three months and produced a report called The Greening of Crown Hall. IIT followed the engineer’s recommendations.
Restoration got off to a roaring start with a "Smash Bash" on May 17, 2005, when Dirk Lohan, Mies’ grandson, walloped one of Crown Hall’s windows with a sledge hammer, shattering it on the second try. The hard-hitting Lohan had paid $2,705 for this privilege at an eBay auction that benefited the Mies van der Rohe Society. Known for its ferocious oversight of Mies restorations, this society is often called the "Mies Police."
According to Donna Robertson, IIT’s Dean of Architecture, restoring Crown Hall made the architecture "crisp again." The new windows are so transparent that this writer could look completely through Crown Hall from the south side and identify birds as they landed in a tree to the north.
Two recent non-Miesian buildings on the IIT campus are located along the elevated tracks that run north and south. Helmut Jahn’s State Street Village (2003), a dormitory that houses more than 360 students, is constructed of concrete, sound-muffling glass and corrugated stainless steel panels. The complex, which is made of three adjacent u-shaped pavilions, is striking at night when the lights of passing vehicles reflect on its exterior.
The McCormick Tribune Campus Center (MTCC), designed by Rem Koolhaas (2003), is topped with a corrugated stainless steel tube that envelops 530 feet of elevated train track and muffles noise from an average of 120 decibels to about 70 db inside the building. According to Robert Krawczyk, who showed us the IIT campus, the entire community passes through the MTCC, whose design responds to campus traffic patterns. Inside are dining halls, a bookstore, student recreational facilities, copy machines and the like.
Adjoining the MTCC is Mies’ Commons Building (1953), a glass pavilion in his signature style. As the MTCC was in design, the dreaded "Mies Police" ensured that his Commons Building was not violated. The two buildings meet such that one can walk from Koolhaas into Mies and vice-versa, but the Commons Building does not change structurally. As Krawczyk puts it, the buildings "kiss but do not mate." Outside the MTCC a 20-foot-tall portrait of Mies gazes out at the campus he designed.
VICTOR C. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.