Last Is More: The Miesian Lesson

Last Is More: The Miesian Lesson

The following is an excerpt from Last Is More: Mies, IBM and the Transformation of Chicago. The Langham Hospitality Group commissioned architectural photojournalists Robert Sharoff and William Zbaren to document the transformation of eminent architect Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building -- the last skyscraper he designed -- into The Langham, Chicago. In this chapter, Sharoff and Zbaren provide a more detailed look into the period between 1965 and 1975, when Mies’s influence on Chicago's skyline was at its most pervasive.

The construction of the IBM Building occurred midway through a legendary period in Chicago architecture—the decadelong building boom between 1965 and 1975, when Mies’s influence on the city’s skyline was at its most pervasive.

During these years, numerous Miesian structures by firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, C. F. Murphy Associates, and Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett were erected, and the city’s reputation as the founder of American modernism was finally and firmly established. The best of those buildings continue to dominate the skyline.

Mies himself anticipated and encouraged this development, believing that he was creating a universal architectural language for the ages. “Greek temples, Roman basilicas and medieval cathedrals are significant to us as creations of a whole epoch rather than as works of individual architects,” he wrote. “Who asks the names of these builders? Of what significance are the fortuitous personalities of their creators? Such buildings are impersonal by their nature. They are pure expressions of their time.”

In an essay published in the late 1990s, Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, noted that, “On the whole, [Chicago’s] Miesian buildings have endured exceedingly well. . . . What is most apparent as you walk around the Loop is the way the Miesian architecture relates so well to the early skyscrapers of the First Chicago School and their gridded, but more decorated, facades. In both schools, the horizontal grid of the Loop’s streets is replicated in the vertical dimension by a skeletal frame. In both, too, broad sheets of glass are the primary enclosing element. The result is an extraordinary coherence of right-angled forms and wide-open spaces. It is a distinctly Midwestern version of Metropolis. . . .”

In 1968, The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louse Huxtable traveled to Chicago to critique a recently opened retrospective of Mies’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. In her subsequent review, she wrote that the upcoming IBM Building “may well be the most important skyscraper in the country” and went on to rhapsodize over both Mies and the city he had transformed.

“Can anyone stand, unmoved, at the top of a steel-framed skyscraper today, looking out across a city’s glittering twentieth century towers, glass walls reflecting clouds, sky and structures in a massed changing pattern of light and color?” she wrote.

“Only in Chicago,” she mused, “has the Miesian lesson been properly learned.”

Richard J. Daley Center

Richard J. Daley Center (Originally Chicago Civic Center). Block bounded by Washington, Randolph, Dearborn and Clark Streets. C. F. Murphy Associates (Jacques Brownson) with associate architects Loebl Schlossman & Bennett and Skidmore Owings & Merrill. 1965. Image© William Zbaren. Courtesy of The Images Publishing Group

“Brawny” is a favorite adjective of the Second Chicago School, and nowhere is it more justified than in this massive thirty-one story tower designed by the three leading Miesian architecture firms in the city. C. F. Murphy’s Jacques Brownson, who both studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology and later worked for him, was the lead designer. The building, which contains 120 courtrooms, rests on just sixteen steel columns. The structural bays are a colossal eighty-seven feet by forty-seven feet. The building is clad in Cor-Ten steel, a self-weathering material. The building’s famous 50 foot tall sculpture by Pablo Picasso is executed in the same material.

Art Institute: Did Mies ever comment to you about the Civic Center?

Jacques Brownson: Yes

AI: What did he say?

JB: “I wish I had done it.”

AI: That’s a very nice compliment.

JB: He could sense that (the people involved) with the building had been his students. . . When he saw the building coming up out of the ground and he saw those very long spans and the detailing of the spandrel beams, he said, “Here is architecture.” (From the Art Institute of Chicago’s Architectural Oral History Project interview with Jacques Brownson)

Lake Point Tower

Lake Point Tower. 505 North Lake Shore Drive. Schipporeit-Heinrich Associates. 1968. Image© William Zbaren. Courtesy of The Images Publishing Group

Almost from the day it opened, critics have insisted that Lake Point Tower was modeled on Mies’s 1922 unbuilt Glass Skyscraper project in Berlin. The architects, George Schipporeit and John Heinrich, both of whom attended the Illinois Institute of Technology (Schipporeit also worked for Mies), deny this. “The harder we work, the more credit Mies gets,” said Heinrich. Both sides have a point. Mies’s project was completely hypothetical--more of a daydream than a building--while Lake Point Tower was, in Heinrich’s words, “the result of thoroughly analyzing the structural, mechanical and economic problems associated with the. . . design of a speculative building.” About all one can say for certain is that, conceptually, at any rate, Mies got there first. The complex--the world’s tallest reinforced concrete building when it opened--consists of a three-lobed, seventy-story tower containing 900 apartments atop a thirty-one foot tall base, the roof of which serves as a lush 2.5 acre private park. The latter was designed by Schipporeit’s IIT mentor, the landscape designer Alfred Caldwell.

            “John Heinrich and I are the architects of Lake Point Tower. Our names are on the building as though we alone are responsible. But this does not remotely resemble the truth. Hundreds of people contributed their ideas and energy to achieve this result. Lake Point Tower was truly a group effort. It was not a very orderly process, but hopefully at least it did result in an orderly building.” –George Schipporeit

John Hancock Center

John Hancock Center. 875 North Michigan Avenue. Skidmore Owings & Merrill (Bruce Graham). 1969. Image© William Zbaren. Courtesy of The Images Publishing Group

The critic Franz Schulze has described the John Hancock Center as “a 1,127-foot oil derrick with a building inside.” Due to the distinctive cross bracing – which was designed by legendary structural engineer Fazlur Kahn – building costs were less than half for that of a traditional building of that size. The hundred-story building was hugely influential. Indeed, many consider the Hancock to be the last Chicago building to have had a global impact on architecture. Like Bruce Graham and Kahn’s later Willis Tower, the building’s tapering form–165 by 265 feet at its base and 100 by 160 feet at its summit--was determined by its program. The large lower floors are occupied by offices while the smaller upper floors are used for apartments.

“The search for a new kind of structure which would accommodate multiple uses and also express the scale and grandeur of a one-hundred-story tower, led Dr. Khan and me to the diagonal tube. It was a essential to us to expose the structure of this mammoth as it is to perceive the structure of the Eiffel Tower, for in Chicago, honesty of structure has become a tradition.” –Bruce Graham

Lake Side Center at McCormick Place

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place. (Originally McCormick Place). 2301 South Lake Shore Drive. C. F. Murphy Associates (Gene Summers). 1971. Image© William Zbaren. Courtesy of The Images Publishing Group

Gene Summers was Mies’s right-hand man for almost twenty years before leaving in 1965 to strike out on his own. Less than a year later, C. F. Murphy Associates hired him to be the chief designer for the city’s new–and intensely controversial--lakefront convention center, McCormick Place. (The site, which intruded on public parkland, was the source of the controversy.) Staggering in its scale, the building strongly recalls two earlier Mies projects: an unbuilt office building for the Bacardi Company in Santiago, Cuba, and the National Gallery in Berlin. The focal point is the graceful cantilevered roof, which covers nineteen acres and weighs 10,000 tons. Inside is more than half a million square feet of exhibition space. Summers’s own right-hand man for the project was the architect – and fellow IIT alumnus -- Helmut Jahn.

            “I went to Mies. It was actually the first time after I had left his office nine months before, and the last time that I ever saw or talked to him. . . .I went there in the afternoon to his apartment and I told him what the whole situation was. I said, “What I would really like is for you to do this building, and I will work with you just exactly as I did in the office.” He said, “Gene, I wouldn’t touch that thing if the site was the Acropolis and the building was the Parthenon. Controversy I don’t need at this time in my life.” –Gene Summers

Willis Tower

Willis Tower. (Originally Sears Tower). 233 South Wacker Drive. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (Bruce Graham). 1974. Image© William Zbaren. Courtesy of The Images Publishing Group

For most of its history, the 110-story Willis Tower was the tallest building in the world. It is now the tallest building in North America, although shortly to be overtaken by another SOM project, the Freedom Tower in New York. A collaboration between the architect Bruce Graham and the structural engineer Fazlur Kahn, the Willis Tower–which consists of nine more or less freestanding steel-and-glass tubes that rise to different heights -- is a celebration of structure. Over the years, Graham said his inspirations were everything from a cigarette pack to the Italian hill town of San Gimignano. What is clear, though, is that the floor plates needed to narrow as the building rose. This was accomplished by varying the heights of the tubes.

“In the city of Chicago, we have created great landscapes of the middle west of America which are obvious yet complex. The boundaries are only what we choose and are rarely externally imposed. The nature of the palette, frames, curtain walls, infill, floor plates, and the crafting thereof, allows for infinite manipulation. It is there that I return again and gain to regain strength and vigor. It is there that near certainty of concept appears.” --Bruce Graham

Last Is More: The Miesian Lesson

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Cite: Robert Sharoff. "Last Is More: The Miesian Lesson" 24 Nov 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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