All about Mies
Architecture conference, tours offer views of the architect's world
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created Crown Hall on the IIT campus to be, as he said at its dedication ceremony in 1956, "the home of ideas and adventures." The elegant glass-walled building, which houses the College of Architecture, not only lives up to Mies's intention, it's an architectural masterpiece.
On Saturday 4, the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Great Books Foundation cosponsor a conference at ITT on "The Architect in Troubled Times: Mies and the Making of Modernism." For Daniel Born, one of the directors of the Great Books Foundation, the conference is an opportunity to discuss a rich body of written work about modernism, including Tom Wolfe's cranky anti-Mies From Bauhaus to Our House and Richard Pommer's Mies van der Rohe and the Political Ideology of the Modern Movement in Architecture.
To do it at IIT makes perfect sense. "It's kind of the shrine to Mies in a way," Born says. Mies came to Chicago in 1938 to direct the architecture program and ended up transforming the campus—19 buildings at IIT are his designs.
As Crown Hall approaches its 50th birthday, the Mies van der Rohe Society has taken on the task of raising the funds for a much-needed restoration. For the society's fund-raiser in mid-May, it auctioned off on eBay the opportunity to take a sledgehammer to the first pane of glass. As widely reported, architect Dirk Lohan, Mies's grandson, won the auction with a bid of $2,705. Lohan will be one of the speakers at the conference.
The keynote address will be given by architectural scholar Franz Schulze, author of the praised Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography. Schulze researched his topic for eight years before writing, and the book has been in print for 20 years. In the time since, so much has come to light that Schulze, along with architect Edward Windhorst, has been at work on a revised edition to be published in 2007.
"It is virtually a new book," Schulze said in a recent interview. Some of the highlights? "We have found the earliest drawings that Mies ever did. He was a very good draftsman." Among them are drawings of Mies's first building in 1907. The book will also include a chapter or two on the architects who worked for Mies.
"The biography that I wrote came out just about the time postmodernism was coming into bloom," Schulze says. The book was meant to defend Mies, one of the targets of the postmodernists. One of pomo's proponents, architect Robert Venturi issued his "less is a bore" statement to counter Mies's famous famous maxim, "less is more." It's interesting to note how modernism, slammed for being cold and sterile, is now widely seen (at least in its best examples) as clean and serene, while pomo's contributions are considered excessive and jokey.
Mies's personal and professional life was marked by drama. Great buildings take on a life of their own and Mies's other masterpiece—the Farnsworth House built in 1951 about 60 miles west of Chicago on the Fox River—has a story all its own.
For one, his client was Dr. Edith Farnsworth, with whom he had some sort of a romantic relationship, but their breakup was very bitter, very public and very litigious. Farnsworth sold the house in 1962 to Lord Peter Palumbo, a wealthy Londoner who worshipped Mies and accepted the architect's vision that nothing be hung on the walls and that, despite the mosquitoes, there should be no screen doors. (Farnsworth had insisted upon them.) He also didn't live there year-round, so it functioned beautifully as a retreat. Palumbo tried to sell the house to the state in 2001, but the funds weren't there. Eventually, he put the house up for auction. This meant the house, not protected under a landmark status, could be moved.
A group of concerned citizens, headed by art patron John Bryan, raised the money to save the house. Gallerist Richard Gray traveled to New York to do the bidding in December 2003.
The Farnsworth House is now co-owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, and is open for tours. This weekend's conference concludes Sunday 5 with a bus tour to the site.
During a recent tour of the IIT campus, one of many organized by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Tina Strauss, an energetic and well-informed docent, showed a small group around the grounds. She took us into classrooms, pointing out the symmetry, the consistent use of materials and a certain shade of black paint Mies favored—all the buildings match. "You'll see a very uniform look," Strauss says. As we walked by a courtyard, we noticed the small window air-conditioning units marring the inner courtyard; temperature control is a common problem in Mies' buildings.
"When you have so much glass, it can be extremely hot," Strauss says. One of people on the tour, an alumna, nodded gravely but couldn't snap enough pictures of her old dorm.
After 50 years, Mies the revolutionary is a venerable part of history. He's also very hot.
"The Architect in Troubled Times: Mies and the Making of Modernism" conference will be at the Hermann Union Building, IIT, on Sat 4. For more information, call 312-922-3432, ext 268.