The towering figure of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) ensured that Chicago led the world in the development of the modernist International Style. He arrived in Chicago, a refugee from Nazi Germany, in 1937 to head the school of architecture at Armour Institute, which subsequently became the Illinois Institute of Technology. Having designed the IIT campus in the Black Belt area of Bronzeville, he took up full-time architectural practice on his retirement in 1958.
Rooted in the principles of the pre-war Bauhaus School,– that architecture is intended simply to define space, buildings should have absolute regularity unless variation is functionally necessary and there should be no applied decoration – the buildings of this style are instantly recognisable as rectilinear boxes floating above a ground-level podium. They show no sign of their function, ignore their surroundings and could be positioned anywhere. Mies van der Rohe’s principle was that “less is more”.
His last American commission was the 52-storey, 695-feet-high IBM Building at 330 North Wabash Avenue, built posthumously in 1969-71 (or 1971-3, depending on the source). Its distinguishing feature is the use of dark aluminium instead of black structural members, and of bronze-tinted glass instead of clear.
It represents a landmark in building design because its owners, necessarily, specified features to accommodate what was then an unusual quantity of computers – an under-floor duct-system to permit cabling and reverse refrigeration to disperse the heat from the machines.
The building is a beautiful shape, but it could have been built anywhere. Unlike the nearby Wrigley Building, which is carefully designed to fit with the bend in the Chicago River, the IBM Building is parked unceremoniously in a position that required the realignment of North Wabash Avenue.
It remains a practical building now that it’s to an extent outlived its original purpose. As 330 North Wabash, it is being refurbished to incorporate a five-star hotel on floors 2-16: http://www.chicagoarchitecture.info/Building/1043/330-North-Wabash.php.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.