Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mid-Century Modernism in Chicago--Part One


From the Office of Mies van der Rohe -- Chicago's Federal Center (JWB, 2008)

So . . . here’s a lesson for you . . . Walter Gropius ends up in Cambridge and his 52-year-old Bauhaus buddy ends up in a midwestern cow town where the smoke from belching steam engines turns everything to a tweedy gray.

Less is more.  We can’t all go to Harvard.

Anyway, Mies accepts the directorship of the School of Architecture at the Armour Institute, and in the early days walks down Michigan Avenue from the Blackstone Hotel to the Art Institute, from which he directs the program.  In his inaugural address he says, “The long path from material to function to completed work has only a single goal – to create order out of the desperate confusion of our time.”

And order it was, beginning with the 1949 Promontory Apartments.

Miesian design meant three things, basically. 

Inland Steel Building of 1958 (JWB, 2008)
• Volume, rather than mass . . . a pound of feathers over a pound of lead.  Mid-century modern design appears lighter than previous design styles because it is.  There is space for far more feathers in a pound of Miesian design than in the heavy, leaden designs that came before.  And the lightness shows as the vast majority of these buildings are lifted off their sites and float on two or three transparent stories of glass. 

• Regularity, rather than symmetry . . . in mid-century modern design the form of the building stems directly from its function.  Office space is king, and the regular horizontal rows of stacked office spaces are the glassy robes the new sovereign wears.  So the Daley Center in Chicago carries 30 floors in its 648 feet (198 meters) to accommodate the high-ceilinged courtrooms inside while the original Brunswick Building, originally an office building directly across the street packs five more stories, 35 floors, into 200 fewer feet, rising 445 feet (145 meters).

• Elimination of external ornamentation . . . at the beginning of the twentieth century Chicago had over one hundred stone yards, each yard with its own set of sculptors.  Walk through any neighborhood in the city, and you’ll see the work of those sculptors.  By the end of the 1950’s they were all gone as were the great terra cotta companies that had provided the ornamentation for such great structures as the Wrigley Building, the Reliance, Fisher and Santa Fe.

Order out of confusion . . . the idea makes sense in big cities, especially in a world just emerging from a war that has claimed the lives of between 62 and 78 million people.

Order out of confusion . . . some of the best representatives of this mid-century modern style stand right here in Chicago, largely the product of Mies van der Rohe or students he taught.

Here are a few . . .

Flamingo and the Dirksen Building, Federal Plaza (JWB, 2008)
Federal Center on both sides of Dearborn between Jackson and Adams, completed between 1964 and 1974 and designed by Mies van der Rohe.  Standing on graph paper of 4’ 8” granite pavers the grout lines of which unify the space, the black glass-and-steel Kluczynski, Dirksen and post office buildings pivot around the 53-foot explosion of Alexander Calder’s Flamingo.

55 East Jackson reflecting D. H. Burnham's Railway Exchange (JWB, 2008)
55 East Jackson, finished in 1962 for the CNA insurance group, this C. F. Murphy building with its 54-foot bays is just a half-block off Michigan Avenue.  Walk out to Michigan and look north . . . you’ll see the 1955 Prudential Building, designed by Naess and Murphy.  That’s the same Murphy. What a difference a half-dozen years makes.

The 87-foot bays at the Daley Center (JWB, 2008)
The Richard J. Daley Center, occupying the block bounded by Washington, Randolph, Dearborn and Clark.  Jacques Brownson and C. F. Murphy gave hizzoner exactly what he was looking for, a massive building that proclaimed the power of government while at the same time unequivocally shouting that this was a regime that looked forward and not back.  54-foot bays at 55 East Jackson.  Try 87-footers here.

Commonwealth Plaza takes a bath (JWB, 2011)
Commonwealth Plaza at 330 and 340 West Diversey, just north of Lincoln Park.  This would have been four Mies van der Rohe designed residential towers if the developer, Herbert Greenwald, hadn’t died in a plane crash.  The two towers are variations on the classic form the two began at Promontory Point and came to world-wide prominence with 860 and 880 North Lake Shore Drive.

5415 North Sheridan (JWB, 2011)
The Solomon, Cordwell Buenz design at 5415 North Sheridan Road.  Finished in 1973, its triangular design with rounded edges, along with the dark glass-and-steel of its exterior, puts one ever so slightly in mind of Lake Point Tower, finished just five years earlier.  The building is the tallest in the Edgewater neighborhood, has unobstructed lake views, with over 700 condominiums.

Harvard was lucky to get Gropius.  Chicago was even luckier to get Mies.  Stay tuned for more of these great mid-century modern buildings in the weeks and months to come.

1 comment:

John Linton said...

I recently visited Chicago and took two of the architecture tours (one walking, one boat). Can you tell me if Marina I & II and North Shore Tower are examples of Mid-Century Modernism?