Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mies van der Rohe-Welcome to Chicago

Saint Saviour's Chapel, the God Box, on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (JWB, 2011)
Big day in Chicago on this day, October 18 of 1938. 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe made it to the city.  Halfway through his long career at that point, he first bunked down at the Stevens Hotel, now the Conrad Hilton, for a month, moving later to the Blackstone just to the north.  From there he walked several blocks north to the Armour Institute of Technology, located at the Art Institute at the time.

JWB, 2011
It was this school where he was named as the head of the Department of Architecture.  It was in this capacity that he was given the job of designing a new campus, bringing about a transformation that John Holabird, head of the search committee that chose Mies, hoped would establish “the finest school in the Country.”

And it was at this school that Mies made his inaugural address, saying, “The long path from material to function to creative work has a single goal, to create order out of the desperate confusion of our time.”

Franze Schulz, in his excellent biography of Mies, wrote . . .

He was an abstractionist by nature, with no national sympathies, no political ideology, a perfect Prometheus of the new modernism.  Just as naturalism in painting was increasingly understood to be a superficiality, a leftover cosmetic of history that concealed the body and bone of the art, its equivalent in architecture—ornament or composition identified with any historical, that is to say, outmoded, period—was regarded as a disguise, an unwelcome concealment of the essence of building, which Mies had insisted, ever since1922, was structure.  He was now in a position to put that old conviction to work.

Not a "longing to become lost"; rather, "the hope of finding oneself"  (JWB, 2011)
One of the most modest of Mies’s designs for the new campus was the plan, developed in the early 1950’s, for Saint Saviour's Chapel on the new campus of what had become the Illinois Institute of Technology.  You can find what the Mies van der Rohe Society says about the chapel here.

The Society appraises the chapel in this way:

In spite of its humble appearance, the Chapel is an important point in Mies’ oeuvre, both historically and architecturally . . . The building stands apart as Mies’ only masonry building outside of Europe.  Unlike his other work in America, the walls constructed of blond bricks in an English bond pattern are not merely decorative, but also support the small building.  This marks a break from Mies’ usual division of structure and enclosure.  According to Mies, the simple walls are intended to draw the eye upward, making the Chapel a space for contemplation.  Rather than encouraging “a longing to become lost, “ Mies intended that visitors would feel “the hope of finding oneself” in the small space.”

THIS is the way great design finds a way to turn a corner (JWB, 2011)
The chapel is today dedicated to the memory of Robert Franklin Carr, a tireless philanthropist who died in 2009.  During his life he served on the boards of Children’s Memorial Hospital, Brookfield, Zoo, the Better Government Association, Graceland Cemetery, Grant Hospital, and Northwestern University.

If you are looking for a place in this city to contemplate what It must have been like for Mies to leave his native land midway through his life, relocate to a city where his language was a foreign tongue, begin work on design that arguably changed architecture in this country, and do it all in the lonely company of a good cigar and a well-kept fedora, Carr Memorial Chapel is as good a place as any to start.

So welcome to Chicago, Mies.  We’re glad you came to visit.

Gunny Harboe explains the first phase of his renovation plans for the exterior of the building, which was finished
in 2009.  The interior renovation was completed in 2011.  (JWB, 2011) 


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