Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mies van der Rohe's Minerals and Metals Building

The Minerals and Metals Building at the Illinois Institute of
Technology, dedicated January 10, 1943 (Google Image)

If you are a Mies van der Rohe fan, then today is a big day for you.  After its dedication on January 10, the quarter-million dollar Minerals and Metals Research Building at the Illinois Institute of Technology was open for the first day on this date in 1943.  According to I.I.T. this building at Thirty-fourth and Federal was not just the first of the great architect’s designs to be built on as the master plan for the school began to unfold.  It was also his earliest completed work in the United States.

According to The Chicago Tribune the dedication ceremony featured a technological display that was befitting the new building.  "Instead of the customary dedicatory oratory at the ceremony voices of the speakers came forth from the magic new steel recording wire developed at the institute, while the speakers smoked as they listened to themselves talk.  Instead of a pretty girl pushing an electric switch to start things going, a new sound device did the job."

Dr. Henry T. Heald, president of the institute, sat quietly, puffing on a cigar while his voice, previously recorded, came out of a speaker.  This new-fangled "wire recording development" was developed at the school, invented by Marvin Camras, a physicist.  It allowed sounds to be recorded on "wire as fine as a human hair."  Next up was Harold Vagtborg, director of the Armour Research Foundation, who also smoked a cigar as his voice was projected to the crowd.

Minerals and Metals, snowstorm (jmtp's photostream on Flikr)
Then a "weird sound of increasing volume" came through the speaker.  When a predetermined pitch, measured by a sound level indicator, was reached, it was fed into a sound analyzer that "started things moving in the building."  Eighteen minutes after that sound blast steel was being poured from a furnace in the three-story foundry.

The latest techniques in forging magnesium were demonstrated as was a press having a pressure of 2,400,000 pounds that could "stop at the point of contact with a feather without crushing the feather."

The I.I.T. Campus Guide describes the building in this way, “Mies constructed the entire frame of the Minerals and Metals Building, vertical and horizontal members alike, of wide-flange beams and mullions.  Freestanding walls of the building were designed in glass and brick and were inserted within the frame.  Indicative of the primacy of structure in the abstract, the wide-flange steel section would later become Mies’s signature element.”

Of course, 1943 was the height of World War Ii and the country was dedicated to the effort, and rationing of any material deemed vital to the cause was strictly enforced.  It was in 1942, for example, that Phillip K. Wrigley donated the steel intended for lights at Wrigley Field to the war effort.  The first of Mies's great residential buildings, The Promontory of 1949, is constructed of reinforced concrete because steel was still scarce six years after the Minerals and Metals Building was completed.

So, how did I.I.T. get the permission to use the steel for the new building?  The Mies van der Rohe Society in its description of the building notes that during the war I.I.T. had become “the Midwestern center of wartime technological training, offering tuition-free programs for ‘women’s defense training’ and ‘white–collar men whose jobs were ruined by war-time restrictions.’ With programs in engineering drawing, industrial chemistry, and ordinance inspection, IIT was determined to ‘train experts who will see that the metals in Uncle Sam’s guns, ships and tanks are flawless.’”

Because of its importance to the war effort, the school received permission for the steel.  In fact, present at the dedication ceremony was Brigadier General Thomas S. Hammond, head of the Chicago Ordinance district, who helped pour molten iron into molds.  It's a good thing the steel was approved.  Mies’s use of the it is emblematic of what the I.I.T. Campus Guide calls a “transitional place in Mies’s body of work.”

South end of Minerals and Metals Building (Google Image)
Most interesting, perhaps, is the way Mies treats the south end of the new building.  Unlike buildings that would follow, columns and spandrels were connected by bolts rather than by welding.  Also this end of the building showcases the steel in an irregular pattern.  The Mies van der Rohe society points out that this was not, as some critics have suggested, a tribute to Piet Mondrian or Theo van Doesburg.  The Society suggests, “Although Mies was aware of both artists’ work, his avant-garde use of steel was actually a map to the inside of the building, inaugurating a technique he would use over and over again at I.I.T."  The steel at this end of the structure is a road map that shows clearly the internal layout, composed of a three-story foundry hall flanked by three floors of offices and laboratories, with a second-floor balcony overlooking the main floor of the hall.

In the rest of the structure the columns are not visible at all from the outside; instead the viewer sees a glass wall atop a brick base.  In later buildings Mies, of course, chose to expose the rolled I-beam columns on the face of the wall.

Walter Gropius's Fagus Factoy of 1911 (Google Image)
Glancing quickly at a photo of the Bauhaus in Dessau where Mies served as architect-director until the school moved to Berlin in 1932 where it closed a year later, one can discern a passing resemblance between the 1943 building at I.I.T. and the building in Dessau.  Even more striking, perhaps, is the similarity between the Mineral and Metals Building and the Walter Gropius design for the 1911 Fagus Factory in Alfeld, Germany.

Yet, as the Mies van der Rohe Society points out, the “structural premises are very different.  It is in the Minerals and Metals Building that we first see Mies use the rolled-steel I-beam as part of his structural grammar . . . Minerals and Metals reflects Mies’s transition from forms that had been ‘dear to his heart’ during his days working in Europe to new forms that were ‘possible, necessary, and significant.’”


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