Monday, November 4, 2013

860 and 880 North Lake Shore Drive Near Completion: November 4, 1951


860 and 880 Lake Shore Drive (JWB Photo)

“There is one type of architecture which seeks to woo the eye by the richness of its surface and by the variety and intricacy of its ornament.  There is another which depends for its effect on the logic of its design and on the frankness with which its structure and materials are revealed.”  So began a feature article by Chicago Tribune music and art critic Edward Barry on this date in 1951.

Mr. Barry went on to apply his definition of this second style of design in a piece describing the “new style” of residential building that had been under construction for the previous 23 months at 860 North Lake Shore Drive.  Today folks from all over the world make it a point to stand in front of the two buildings and snap off a few photos of what have become the most famous residential designs of the great Mies van der Rohe’s long career.  It could be easily said that all of the glassy residential towers that fill today's Lakeshore East all began at this spot.

In 1951 860 and 880 would have been the tallest buildings in the picture (JWB Photo) 
Back in late 1951, though, the verdict was still out.  This was something radically different.  Mr. Barry pointed out that the steel supports of the towers were in plain view, that the principal materials were almost entirely steel and glass, and that there were no cornices and no decoration.  For over a half-century Chicago’s residential buildings had used elaborate facades to emphasize the luxurious lifestyle that could be found within them.

Now there was this . . . “perhaps the largest glass houses in the world . . .” with a “total of 130,000 square feet of plate glass divided into 3,232 separate windows.”  Once again, today it is easy to see that the buildings form the transparent eyepiece through which the luxuriousness of their lakeside setting can be viewed.  In 1951, though, the verdict was still out on the project, which lay just two blocks south of the glamor of the fussy cooperative buildings of East Lake Shore Drive.

Notice that 860 and 880 do not use curtain walls; the windows are part of the building's structure (JWB Photo)
Ground had been broken on the two towers in December of 1949, but work was delayed on 860, the south tower, for a good piece of time during the summer of 1950 when an abandoned water tower was found 83 feet below the ground and running diagonally across the lot.  By November of 1951, though, the towers were nearing completion, and the new style prompted a number of questions.

Perhaps the biggest question came at the end of Mr. Barry’s article . . . What would be “the psychological effect of living high in the air with no solid walls to mark off one’s living and sleeping quarters from the abyss outside”?

According to Mr. Barry the verdict was still out on this one.  “This is the farthest man has ever got from his cave dwelling days,” he wrote, “when there was solid rock all about him and a big stone to stop up the entrance aperture.  Just how this new way of life will work out remains to be seen.”

Looking 860 and 880 North Lake Shore Drive today it appears that “the new way of life” has worked out quite well.  Quite well, indeed.


Just how this new wall of life will work out remains to be seen . . . (JWB Photo)

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