Ludwig Mies van der Rohe may have been interred in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery in 1969, but he remains the great undead of modern architecture. He lives on in his serene temples, such as Crown Hall and the IBM Building, but also in a thousand cheap knockoffs–the sterile glass skyscrapers of the past three decades and their own bastard offspring, cut-rate concrete towers like Grand Plaza and Superior Place.
The killer of the king is a king, says the prophet Tiresias in Oedipus Rex. The list of architects who would be king is long. Bertrand Goldberg with Marina City, Robert Venturi with his “decorated shed,” and Helmut Jahn with his Thompson Center all wanted to liberate us from the Miesian box but didn’t.
Now comes Rem Koolhaas, whose new McCormick Tribune Campus Center on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, the first building he’s completed in the U.S., will be dedicated on September 30. “I do not respect Mies,” he wrote in “Miestakes,” an essay included in the catalog for the “Mies in America” exhibit, which was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002. “I love Mies.”
Koolhaas’s student center is both homage and attack. Will he succeed where all the others have failed? Will he be the one to finally put Mies to rest and create, as Mies did, an architecture that’s the true expression of his time?
The IIT campus is arguably the place where the modern architecture that would come to dominate postwar America began. In 1938 Mies fled Germany, where the Nazis had shut down the Bauhaus, the modernist school where he’d taught, calling it an “aquarium of Jewish-Marxist art.” He was looking for a place to land. After Walter Gropius beat him out for a key post at Harvard, Mies accepted an offer from the Armour Institute, now IIT, to head up its architecture school.
During his first three years in Chicago, Mies lived in hotels, and most of his possessions remained in Germany. He was shy, and his tenuous command of English only made him seem more reserved. His requirements were few but refined: “Martinis, Havana cigars, and a few expensive suits led the list,” writes biographer Franz Schulze. Asked by a student for his idea of a perfect place to live, he drew a quick, spare sketch of the interior of a plywood factory he remembered from Berlin, depicting himself settled in a chair atop a low stack of plywood, smoke rings rising from his cigar.
Soon after his arrival Mies was asked to design the institute’s new campus. The site, along State Street between 31st and 35th, wasn’t exactly a coveted location. “When the campus was originally built everything east of State Street was walk-up tenement housing,” says IIT’s dean of architecture Donna Robertson. “They were slums.” The new campus, she says, “was one of the first postwar federally funded urban-renewal projects. People don’t know that.”
At the time urban renewal meant grinding troublesome locations into dust and starting over. Le Corbusier had proposed leveling much of central Paris and replacing it with a “radiant city” of towers rising out of gardens, a plan that enraged the citizens. Americans are much less sentimental, especially when an area is populated by poor blacks. Every building on the six-acre site was demolished, except the two used by Armour.
Mies had been given a blank slate. A 1942 photomontage shows the entire campus sitting on a flat plinth that separates it from the city around it. The plinth didn’t make the final cut, but Mies returned to the concept throughout his career. He was more than willing to put his own buildings on a pedestal, even before anyone else was.
When he came to IIT, Mies was already 52 years old. He’d built relatively little–mostly houses and the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, whose minimalist geometric planes, free-flowing open space, and rich materials had created an international sensation. His portfolio included prophetic but unbuilt projects, including a glass skyscraper and a concrete office block for Berlin. He called the IIT campus “the biggest decision I ever had to make.”
Not since Thomas Jefferson laid out the University of Virginia had a single architect used the opportunity to rethink completely what a campus should look like. When the University of Chicago was founded in Hyde Park in 1890 architect Henry Ives Cobb turned his back on the commercial idiom of the Chicago School of Adler and Sullivan and Burnham and Root and built a campus modeled on old English colleges, entirely veneered in the Gothic style. The university had been created with the support of Marshall Field and Chicago’s ruling elite, and its architecture needed only to reflect wealth and power in the most tastefully conservative way possible. The small, scrappy Armour Institute could claim no such pedigree, and its 34-year-old president, Henry Heald, was determined to create a new campus that would transform his college into a nationally recognized, modern university.
Mies began by cataloging all the types of spaces and rooms the school would need, then designed a standard 24-foot-square module that could serve as a basic building block. A grid based on this module determined the placing of individual buildings. “That was a mechanical help,” he said. “No one had to speculate where we put our columns.” It also helped create a visual unity for all of the new structures, each of which would be made up of as many modules as were needed to support its functions. Mies was making a clean break with the romantic and the picturesque, with campuses fashioned after old villages. IIT would be rigorously modern–logical and linear.
Mies’s initial 1940 drawing of the campus was a rich display of the architectural vocabulary that was becoming known as the International Style. Long, thin buildings shielded the campus from the railroad tracks to the west. A squat, broad laboratory building got a spiky four-story tower. Lecture halls spread out behind labs like curving fans. Buildings were set on pilotis–slim, matchsticklike supports–that left the ground floor open. Several stairwells were constructed outside of buildings to allow a free flow of space within. All-glass curtain walls formed the skin of many of the structures, accented by brick spandrels in the end bays. On the north side of 33rd Street sat a spacious library with internal courtyards and exposed trusses rising above the roofline; on the south side a mirror building served as the student union. These two buildings formed a gateway that anchored the center of the campus.
Mies collaborator and benefactor Phyllis Lambert, writing in the “Mies in America” catalog, found this first design “extraordinarily agitated and complicated.” But it also has a visual richness missing in the campus that was finally built; it has the complexity and contradiction argued for by architect Robert Venturi, who changed Mies’s dictum “less is more” to “less is a bore.” But Mies was on a quest for the one great truth, for what Louis Sullivan’s mathematics tutor called “demonstrations so broad as to admit of NO EXCEPTION!”
Mies was aided in his quest by the slow pace of fund-raising and the pressure to reduce costs. The pilotis were among the first things to go, since they would have required adding a story to get back the space lost on the ground floor. The fan-shaped auditorium also disappeared. It was as if Mies were eliminating all the elements that had become visual signatures in the work of Le Corbusier.
Construction didn’t begin until 1941, on the Minerals and Metals Research Building. For the first time Mies used I beams, the rolled-steel girders that would become a signature element in much of his later work. On the long walls the I beams were concealed behind a curtain wall of glass and a base of continuous brick, but on the shorter end walls they were exposed, framing the brick infill in a sequence of rectangles that emphasized the structure of the building.
At a time when structure was treated as a sort of impolite body part that had to be hidden behind an art deco facade, this was revolutionary. Lambert writes that the building “stunned members of the architectural profession in the United States,” most of whom saw the end walls as an homage to artists like Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg rather than as a radical polemic for a new architecture drawing its vocabulary from the materials of the industrial age. As Mies said, “I have tried to make an architecture for a technological society.”
The simplicity of his design reflects Mies’s belief that there’s one best solution for every problem, and it can be discovered only through intense, dedicated study. Lambert writes, “In America, drawing became for Mies a way of thinking.” More than 1,300 sheets of exploratory drawings were made for two IIT buildings, neither of which was built, but the solutions he finally discovered found expression in the 1945 Navy Building, now the Alumni Memorial Hall, his first classroom building for the campus. The city’s building code–reflecting the lessons of the 1871 Chicago Fire, in which metal melted and buckled–prohibited leaving steel columns exposed if the structure was more than one story, so the I beams had to be encased in concrete. Mies went from the direct to the poetic, spraying concrete on the columns, then facing them with black-painted steel to create the illusion of an exposed structure.
Mies was also obsessed with how to “turn” the building’s corners. He distinguished between two basic building types in his architecture. The Gothic, represented by the Minerals and Metal Research Building, was like a medieval cathedral nave–a span longer than it was wide and composed of standard-sized modules commonly referred to in Mies’s circle as “sausage,” because they could be ground out to whatever length desired, then simply sliced off. Here the corner isn’t really “turned”: it’s the same as the other I-beam mullions along the wall–it just happens to be the one at the end. The other building type was the Renaissance or Classical, a span with square bays, like the Navy Building, where the corners do “turn” as they define the endpoints of the building, making a clear transition from one face to the other.
This is where Mies’s philosophy of design and of life contrasts most clearly with the mind-set of our own time. An architect today, especially given the increasing use of computer design, can select from an almost infinite palette of solutions. Some will be better than others, but few architects would argue that there’s one best solution waiting to be discovered like an alchemical formula. Mies believed there was and that the goal of architecture was to get as close to it as humanly possible.
After countless sketches Mies arrived at the Classical corner, which he first used in the Navy Building. At the bottom a steel plate rests atop a short brick base. Atop the plate are the two outer sides of the concrete-insulated column, covered by a vertical steel angle; connected to the angle are a pair of I beams that run in either direction from the midpoint of the encased column and carry the glass and brick that compose the building’s exterior walls. All the steel pieces are welded together and painted black, forming a single, perfectly proportioned perpendicular transition from one wall to the next. This solution has become iconic. Pick up any major book on modern architecture and it’s a good bet that somewhere inside you’ll find a photo of the Mies corner. Big deal, you say? Mies answers, “God is in the details.”
Mies would use the same idiom to build three more campus buildings–Pearlstein, Wishnick, and Siegel halls–and four high-rise structures for student housing. The enormous influence these buildings had on modern architecture has made them invisible. At first glance they look just like any other generic industrial brick-and-glass structure. But only at IIT can you see them at the point of creation.
As time went on, Mies grew frustrated that there wasn’t funding for his most ambitious campus buildings, the student union and the library. School officials shifted some of the student union’s functions to the Commons Building, which would be built east of the campus, closer to the dorms.
Informed that his own architecture department, originally part of the grand library building, was to be shunted off to its own one-story brick-and-glass box, Mies rebelled. No longer satisfied to be good, he now demanded to be heroic. His new design broke the balance of the IIT site plan: the architecture school would be its most prominent building, though it was at what was then the most remote corner of the campus. Its main staircase even faced away from the other buildings. Mies also turned his back on his earlier austere, low-cost structures, insisting on a tour de force: Crown Hall, the crown jewel of IIT.
An unlikely client had provided the precedent for the radical design. Lambert describes how Mies was enlisted in 1945 by Indiana movie-house mogul Joseph Cantor to design a fast-food drive-in restaurant that would stand out from the banal clutter along the highway. Mies came up with a dramatically long, lanky building whose interior space was free of columns. Its all-glass walls let the interior glow, drawing diners in from the darkness like bugs to a zapper. The most stunning element was the ingenious structure: a pair of huge open trusses mounted on four thin end columns that spanned the entire length of the building and carried below them a flat slab roof that cantilevered out over the driveway.
The drive-in was never built, but its trusses became the exposed exoskeleton of Crown Hall–four 120-foot box girders, from which the roof of the 120-by-220-foot structure was hung. Mies had simplified his basic design yet again. Crown Hall consists of a single room of 56,000 square feet, entirely enclosed in glass and completely free of interior columns. According to Franz Schulze, Mies saw it as a space that promoted shared values in the search for truth and was a response to the “chaos of directions” in the exterior world. The exposed structure of the earlier buildings may be too subtle to be noticed. Here he rubs your nose in it. Crown Hall remains one of Chicago’s signature buildings.
Chicago architect John Vinci was in the first class of students to use Crown Hall. He was part of a nonfraternity faction that had won an upset victory in the student council elections and was therefore responsible for putting on the school’s annual I-Ball dance. They talked the school into letting them use Crown Hall for free, then took the $2,000 earmarked for renting a ballroom and booked Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Vinci and his classmates built the bandstand themselves, using scaffolding, wooden concrete forms, and plywood from his father’s construction business and painting everything white. “Ellington and his musicians had to use a ladder to get to the platform,” he says. “It was almost as high as the eight-foot oak partitions in the middle of the room.”
Vinci says the students from the school’s Institute of Design were responsible for the decor. “They put blue and green spotlights on the grass outside and aimed them at the branches of the honey locust trees lining the building, so that inside you’d see the shadows of the branches moving behind the lower milk-glass windows like animated drawings on Japanese paper,” he says. “The glass was only a quarter inch thick, half what it is today, and the wind or sound would actually make the glass wave. So you saw reflections of the lights and the musicians in the upper, clear panes of glass, and the reflections would move with the music. You walked in the 34th Street entrance, and you were right on the dance floor, in front of the bandstand.” Rumors circulated that Ellington was so taken by the space he wanted to make a recording there, “Ellington Under Glass,” though he never did. Vinci says that throughout the evening Mies sat in a Barcelona chair, cigar in hand, happily taking in the swirl of color and movement and sound that filled his bold new building.
It was the last structure Mies would be allowed to build at IIT. By 1958 his private practice was taking off, and according to Vinci, he wrote a letter saying he was retiring as head of the architecture school so he could devote more time to his architecture firm, though he emphasized that he still wanted to finish the campus. As Vinci tells the story, “Bill Hartman, who was then head of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, took Mies to lunch, and he asked him, ‘If you don’t finish the campus, what would you say if we did it?'” Mies, always polite and nonconfrontational, replied, “Well, Bill, if I can’t do it, certainly it would be fine if you took it on.”
Vinci says Hartman took this to IIT president John Rettaliata as a blanket endorsement for SOM taking over. He says Rettaliata already considered Mies a liability because his shyness made him uncomfortable with schmoozing at fund-raisers, and so he ignored Mies’s request to continue on as campus architect. Soon the commissions for the two buildings that were arguably closest to Mies’s heart–the library and the student union–were in the hands of SOM.
Over the next decade the buildings added to the campus followed Mies’s idiom–sensitively and creatively in Myron Goldsmith’s Keating Sports Center, less gracefully in Walter Netsch’s Galvin Library and Hermann Union. But by the time of Mies’s death in 1969, construction was at an end. Alfred Caldwell’s plans for landscaping the campus were never fully realized, and the strip east of State gradually became a parking lot.
The area around the school continued to decline, and slowly IIT became the campus time forgot. By 1998 enrollment had dropped to 3,000 students–half the number in 1941, when the campus was less than half the size. A 1997 national survey of college students proclaimed IIT America’s “least-beautiful” campus.
“I heard that it was the most boring campus in the U.S.,” says undergraduate Robert Guico, “that it was run-down and designed poorly and that architecturally it was pretty dismal.”
In 1993 the school set up a national commission made up of trustees, faculty, and outside experts to “shape the next century of IIT at a time of declining enrollment.” In 1996 it launched the IIT Challenge campaign to raise $250 million, jump-started by a $120 million grant from the families of alumni Robert Pritzker and Robert Galvin, of Motorola.
That same year architect Dirk Lohan, Mies’s grandson, presented a new master plan for the campus, and soon after, 56 architects, including local firms and a usual-suspects international roster, were invited to participate in a competition funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation to design one of the plan’s key components, a new student center. It had to be built at 33rd and State, provide 100,000 to 125,000 feet of space, and be “a place for students’ academic and social lives to converge,” which meant including food services, student lounges, a bookstore, an auditorium, and recreation facilities. The structure was to be three to four stories high, to “mitigate” the effects of the el. And it was to contain a “virtual Mies museum” that would explain his legacy “in an experimental environment.”
Thirty-nine architects responded to the invitation. Of the five finalists named in August 1997, Helmut Jahn was the only Chicago architect to make the cut, joining Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa from Japan and global superstars Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Koolhaas.
Eisenman, famous for the concept of deconstruction in architecture, spoke in his presentation about the challenge of building at a location that’s become a Miesian shrine. “I have this oedipal complex,” he said. “I need, in a sense, to overcome daddy by also respecting daddy. You don’t just stick your tongue out at him, or then you don’t respect yourself.” Eisenman’s response to the Mies campus–and to the noise of the el–was to hide from it, burying his building below grade and leaving only a series of striking, diamondlike skylight entrances on the surface of a broad public plaza.
Mies’s legacy was reflected most directly in Jahn’s design, a masterful updating of the classic Miesian design (Jahn was later awarded the commission for IIT’s State Street Village). But in February 1998 the six-member jury, which included Phyllis Lambert, awarded the commission to Koolhaas. That choice made the student center the focus of the ongoing debate about the validity of Mies’s ideas and the direction of modern architecture.
A trim six foot five, Koolhaas has the bearing of an ascetic, but he’s a star of Elvis proportions. His globe-trotting started early. He was born in 1944 in Rotterdam, when the city was still in ruins from German firebombing. When he was eight his father, a prominent Dutch writer, film critic, and film school director, was offered a cultural post in Indonesia. Koolhaas’s four years there sparked a continuing fascination with Asia that would culminate in his 2001 book Great Leap Forward, a dazzling study of the explosive development in China’s Pearl River Delta region after it was designated a free-trade zone.
Koolhaas attended film school and cowrote The White Slave, a 1969 Dutch film noir, and later wrote an unproduced script for American soft-porn king Russ Meyer. He also worked as a journalist in the Hague. In 1968 he decided to study architecture in London.
In 1972 a Harkness Fellowship brought Koolhaas and his wife, architect and painter Madelon Vriesendorp, to New York. He was fascinated by the dynamics of the city and how it stood apart from the urban-design trend toward “dedensifying” cities, tearing down entire blocks to create open malls and plazas. Manhattan seemed to thrive on what Koolhaas called the “culture of congestion” in his sensational 1978 book, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, an irreverent fusion of scholarship, design, and polemics; its dust jacket was a painting by Vriesendorp depicting the Empire State and Chrysler buildings lounging postcoitally on a bed.
In 1975 Koolhaas–along with Vriesendorp and Greek architect Elia Zhengelis and his wife, Zoe–founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which was dedicated to finding “new synergies” between architecture and contemporary culture. Their first decade produced a series of striking, but losing, submissions to high-profile architectural competitions. It wasn’t until 1987, with his design of the Netherlands Dance Theatre, that Koolhaas got to construct his first building. That was followed by a string of increasingly ambitious projects, and in 2000 he won the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture. His second landmark book–the 1,300-page, eight-pound S,M,L,XL–summarizes OMA’s work through 1995. It includes definitions, quotes, anecdotes, and observations from an insanely wide range of sources–Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright, Nietzsche and Voltaire, Darwin and David Byrne, Pontius Pilate and Norman Bates.
“I’m a wunderkind and proud of it,” Koolhaas proclaimed in February 1998, when he came to IIT to lecture after winning the competition for the student center. “I’ve been a wunderkind for a very long time.”
Koolhaas’s essay “Miestakes” includes a mysterious, murkily lit 1986 photo of himself cleaning the floor of the just-completed reconstruction of Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion. Except for his hand, Koolhaas is visible only as a shadow projected on the wall.
Asked what inspires his love of Mies, he replies, “Ironically, I don’t really know. Maybe Mies is the largest possible opposite and therefore the most attractive. Apart from that, there is simply aesthetics and a deep liking for disappearance rather than minimalism”–likely a reference to the effort of an architect to become invisible in his own work.
Koolhaas rejects Mies’s bedrock belief that architecture arises out of reason and order. During the February 1998 lecture he called on people to “accept the world in all its sloppiness and somehow make that into a culture.” And he contended that the time 50 years ago when Mies was building the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment towers was one of “extreme innocence, when you could make people happy with relatively little. We need more complexity now, and, I think, our design provides it.”
In “Miestakes” Koolhaas also describes the current IIT campus as “marooned…swimming in space.” It had been “scraped” clean of its urban density, he says, and a long period of decay had resulted in the “disappearance of the city around it.” Now “it is no longer a void in an urban condition, but it is a void in a void.” And within the campus was still another void, where the Green Line and a long strip of surface parking lots cut the dorms to the east off from the classrooms to the west.
Koolhaas–whose blue-chip roster of participants in the student-center project includes the Chicago firms Studio/Gang/Architects and Holabird & Root, as well as international powerhouse Ove Arup–rejected the competition’s requirement that the different functions of the student center be stacked in a multistory building to muffle the noise from the el. He opted instead to “make a very flat building” in which the different elements–sports bar, bookstore, post office, cafe–would continually rub up against one another, creating new hybrid activities and a “simulation” of the dynamics of the urban condition. The “culture of congestion” in a single building.
For two days in 1997 Koolhaas used a team of students to track movement across the campus through the project site. They came up with a web of heavily traveled paths, which Koolhaas turned into walkways through the building that divide it into a “series of islands,” each with its own function and visual character.
He also had to address the problem of the el and what he called the “acoustic disaster zone” it created down the center of campus. The roar of the trains hit 110 decibels there–the pain threshold is 85. The project manager, Ed Newman, jokes that the standard IIT greeting was “to put both hands over your ears and yell ‘Hi’ as loudly as you can.”
In their proposal Jahn and his associates had come up with the relatively inexpensive idea of laminating rubber blocks and strips along the flanges of the tracks, which their research showed would significantly decrease the noise (something the city ought to consider trying out in the Loop). Koolhaas’s solution was more symbolic and expensive. He rejected the idea of using the building as a shield, preferring to muffle the noise of the el by surrounding the tracks with a spectacular 530-foot elliptical tube, faced in stainless steel, whose underbelly forms part of the student center’s roof. The tube is isolated on a series of columns that reduce vibration by descending 62 feet to the bedrock. He told the competition judges, “We think it can be done for something between a million and a half and two million,” but the tube ultimately cost more than $13.6 million, paid largely out of George Ryan’s Illinois FIRST goody bag.
The Tube was completed last year, and inside the student center the sound of the el is barely audible, though north of the structure the trains still drown out conversation. The Tube’s slanting concrete supports and flaming orange top provide a visual signature for the campus–the new IIT student Internet portal even calls itself “The Tube.”
As for the student center itself: for Koolhaas more is more.
Much of the center’s drama stems from the way he’s packed an astounding variety of levels, ceiling heights, materials, and finishes into its single story. “People say the interior is going to feel like being inside a pinball machine,” says architecture dean Donna Robertson. “But 18-year-olds really have a different way of engaging with the world than you or I. They’re used to responding to multiple layers of information, and their response level is incredibly quick. They get this right away, and they love it.”
Jeanne Gang, who studied and worked with Koolhaas and whose firm is one of the project’s contractors, says, “There’s an interest in creating the conditions that will bring chaotic activity–and finding that as a joyous thing instead of trying to control and separate functions.”
“I think it’s destined for architectural glory,” says undergrad Robert Guico, who took an early tour. “I really noticed the change in elevation. When you walk in, there’s bigger rooms that you actually look down into.”
The roof is intended to be a violin, its center crushed by the Tube above it. It’s a continuous concrete slab that wraps over the edges of the building and slopes up to cover the higher ceilings of the ballroom and auditoriums along State Street. “It’s sprayed with a black synthetic membrane that’s overlaid with a burgundy of the same material,” says Studio/Gang’s Mark Schendel, “and it results in a very beautiful wood-grain pattern.” Yet it’s already controversial, perhaps because the visible seams in the membrane compromise the idea of wrapping the edge and the burgundy overlay looks less like stained wood than beer nuts.
The membrane is just one example of the explosive range of materials and finishes at the center. Orange, the keynote color in the building’s palette, is a unifying theme. It’s crucial to Koolhaas’s concept of a wall of “Miesian interference” that wraps around the facade and faces off against Crown Hall. Mies painted his steel black to reflect the qualities of his buildings–elegant, strong, and protecting but also mysterious and forbidding. Orange is seen as almost its opposite–happy, warm, generous, and invigorating, if also overbearing and superficial.
Orange “glass” dominates the center’s northwest corner. “I’m waiting to see whether the pickets come out along State Street,” Robertson said before the wall went up, only half joking. The glass covers the welcome center and the entrance, split into two vertical rows of panes, the topmost extending above the roof to form a translucent parapet. During the day the space near the windows takes on a marmalade glow. Koolhaas says that though the scale of the center is “very modest” compared to Crown Hall, the orange of his building “somehow brings out the color in the Mies building also–not only by contrast, but also by raising the issue of color. You suddenly see much more color in Mies.”
Each panel of orange glass consists of two outer panes, between which is a wire mesh that during the day bends the outside light into nimbuses of suns and at night sends arcs of headlights coursing across the windows. The same type of “tube core” glass, minus the orange tint, makes up the entrance walls of interior offices.
South of the entrance the orange folds inside the building, moving onto the high back wall of the auditoriums as a sunny zigzag made of a new DesignTex wall covering that’s like a 3-D baseball card, creating the illusion of movement as you walk past it.
Green complements the orange. On the eastern facade the concrete walls of the mechanical-services area are covered with a translucent pale jade, egg-crate-like plastic that conceals the ventilation system’s massive louvers yet allows air to flow freely. The sign over the east entrance is made of orange-faced metal cylinders that form the letters of the building’s name.
Much of the flooring is green epoxy. The most beautiful area, which will be covered by pool and Ping-Pong tables, is a sea-colored opalescent green that almost seems liquid. The floor is crisscrossed by aluminum walkways that mark the heavily traveled pathways Koolhaas’s team noted in 1997. The trench that forms the broadband cafe, ramped to fit below the Tube, is finished in a deep maroon epoxy.
Another unifying theme is Koolhaas’s use of Panelite, a sheet of fiberglass or polyester resin with a honeycomb core that comes in a variety of textures, colors, and transparencies and weighs about half as much as plate glass. Koolhaas used shimmering gold and silver Panelite for his New York Prada store. For the student center he chose translucent Panelite for the countertops in the cafe, for the tables in the study carrels that overlook the Mies courtyard, and, most strikingly, for the walls of the freestanding, amoeba-shaped washroom that sits just inside the entrance.
In the middle of everything is a large glass “hanging garden” that’s open to the sky but completely sealed off from the rest of the center. “The building,” says Schendel, “is amazing in the sense that you can stand in it and look through to the outside, back to the inside, back to the outside, back to the inside several times–like a shish kebab of space.”
Koolhaas’s engagement with Mies is apparent the moment you walk in the door, because Mies is in the door–an 18-foot-high portrait of him is sandwiched between the panes of glass, so that you walk into the building through his head. This kind of iconography plays a big part in Koolhaas’s design, reflecting Robert Venturi’s conviction that in our electronic information age “architecture should reject abstract form” of the Miesian variety and restore iconography as the “essential architectural element.” As he explains, “Egyptian hieroglyphics on pylons are like billboards; early Byzantine or Christian basilicas…have interiors teaming with signage–we call it high art….It was only in the twentieth century that they got rid of iconographic communication.”
Koolhaas asked New York graphic designer Michael Rock to create imagery that, according to Donna Robertson, “comes out of the Gothic tradition in campus architecture, where the gargoyles would carry jokes…comments on the nature of academic life–the professor professing and students snoozing. It reminds you that we are moving to being more image based than text based.” Rock created a series of two-and-a-half-inch-round icons–a “swirlies” icon to indicate washrooms didn’t make the final cut–that are used in multiple ways. They even appear on the heads of magnets used for postings on the stainless steel bulletin board.
Most of the graphic images in the student center are made up of the icons–they’re like pixels in a sort of dot matrix pointillism. The Mies in the entrance door is made up of them, and the massive “Founders Wall” that dominates the building’s welcome center consists of hundreds upon hundreds of them. Step back, and the icons coalesce into seven nine-and-a-half-foot portraits, including Mies again, Heald, Armour, Pritzker, and Galvin.
Koolhaas sees the iconography as a response to globalization. “When IIT opened you could probably assume that everyone would feel very welcome in a highly abstract space such as Crown Hall,” he says. “I think that if the current generation enters a building like that they feel a weird absence of information. Given the fact that the student body is now literally from at least four or five continents, it felt very important to try to develop a language of fundamental information that is effective in these circumstances.”
Just outside the sports bar is a garden courtyard, the site of a heated controversy that broke out in March 2000, before construction began. When Koolhaas’s design for the building was first made public, preservationists were outraged at the way it dealt with the neighboring Commons Building, the original student center. Completed in 1953, it was the only major structure in the central zone along State between the campus and the dorms; it was designed either by the master or by his associate Gene Summers after the school failed to come through with funding for Mies’s more ambitious student union. Whoever the designer was, the Commons Building was another Miesian masterpiece–an exposed-frame, glass-walled pavilion with an open interior that won an American Institute of Architects award.
By the time Koolhaas got to the building it had suffered decades of abuse. The exterior walls had been punched through to add vents and pipes, and its open interior was cluttered with makeshift partitions. His commitment to restoring it got lost in the uproar over his decision to have his own much larger building suck the Commons inside it. Two of its exterior walls would become walls within the student center, and the other two would become linear extensions of the center’s walls.
John Vinci saw this as a direct attack on Mies’s “simplicity and purity,” declaring, “The only reason to do this is to clash with Mies.” He wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune charging Koolhaas with “wanton defacement.” Architect Stanley Tigerman backed Vinci, calling the new structure “a slap in the face, a very ordinary building that does great damage to the Commons.”
Vinci proposed that Koolhaas move his building south, leaving the Commons clear on all four sides, and that he convert the Commons to a visitors’ center and faculty club. Koolhaas bristled at the idea. “To make the Commons into a Mies visitors’ center,” he told the Tribune, “would be to embalm a structure that was intended by Mies to be used.”
“John Vinci’s protest actually had a lot of effect,” says Donna Robertson. “It galvanized the attention of the IHPA [Illinois Historic Preservation Agency], which, because we accepted the Tube money, had the right of review of anything we built, even if it wasn’t the Tube.”
The school brought in Gunny Harboe, an architect who specializes in restoration, to consult on new ways to handle the two buildings. Preservationists won a temporary victory in May, when the IHPA staff asked that at least 12 feet separate the two buildings, but by July 2000 the staff had reversed their decision. Robertson and IHPA associate director Bill Wheeler say a “valid compromise” was reached, but Vinci says, “I don’t think I made any progress. I lost.”
The Commons Building is being repaired and its original open interior restored. A roof for the student-center loading dock that cantilevered over the Commons like a grasping claw was cut back. Robertson says that “superclear, superwhite glass” was put in the eastern facade of Koolhaas’s center where it absorbs one side of the Commons to visually separate the two buildings. The corner where the two meet is surrounded by the “Mies courtyard,” the garden off the sports bar. Here the foundation of the Commons has been dug out and clad in black painted steel.
Mark Schendel says the Commons Building used to be “an orphan…stranded in a parking lot.” Now the courtyard offers a “magnificent view of the Commons. I think you will see it in a completely new way.” Nevertheless, exposing its foundation reduces the Commons to something of an archaeological artifact.
Much of the construction has been marked by “value-engineering” compromises intended to keep burgeoning costs under control. That’s not unusual for an innovative building, just painful. Part of the game of architecture is figuring out how to make a great omelet while the financiers keep taking back eggs. “OMA built its practice on constraints,” says Schendel, and Koolhaas has worked to keep his basic design intact even as he’s been forced to switch to less expensive materials.
He’d originally planned to use wood for the building’s ceilings, but that was a budget buster. Wood is costly, and it’s flammable, so a second, fireproof ceiling would have had to be installed above it. In many places Koolhaas turned to a solution he’d used before–the unpainted green drywall would become the ceiling. The screw holes and joints were carefully filled and squared off, making a field of large green rectangles speckled with rows of small white squares and surrounded by thin white frames. “It’s important to have these vast expanses of exposed Sheetrock,” says Koolhaas, “because this is a kind of return of Miesian puritanism about steel, but in a more abject material.”
Elsewhere rare zebrawood became fake zebrawood, then a zebrawoodlike wall covering. Travertine became epoxy flooring inside and grass outside.
Koolhaas has visited the site about twice a year. On one trip he was so unhappy that work was temporarily stopped. But when he returned at the beginning of July he was said to be excited by the progress.
Work on the building is going right down to the wire. Just last week longtime Koolhaas collaborator Petra Blaise was in the auditorium supervising the hanging of her 30-foot draperies, which incorporate a Mies drawing of a tree, black on white on the outside, white on black on the reverse. As dedication day looms ever closer, questions about whether everything will be finished are met with an almost mantralike response: “It has to be finished.”
You can stand alone inside Crown Hall and have a wonderful time experiencing the space. But Koolhaas’s center feels incomplete without the bustle of the people it’s supposed to serve. It’s as much a dynamic as it is an object, and people will have to fill it before we’ll know whether their rubbing together in this space will produce the sparks Koolhaas intended.
At the moment Koolhaas is working on one other big U.S. project, the new Seattle public library, scheduled to open next year, and he’s just won a commission to build an 800-seat theater in Dallas. But like many architects, he’s hit a dry streak. Earlier this year his partner Ole Scheeren told the London Independent that OMA had made a conscious decision not to join the competition for rebuilding Ground Zero in New York. He explained that competing would have meant choosing to “associate with another nation that is at the end of its greatness and propelling war plans into the world.” In the June issue of Wired Koolhaas labeled Daniel Libeskind’s plan for Ground Zero “a massive representation of hurt that projects only the overbearing self-pity of the powerful” and “captures the stumped fundamentalism of the superpower. Call it closure.”
China seems to be the new focus of Koolhaas’s enthusiasm. “Two billion people won’t be wrong,” he wrote in Great Leap Forward. Scheeren told the Independent, “It’s the choice to associate yourself with a regime that is on the brink of opening up and propelling itself into a positive-thinking world.”
Koolhaas has been picked to design a new $600 million headquarters for CCTV, China’s state television monopoly. At 700 feet, it will be the tallest building in Beijing. China, with its booming economy and centralized control, can still allow an architect to dream on a grand scale.
Of course the China that has allowed the remarkable economic growth of the Pearl River Delta is the same China that privatized an effective public-health system and left one billion peasants without access to adequate care, the same China that this summer proposed the repressive Article 23 for Hong Kong, drawing more than 350,000 protesters into the streets. Yet China is letting Koolhaas build, and for that he seems willing to look the other way.
Asked if he thinks it’s still possible to do good work in America, he says, “An architect isn’t going to decide where he works. We had a phenomenally strong project for LACMA [the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; his design came in at $400 million] that went into the garbage dump and a phenomenally strong project for the Whitney [Museum, for an estimated $200 million] that went into the garbage dump. We wanted desperately to participate in a project for the United Nations, but we were not invited.”
He decries the “fragility of cultural institutions in a country where culture is financed by [private] gifts rather than by [state] subsidies,” unlike much of the rest of the world. But he insists he’s here to stay. “We have an office in New York that is open for business.”
When architects describe how they create their buildings they talk about logic and objectivity, but the more subjective element of personality plays a stronger role than many would care to admit. How architects see the world and how they respond to the values of their time can mark their buildings as distinctively as fingerprints.
Mies would study a client’s needs intensely and create reams of preliminary drawings, yet no matter what problem a project posed, the answer always wound up being a variation of the classic Miesian glass box. Koolhaas also prides himself on doing intense research for each project, yet the results always bear a highly individualistic stamp and can’t be mistaken for the work of any other architect.
“Architecture is an historical process,” says Mies. “It belongs to the epoch.” As one epoch fades into the next, values evolve. Mies, a child of his time, believed above all in truth and in order, and he didn’t see order as an oppressive force. “The real order,” he said, “is what Saint Augustine said about the disposition of equal and unequal things according to their nature.” In his work this meant eliminating the things he didn’t think fit: curving walls, triangular facades, rounded roofs, oval rooms, diagonal corridors, bright colors.
In our own time, when order is shunned as control and truth is often declared suspect, Koolhaas has other priorities. “I believe in uncertainty,” he says in S,M,L,XL, and his student center embraces the very architectural elements Mies rejected. Yet he’s also acutely aware of the downside of our era’s values. His 2001 essay “Junkspace” creates a harrowing portrait of unchecked market forces expanding the world’s capacity to pump out ever larger quantities of just about everything, including architecture, even as that architecture becomes relentlessly more generic. He responds with buildings that are as far from generic as you’re likely to get.
Mies is about reduction and subtraction, Koolhaas about addition and multiplication. A Mies building is like a Bach cantata, perfect and crystalline. A Koolhaas building is like a Mahler symphony, an attempt to capture the complexity of the world in a single work.
It’s important to remember that the “simpler” time in which Mies built the IIT campus was a time when the world was engulfed in unspeakable violence. Mies tried to make an architecture that was both an answer and an alternative. And that’s the point where he and Koolhaas connect, though the link is sometimes obscured by Koolhaas the writer’s despairing depictions of our time. Koolhaas the architect still allows for hope. “Behind every project we do there is a kind of vast critical apparatus of doing better,” he says. “We’re not trying to emulate the current mess. We are just as interested in the sublime.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy, Sanne Peper, AP–World Wide Photos.