Mies Resurrected.

The Creation of Crown Hall

“Almost nothing.” That was Mies van der Rohe's goal as an architect: to use the emerging technology of his time to liberate the world from the fortress-like rock piles of the past. In 1921, he proposed skyscraper whose walls were made entirely of glass, but it would take another quarter century before he could achieve his vision. It would happen, not in his native city of Berlin, but in his adopted home of Chicago, to which he had emigrated in 1938 to become the architect for the new campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, located in what is now called Bronzeville, along State Street from 31st to 35th. And even there, he was kept in bridle. The buildings that came closest to his ideal remained, not his early structures at IIT, which mediated the innovations of metal frames and broad expanses of glass with traditional brick infill and end walls, but Burnham and Atwood's 1895 Reliance Building, Willis Polk's 1918 Hallidie Building in San Francisco, often credited with creating the first curtain wall in America.

The road to Crown Hall was a long battle. Mies's original 1940 campus plan was centered by two major showcase buildings, a student union, and a library with large exposed trusses on its roof, placed on either side of 33rd street. However, money remained tight, and the first new structures on campus, such as the 1941 Metals and Mineral Research building, were smaller, and deceptively simple.

It would take the prosperity that followed World War II to finally scratch Mies's itch to create the great modernist monument, his entry into the sweepstakes of architectural immortality. At the end of the 1940's, he had commissions for glass-walled structures, both in high-rise form, at the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, and as a low, continuous Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois. Soon after, back at IIT, Mies was finally able to design a building for his own department of architecture. The gloves came off. Mies placed the building, not at the center of campus, along 33rd street, but at its edge, with its main entrance facing south. A far more utilitarian back entrance in the north facade faces the rest of the campus.

Crown Hall was to be much more ambitious and daring than the campus's earlier building, and Mies had to overcome initial resistance from school trustees, who thought it too expensive. When that obstacle was overcome, there were the city building inspectors. According to former Mies student and current IIT professor David Sharpe, they told Mies he “couldn't build it as a classroom building, because the (steel) columns would have to be fireproofed” with sprayed-on concrete. “Mies didn't want to put concrete on these . . . (so) they said we could build it this way if we classified it as a warehouse. But then the city said, well, if you're going to have to do that, you're going to have to sprinkler it. This was the first sprinklered building on campus”

Sharpe spoke at an IIT symposium that brought together George Danforth, one of Mies's first associates in Chicago and the man who succeeded him as Dean of the School of Architecture in 1958, Dever Rockwell, Danforth's former architectural partner, and IIT professors David Sharpe, Peter Roesch and George Schipporeit - all former students of Mies.

At the symposium, Roesch talked of the next obstacle, a construction fire that took place before the metal work was put up. "Where we're sitting now collapsed, after an hour of the form work burning underneath, and there was a delay. It was in the winter, when they had to heat the forms so the concrete didn't freeze."

Mies had designed the stairs so they would be uncluttered by handrails, but it was not to be “It looked beautiful without handrails," remembers Roesch, but “the building inspector came and said, well, this is not a warehouse, you're using it as a school. Mies . . . really was so upset by that, that he had to put these rails up." Today those handrails are famous for their minimalist elegance.

Crown Hall was finally completed in 1956. It would be where Mies would exorcise his dual obsessions: maximum transparency, and the largest possible building, achieved through the minimum possible structure. “You walk in there,” says Gunny Harboe of Austin AECOM, preservation architect for the restoration “and it really makes your jaw drop.” Mies created a "“magnificent one-room schoolhouse,"” in the words of IIT Dean of Architecture Donna Robertson - a single room, 120 feet wide by 220 feet long and 18 feet high, whose roof is suspended from four enormous plate girders, allowing the interior to be completely free of columns, an unobstructed 26,000 square feet, over half a football field. The floor is gray terrazzo, the aggregate a composite of Virginia and Tennessee marbles, set on a 2 1/2 by 5 foot grid, . The ceiling is made up of foot-square white acoustic tile, separated from the outer walls by a one foot recessed soffit that makes the ceiling appear to float in one continuous sweep. Along the building's perimeter, structure has been pared down to an ultra-light steel frame for an infill made completely of glass. Each of the ultra-clear upper panes is a spectacular 11 1/2 by 9 1/2 feet. The combined weight of all the building's glass is over 22 tons. "What Mies did" says Mark Sexton, project architect along with his partner, Ron Krueck, of Krueck and Sexton " is that he not only made it structurally, incredibly efficient . . . but he also made it incredibly beautiful. He blended structure and architecture in a perfect balance, almost like a tree or a leaf."

"Almost nothing," at long last. "Through the use of almost nothing," says Robertson, "(Mies) creates an almost sacred space." "It's a puff of air," is how Alfred Caldwell, another legendary Mies colleague, admiringly described Crown Hall, remembers associate dean Peter Beltemacchi. "That's everything in architecture," Beltemacchi adds. Everything fits together perfectly, with simplicity and grace. The result is a communal space that eloquently expresses the idea of freedom within order.

At night, says Harboe, Crown Hall becomes a pure, “glowing box.” Stuart MacRae of IIT's Graham Resource Center likens the nighttime view to a Japanese lantern, and while it's Frank Lloyd Wright who's best known forbeing influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, you find the same kind of purity, of stripping down to essentials, as the bedrock of Mies's work. Still, Mies' ambitions for Crown Hall were anything but modest. IIT professor and historian Kevin Harrington notes in the AIA Guide to Chicago that, at the building's dedication, Mies said, “Let this building be the home of ideas and adventure . . . and in the end a real contribution to our civilization.”

In its early years, Crown Hall hosted a number of notable events - an exhibition of works by Picasso, a show where Fiats were driven up a ramp into the building to be put on display - but none more memorable than the evening students turned Crown Hall into a nightclub for their annual dance, and brought in Duke Ellington and his orchestra. “That was really a jumping evening,” says George Danforth. “We haven't had anything like it since.” Sharpe recalls some of the students egging on the band's trumpeter to “break the glass. He said he was going to break the glass. And he played, and he looked around. No glass popped out. You could just see the veins on his throat,” but a Memorex moment was not in the offing, although, remembers Beltemacchi, “the glassed bowed out because it was so loud.”

“We were anxious that night," says Sharpe, " to see what Mies would say when he came into the building. Mies walked in and he stopped, and he just kind of looked around. Mies wouldn't say anything, just lit his cigar and started smoking. After the end, Mies came to talk to us, and tell us that this was a very nice evening."

Mies and his German compatriots may have been more familiar with jazz than their students. "I was working in his office," remembered Danforth, accomplished as a musician as well as an architect“ and I said, 'Mies, I can't be with you tomorrow because I've got a concert at Ravinia', and Mies said, 'What is it?' And I said, 'It's Benny Goodman,' and he said, 'Ah . . . Sving?'”

The Decline of Crown Hall

The intervening years had not been kind to Crown Hall. At a lecture in the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois's Preservation Snapshots, series, given in April of this year before the summer's restoration work had begun, Gunny Harbor gave a portrait of a building in steep decline. "The condition of Crown Hall - how do we say it nicely - is bad. One of the first projects was the south porch. We know that the stone was replaced once, if not more than once. The travertine had washed out and then solidified in the the drain system. It totally clogged everything up."

Rust had attacked the often poorly maintained steel frame and made the air vents inoperable. The vines of Boston ivy that, for decades, climbed up the sides of the building didn't help. "They're beautiful," says Harboe, "but they really do bad things to the building. They hold water. A lot of condensation issues along the base is because of the conductivity of the steel. In the winter time, the moisture gets on the inside (and) damages the paint. The steel is corroded in many places." Harboe talked of "some of the effects of corrosion where you just get a little pit and it puts enough pressure on the glass to break it. "

In 2003 Helmut Jahn's State Street Village, the first new building on the campus in decades, opened up across the street from Crown Hall, faced in gleaming corrugated stainless steel. It was soon followed by Rem Koolhaas's riotous McCormick Student Center to the north. Koolhaas claimed that the blazing orange glass in his building helped set off the color of the older buildings on campus, but Crown Hall's black paint had faded to a smudgy gray. It remained a shrine to Mies and modernism, but it had become like a beloved old aunt. You might bring her flowers, but it'd be Jahn or Koolhaas you'd want to ask to the dance.

It began with a bit of archeology, "trying to get to the bottom of all the stories," says Gunny Harboe, apreservation specialist whose projects have included restoring the Reliance Building to its original brilliance, and putting back Louis Sullivan's original cornice on his Carson Pirie Scott building Considering how many former Mies students still teach at IIT, the clash of memories must have sometimes been like something out of Rashomon. Harboe's research paid off, however, and not just at Crown Hall. The entire IIT campus has just been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Rebirth of Crown Hall

The south porch came first. It was completely rebuilt; a new steel structure and new travertine. Research is now being done to find a sealant that will prevent the kind of deterioration the stone suffered in the past. “The salt which would melt the water and then refreeze was a real contributing element to the deterioration of the travertine,” says Sexton. “Travertine because of its open cell system has water coming into it on a daily basis. The salt added to that. When we started taking this building apart, we noticed on the north entry a huge deterioration of the steel right at the sill of the entry, and it was really the salt. The amount of salt that was used there really just ate the steel apart.” The sealants now being tested are expected to protect the travertine, but “let it breath.”

The $3.6 million phase of the restoration that took place over the summer break was the most ambitious so far. Every one of Crown Hall's 340 windows were removed, leaving only the spare, structure, repainted at least three times since 1956, which was then sandblasted down to the original bare steel. Sexton and his workers discovered the individual members still had “U.S. Steel” or “Bethlehem Steel” stamped on them. “The craftsmanship of raw steel members was beautifully handled,” says Sexton. “It was a great testament to Mies that he was actually using off-the-shelf material, but he was elevating how it was put together.”

Replicating the original paint was another research project. The original, Superior Graphite #30, developed by a bridge company, Detroit Graphite, couldn't be used because it was lead based.

“They're also out of business” adds Beltemacchi, “ No one's making a graphite pigmented paint anymore. There was a Germany company that made it for a while, but they finally decided they weren't going to put really expensive paint on it, because Mies's idea was to use good, sturdy stuff, but frugal, and they found another supplier.”

"The paint on this building is called Tnemec," says Robertson. "which is cement spelled backwards That's a brand name, and it's a paint that's usually used on bridges, and other large infrastructures because of its durability in outdoor setting it should last 20 to 25 years. . And this paint was actually installed by bridge painters."

"They were actually very conscientious," says Sexton. "They would spray an entire elevation, and we would reject the entire elevation. They sprayed the entire east elevation and south elevation and we said, rejected. The amazing thing was what they said was, 'yeah, we understand.' There was very little whining. They understood what they were getting into."

The result is a Crown Hall that few have ever seen before. The sleek, shiny black of the new paint is as brilliant as Koolhaas's orange - and a lot more elegant. "It looked black as this when (we) moved in," remembers Beltemacchi. "It was just black as night and Mies was very proud of it. I came in here first when I was 18, and I remember it very well.". Beltemacchi was even married in Crown Hall, the building's first wedding.

Stops! . . . In the Name of Love . . .

The original glass of the upper windows was a quarter-inch thick, and it moved and sometimes broke in the wind. City code now requires glass to be a half-inch thick. "As glass gets thicker it gets greener," says architecture dean Donna Robertson. "The Coke bottle effect, as its called. We switched to what is a low-iron glass. Some people call it the superwhite glass. There are only two manufacturers from whom we could buy a piece of glass of that type in this size. It took ten men and a crane to hoist the glass in the air and then slide it into the steel frame of the building."

Each of the massive new panes weighed 700 pounds, more than the original Mies-designed "stop", the piece of metal that holds the glass in place, could support, which created another point of controversy. "The basic issue about the slope stops" explains Robertson, " is that it's a custom extrusion rather than an off-the-shelf extrusion." Arguments raged, with the usual question, omnipresent at IIT, of "What would Mies do?"

"Those who agreed with us," says Robertson, " which were Krueck and Sexton and Gunny Harbor, thought it was better to compromise on the issue of only off-the-shelf stock, because otherwise we would have had to either thicken up the whole stop in order to buy it off the shelf, or . . . use a custom member if the issue is only about right angle relationships, which is another reason not to use the slope because this is a building about the right angle relationship. Because to do that, we'd have to use a custom stop because you'd have to have an L shaped stop that allows there to be that same bite to the glass." The decision to go with a slightly heavier, trapezoidal stop was opposed by the purists as a betrayal of Mies's commitment to right angles.

"We had major issues," adds Sexton, " about how the counter-synching of the screws were done. We had a big challenge with stops coming out and the counter-synching being too deep. It was too deep by about a 32nd of inch. In steel construction, a 32nd of an inch is an unheard of condition. Here, they were all rejected - there's a lot of scrap metal out there because huge amounts were rejected - all remade because of something like that, because there's so little of anything, as soon as it's not right, it's a glaring mistake."

The lower panes of glass, doubled to each large pane above and milky-white to provide a measure of privacy, presented another problem. Mies's originals had been sandblasted to create a white translucent finish. They were all replaced in 1975 with two eighth-inch panes of glass and a plastic film sandwiched in between. "We went to the laminate because of the breakage and the number of people that got hurt from it,"says Beltemacchi, but the result was less translucent than opaque, casting reflections back into the building.

"One of the things that's changed," explains Sexton, "is that there's now federal code that requires all of this glass to either to be laminated or tempered, and at the time in 74 or so you couldn't really temper a piece of sandblasted glass because when you do, you get a very thin layer of tension on the glass, and the sandblasting, because it was all done by hand, would break through that and it would be prone to breakage, so that wasn't a good condition. When Mies did the original building, this glass was not tempered. It was just annealed. Now by law we have to temper it, but because of advances in sandblasting technologies, it's all done by computer mechanism, and they now take off such a thin layer of glass . . . We went and researched this.”

Sexton and his colleagues compared more than 100 types of glass, then mounted five full-size finalists in the hall's north facade next to one of Mies's originals. More "What would Mies do?" discussions ensued. "“One of the main companies in the U.S.,"” says Sexton, “is a huge company called Viracon, and they have a whole division that's just researching sandblasted glass, and through their research they're realized that they can now sandblast and temper a piece of glass."” The glass chosen for the restoration "is now fully compliant with code, and it goes back to what Mies had originally envisioned for the building. You can see the different tones. You can see the sidewalk, the grass and the sky as three distinct colors. You couldn't do that before. "

Free of controversy was the restoration of the continuous strip of operable vents beneath the bottom windows all along the building's perimeter. Harboe says that in their previous condition, they were so corroded, many ofthe original chains broken, that they were all either always open or always closed." Now, says Robertson, "They're operable. They're exactly as Mies had them. Debate raged about whether to paint the hardware black, and in the end, it was decided to do so. And the only change that was made other than just cleaning it up and taking out the rust was that we put a bug screen on it, and that will make a huge difference in terms of the usability."

Mies's later glass boxes would become sealed environments dependent on mechanical air-conditioning, but Robertson says he was a "proto-green" architect who "understood natural air." Fresh, cool air flowed through the vents at floor level, and hot air flowed out through vents in the ceiling-a simple convection effect that's been rediscovered by contemporary green architects, such as Matthias Schuler, an internationally recognized innovator in green design whose company, Transsolar, along with Atelier Ten, were environmental consultants to the Crown Hall restoration.

While the lack of control and often erratic heating and cooling can be a major irritation to a building's workers, managers tend to love the sealed box and the automated air conditioning because it neither requires human action nor leaves itself open to human action screwing it up. When Crown Hall opened, the lighting and ventilation management system was a man named Ludwig Hilberseimer.

“Ludwig Hilberseimer,” says Robertson, “was brought by Mies from the Bauhaus here to start the architectural program that Mies headed up.” Says Beltemacchi of the vents, and of the Venetian blinds that cover the huge upper panes of glass, “Hilberseimer used to walk around and adjust them all day long. Hilberseimer and Mies definitely knew about the light control, because when they adjusted the blinds, a lot of it was to get some light up on to the ceiling to get it out onto the tables. We talk about it today, but it was well known in those days. Light control just by adjusting the Venetian blinds was part of the original use of the blinds.”

“Hilberseimer ran this place with an iron fist. No feet on the furniture. You couldn't play music. You couldn't smoke. It was like schools used to be. People would still wear neckties to class, Hilberseimer, when he died in 1967, that's when the Venetian blind business went to hell. We don't have anyone who does that anymore. Maybe you can't with modern students, but it worked in those days.”

Robertson and Sexton are hoping to counter that indifference with a third phase of restoration, estimated to require another $5,600,000. “We're going to cut down on the energy consumption of this building, which we can do very dramatically in terms of electricity. We're going to build a building brain that will automate the blinds, so that we modify the blinds to be a modified light shelf. Right now, the concavity of the blade goes down. We're going to flip that, so it goes up. That way sunlight is going to bounce further into the interior, rather than relying so much on the electrical lights. And the lights will be controlled by the building brain as well because it will read what the foot candles are in any point in time.” Robertson hopes to also augment the building's original ambient heating tubes in the floor slab with the capacity to carry, not steam, but tepid water to provide cooling in warmer weather.

The Legacy of Crown Hall

Mies famous dictum, “God is in the Details,” is everywhere on display at the restored Crown Hall. Says Peter Beltemacchi, “ Jacques Brownson (another IIT alumnus and architect of the Daley Center) was always happy to point out that even the outlets at the base of a column were looked on as an architectural thing. We were always challenged to never let anything not detailed. Think of everything. Resolve everything. So it was a great building architecturally for people to look at, but to young architects as they're learning it's an inspiration to be in a building like this.” Even the building's original drafting tables, spare metal frames with a simple top, were designed by Mies so that they fit exactly into the grid of the terrazzo flooring.

For many architects, this is all much too anal. They respond to Mies as they would to a bad rash. In our liberated, all-accepting time, where excess is seldom enough, Mies's linear, controlling and demandingly simple architecture seems a relic of a despotic age. Did not Mies. himself, once say back in 1924 that, " We are
concerned today with questions of a general nature. The individual is losing significance, his destiny is no longer what interests us.” In our own era, one of relentless privitization and unfettered power and ego, this reads as blasphemy, but it may be a truer assesment of our current state than we may care to admit.

Today, technology gives us instantaneous access to a wealth of information that previous generations couldn't even imagine. In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, author Steve Johnson argues that video games increase problem-solving skills and SAT scores, that audiences today can easily follow movies with complicated plot lines and a jump-cut switching from one story to the next that would have left a viewer in the 1930's - or even 60's - completely lost and befuddled.

The CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes recently ran a story on the "Echo Boomers", the offspring of the Baby Boom generation, as the most wired generation ever, with computers, Ipods, cell-phones and instant messaging. Does this inexhaustible universe of choice represent a liberation, or a cultural addiction to diversion that ultimately, through the magician's hoary trick of misdirection, becomes a potent weapon of political control? During the 60 Minutes segment, noted pediatrician Mel Levine related how he had asked an employer to characterize his young hires, and got this reply: "They can't think long-range. Everything has to be immediate, like a video game. And they have a lot of trouble sort of doing things in a stepwise fashion, delaying gratification. Really reflecting as they go along."

When it's so easy to get at answers, are we too liable to accept the first plausible-sounding response that pops up on a Google search? In the blogosphere, there are those who try to get it right, and far more who think if they believe it, it has to be right. Facts and faith both create a construct of reality. If people are willing to believe, is one any better than the other?

A student of Aquinas, Mies actually believed in the idea of truth, and he seemed most at peace making drawing after drawing, trying to reveal it in his architecture. As a teacher, he took on the persona of the guy who held all the answers and dared you to pry any of them out of him - a great, wrinkled sphinx, staring out dispassionately from deeply pouched eyes, encircled in cigar smoke as if it were incense.

It wasn't for everyone. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche, in the book Conversations with Architects, remembers his brief time studying with Mies, “His habit, which was very disconcerting, was to come and sit down. Then he would light a cigar and remain perfectly silent for two hours. No one talked. You sat there, and there was absolute silence. . . . my only reaction after one of these sessions was to go out and get a very strong drink to try to recover.”

IIT professor Peter Roesch, another Mies student, tells essentially the same story, but with a very different punchline. “Mies looked at my work for, I think, twenty minutes. The good news was that he didn't walk away. The bad news was that I didn't know what he didn't like. He did not say one word for twenty minutes. It forced me to look at my own work, and I found all the mistakes. Everything. After twenty minutes of silence, I said, 'Mies could you come back tomorrow? I'll fix it all up.' And he laughed, and he puffed his cigar, and he lef

Rem Koolhaas, an acute observer of Mies and his legacy, has written, "Mies's work had an essence of formlessness, amorphouness, nothingness, perversion, and anxiety behind a stealth shield of serenity.” That's Crown Hall in a nutshell, serene and subversively unsettling. Mies doesn't try to intoxicate your senses. He's master at creating beauty, but he isn't here just to make you feel good. His buildings don't offer you an ornate mask to hide behind, but a spare, paradoxically open enclosure where, if you so choose, you can try to learn something about who you are. He's like the sculpture torso of Apollo, speaking to Rilke in the famous poem:

. . . for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.



© Copyright 2005-2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.