Will This Mies be Missed Much?

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One last post growing out of that Chicago trip. While I was there I spent the better part of an afternoon at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the school Mies van der Rohe took charge of in 1938, not long after he quit Germany for good. Part of what drew him there was an offer to design much of the campus the school now occupies.

What brought me to the IIT, where I’ve been a number of times over the years, is that lately there’s been some controversy over plans by Chicago’s Metra railway system to tear down the “Test Cell”, a small brick building — that’s it above and below — at the southwest corner of campus. Metra wants the land for the ground level plaza of a new $11.7 million elevated railway station by Skidmore Owings and Merrill that will be built partly with $6.8 million of federal stimulus funds.

The Test Cell was designed in Mies’ office, though there’s some uncertainty as to how much of a role Mies played personally. The question now is, presuming it’s by Mies, a certified Great Architect, would it be worth standing in the way of the Metra station to preserve this unremarkable little shed? The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency doesn’t think so. Neither does Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune. Franz Schulze, Mies’ biographer, also thinks it’s a building of very little consequence.

Before heading out to Chicago I wrote here that I suspected Kamin was right, but that before I came to my own decision I wanted to revisit the place for myself. Now I have, and I agree. Sometimes infrastructure improvements take precedence over small potatoes. Let it go.

All photos here by me.

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The Test Cell — the name harks back to its rumored purpose in the 1950s as entryway to an underground weaponry testing facility — is at the southern tip of a long block-wide segment of buildings just west of the broad central expanse of the IIT campus.

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Mies designed most of the IIT campus within a rigorously contained vocabulary of black painted steel, beige brick and plate glass…

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…a vocabulary which the Test Cell more or less recalls. (I say more or less because it has no glass along the street sides, so it leaves the impression of being a completely enclosed box.) Mies, who had experience with factory design in Germany, was unafraid of having industrial associations come into play on his new campus, which eventually would even have a boiler plant and smokestack — that’s the structure you see in the background there.

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On his Hello Beautiful blog, the Chicago architecture writer Ed Lifson has made the most passionate case for perserving it. He emphasizes its importance as part of the overall ensemble of the IIT campus and the way it supplies what he describes as “a forecourt”. to the power plant. He also talks about the way the building provides a small scale entry experience before the larger expanses of the IIT campus, and compares it to the low-ceilinged entryway that Frank Lloyd Wright designed as a prelude to the great high space of the Guggenheim’s spiral rotunda. I tried to keep that idea in mind as walked the path from the Test Cell to campus and just couldn’t buy it. If that’s what Mies was after, this would have to rank as a negligible attempt to achieve that effect.

Something the Test Cell also doesn’t do is operate as any kind of cornerstone for the campus, the main part of which, as I’ve mentioned, begins across the street to the east. The Test Cell is simply a terminus to the power plant block, and not a particularly elegant one. When she made her decision not to oppose its demolition, which is likely to happen this summer, Anne Hacker, a deputy state historic preservation officer, also noted that the building wasn’t built to Mies’ original specifications and that it had been significantly altered in the years since then.

Let’s be clear, no one disputes that the IIT campus as a whole is an ensemble of the first importance. (And one listed with the National Register of Historic Places.) It also contains some extraordinary individual buildings, especially Crown Hall, completed in 1956…

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…which was Mies’ first large scale, clear-span/”universal space” building, meaning its roof was supported by those exterior steel “bents”> Like stationery gantries they hold up the roof to permit a wide expanse of column-free, multipurpose space beneath.

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But I agree with the Illinois Historic Preservation people that the Test Cell is simply not a crucial element of the IIT campus. Lifson asks whether we would throw away even a negligible scrap of Mozart. But a scrap of Mozart can be stored in a drawer. Buildings occupy land, and in a densely settled city every acre is contested ground. The point of the historic preservation movement that got off the ground in the 1960s is that architecturally (or sometimes just historically) significant buildings — stress significant — deserve to go on occupying space that newer construction might like to invade. But preservation is part of an eternal balancing act with development. It’s not a blank check to preserve every crumb that fell off the Great Architect’s desk. I have to agree with the Tribune‘s Kamin that “historic preservation should not occur in an urban planing vacuum”.

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Prior to my visit of a few weeks ago, the last time I had been out to the IIT campus was five years ago for the opening of the McCormack Tribune Campus Center, above, a building by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Koolhaas was deeply aware of the Miesian industrial aesthetic, which I think helps explain his decision to incorporate a slice of the overhead passenger railway line into his design, by way of the giant corrugated steel sleeve that sits atop the center and buffers train noise. Rem brought the life of the city into the life of the campus on its eastern edge and frankly, having a Metra station interlock with the IIT on its western side might be a good thing.

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Koolhaas — or someone on his team — even arranged to have the old man’s image etched into the windows and sliding glass doors on the west side of the Center, as a kind of household god for the IIT household. The irony of course is that in his design for the student center Rem, who reveres Mies in his way, had no problem with violating much that Mies held sacred.

Mies could also be fairly dry-eyed about how the old had to give way sometimes to make room for the new, especially the new that he was building. To make space for his Federal Center in downtown Chicago in the mid-1960s, the city had to tear down its 60-year-old predecessor, a Beaux Arts structure with a massive dome by Henry Ives Cobb that had been for decades one of Chicago’s great civic monuments. And IIT administrators have let go of a far more interesting Mies-designed portion of their campus, his redoubtable little gas station, which was torn down in 2001 to make way for student housing designed by Helmut Jahn.

You can only wonder what Mies would be thinking about all this now.

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I know what I think.

Meanwhile, as part of what you might call the Looking Around Fairness Doctrine, you can find Ed Lifson’s fullest defenses of the Test Cell here and here.

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