On a recent visit to Chicago, I took the opportunity to head south, and take a look at Mies Van Der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The Institution can trace its lineage back over one hundred years, but Mies’ seminal campus masterplan and buildings of the 1950’s make IIT one of the worlds most important twentieth century works of architecture. Right through the scales 1:500, 1:50, and 1:5 (scales pivotal to his teaching at the Bauhaus), it is a masterpiece.
I was lucky enough to have studied this ensemble of buildings during the course of my architectural studies- through photographs, drawings, and model studies. They are placed, and crafted beautifully, using the materials, resources and techniques to hand- all at a very precise moment in time. What I had not anticipated before my visit, was that the buildings would look old.
I found this fascinating for a number of reasons. This just wasn’t how I had imagined the crisp lines of a Miesian masterpiece. Even the woodcuts of Lionel Feninger (the man who crafted the Bauhaus manifesto), retain a crispness, a crystalline quality that doesn’t seem to diminish with age- resonant with a post war newness. I had forgotten I was visiting a building approaching 75 years of age. I thought IIT would have looked like they’d completed it yesterday.
Of course I was wrong to think that, and that is what I found most interesting. Time does not excuse the evergreen visions of what we call modernism, but then nor does it seem that these buildings are comfortable with the ravages of time.
In our Creative Reuse studio, considering this issue is often at the crux of our work. For any given piece of architecture, should time be allowed to take a hand in developments? How should this present itself? For most buildings, the answer is a resounding yes, but here, at IIT, the architectural message appears so crystalline, so resonant, so purely distilled, that it is as though this moment in time should be allowed to stand still.
The crowning glory of the IIT campus, The S. R. Crown Hall, recently underwent a comprehensive repair and restoration. It is now the home of IIT’s architecture faculty. Many in the field of conservative repair will know that restoration can be a dirty word, but here, in this context, I could not think of a more appropriate response (thought do let me have your thoughts!).
This doesn’t feel to be a building about immediate cultural lineages, individual craftsmen, and chronological narrative. It is one of those rare pieces of architecture that is less about its ancestors, and almost entirely about its progeny. Despite the ravages of time, it is as though we ought not leave our mark upon it. Rather, in every modern city scape, individual building, and construction detail, it is a work that continues to leave its mark on us.