See the building and the walls in the lower left? They're designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. They're part of the ensemble he designed at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Mies and his office designed this corner around the same time they were designing the masterpiece on campus - Crown Hall.
But now, this piece of the campus ensemble is threatened with demolition. To erect in its place a generic train station that has nothing to do with Mies or this place - IIT.
could easily be erected just a few feet away, just across the street -
on vacant land - thus preserving for posterity a work by one of the
greatest architects in history.
I've written on this previously here
(scroll down). Some people wondered if it was really by Mies, and if so, was much care put into it?
I now give you scans of the drawings for this project, scanned from the published Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Archive
in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. They're stamped with Mies's name.
You see the care he put
into this with these highly detailed drawings for this modest
(Click each to enlarge)
to me like great care went into this. You're going to tear this down
when you could easily put the train station on vacant land right across
say, "people in the office designed the Test Cell" - but how do they
know that? Are they basing their judgements on the seeming simplicity
of the building and the beautiful walls? Have they have taken the time
to really look at this work, this important piece of the campus? It is
not an immediate satisfaction, like some of the one-liner buildings
that have gone up since it. Architect Rem Koohaas noted that most kids
today walking into Mies's masterpiece Crown Hall will not understand
its message. It's the same with the Test Cell.
Those I've heard
say, "people in the office designed the Test Cell" are speculating. We
haven't heard from anyone who was there how much work Mies himself put
into this. Knowing something about how he worked, I doubt he would have
not cared how this corner of the campus looked. We ought not write
history by speculating. Mies's work is too important for that.
goes without saying that many of the great drawings and collages in
"Mies in America" were not "by" Mies. They were done by people in the
office. We know that's how architects work. Many great paintings "by"
for example, Michelangelo, involved the work of others. That does not
detract from their importance or from the great ideas in them.
Mies and his office didn't build a lot. As we saw in the recent
exhibition "Mies in America," they would spend months on the tiniest
detail that many of us might not even see, but they believed that that
was "Architecture," and that we would be affected whether we knew it or
not. And yes, the Test Cell is listed under 1950 in the "Mies in
America Building Chronology 1937 - 1969" compiled by Elspeth Cowell and
printed in the catalogue of "Mies in America."
My eyes aren't good, does this say,
"MIES VAN DER ROHE ARCHITECT CHICAGO, ILL." ?
articles on this issue show a bad photo of just the "simple" building
and say it can go. Here is the most important view, again.
(click to enlarge, to see the beauty)
how the Test Cell (lower left) begins the ensemble? It is just the
beginning of the symphony that is Mies's design, his master plan, for
the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). This was
always supposed to be a "background" building. It was always supposed
to to lead you in to the campus. It is not a "destination" building. As
you see above, it is part of a whole.The view above would be lost forever.
of the same people saying it's okay to tear this down say that not
every building should call attention to itself. They're right. Good
neighborhoods and places are ensembles, made up of great buildings that
knock you out, and others that calm you down, rest your eye a bit, and
prepare you to take in the great monuments. The latter is this Test
Cell by Mies van der Rohe.
Some say the Test Cell can be torn down because it was not built to Mies's specifications. Researcher Grahm Balkany
believes they are basing this on the drawings above on page 295. They
are slightly different that what currently stands there. But if you
click on the scan of page 295 to enlarge it, you can make out that the
west and south elevations are stamped, "void." They were changed before
construction. Balkany says, "This is more indication that the project
mattered - why revise the design if it were not important?"
stands there today looks close enough for me to say "save it." The Test
Cell was there for almost twenty years while Mies was alive and working
for much of that time on the IIT campus. Mies's acknowledged
masterpiece Crown Hall was not built exactly to his original specs (it
was going to be taller.) And what we already have there is a lot closer
to what he wanted than this station that doesn't fit in, and doesn't
acknowledge architecturally that IIT is one of the great sites in
Architecture history. And the more complete IIT is, with the highest
amount of integrity, the better for all.
A critic said of the
Test Cell, it is not an "'A' building or even a 'B+' building,'" but he
gave no grade or even comment on what is planned to replace it. Which
Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Chicago office. Is that an A or a B+? Or
worse? It would be alright on the empty, vacant land directly across
the street, literally a few feet to the south.
station will cost about $11.7 million dollars. Since Metra is to get
some $6.8 million in federal stimulus funds, and President Obama says
he cares about culture, let's at least try to get the Federal
government to pay the small amount it would cost to redesign the
station to be built a few feet to the south. With a little creativity
and sensitivity to history, this issue is so easily solved.
Moving the train station to the empty land across the street would also place it closer
to, and more convenient to U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox play.
planned, it will destroy the great, historic, Modernist view I showed
above. The view up that street, with Mies left and right, you walk it,
and when you get to the end you find one of Mies' great ninety-degree
turns, which he used so effectively to take you into the Farnsworth
House, into his 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, into the Barcelona
Pavilion. The well thought out entry sequence, taking you through
ninety degree turns, takes you out of your world and into a new world.
Here, when you get to the end of this alley, you make a ninety degree
turn and you see
partly why this little Test Cell is modest. To prepare you for that.
It's like Frank Lloyd Wright's little entryway at the Guggenheim
Museum, before you enter the great spiral space. Could we tear that
down and still get the full effect of Wright's atrium? No, you need
context, you need comparison, you need to move through the architect's
work, transition slowly, leave your world behind, enter a complete work
Mies does this masterfully, for example at the
Farnsworth House. You make your turns through the woods, before you
reach the house. At the stairs, you put first just one foot on the
travertine, you are slowly leaving the world and the past. Take another
step and two feet and your body is on the travertine, but you are still
surrounded by the outdoors. Then, as you move forward, you're on a
larger, more encompassing platform of travertine, but still surrounded
by outdoors. Move forward a bit more and you're under his roof. You
must make one of those famous ninety-degree turns, pass through a thin
wall of glass, and you're "inside." Now you have a floor underneath
you, a roof above, and glass walls around you. Mies does not give it to
you all at once. He could have turned the front door towards the
driveway instead of away from it and he could have made the journey
into the house more direct. That's not Mies's way. We ought to keep his
procession to Crown Hall, his procession onto the IIT campus, so we can
appreciate it, enjoy it and learn from it.
Especially when there are blocks of empty space directly to the south, where that train station could go.
Right across the street, directly south of the Test Cell is empty land.
we'd have a train stop at IIT, and more of Mies van der Rohe's work.
What is so difficult about that? Where is the Illinois Historic
Look how much empty land there is right there, right along the tracks on the left of the photo. Put the station there!
Here's the Test Cell, and beyond it, empty land where the station ought to go.
Directly south of Mies's Test Cell, directly across the street stands this:
city owned this land recently. They sold it to a very
politically-connected developer, who has put up what you see in the
background. The city and/or Metra could cut a deal to get it back. He's
not going to build on it in this economy anyway.
Here's a photo of the land on the southwest side of the intersection of 35th and Federal.
could also move the station here, to everyone's benefit. If the station
were here, hundreds of thousands of White Sox fans would be let out
closer to White Sox park than they would be if they got out under the
tracks and across the street at the Test Cell. The fans would not have
to cross 35th street, which gets busy with cars at game time. White Sox
Park - U.S. Cellular Field stands just to the right of this. (Hey,
would U.S. Cellular like to buy naming rights for the Test Cell? Just
trying to think of everything to save it!)
Or on the northwest side of the tracks you have this:
could put the ADA ramps for the Metra station here, and then
incorporate the rest of the station into Mies's Test Cell on the other
side of the tracks.
The only land at the intersection of
35th and Federal with any building on it is the one Metra chooses to
build its station on, and to destroy a work by Mies van der Rohe in the
Aren't we more creative as problem solvers than that?
-Edward Lifson blogs at Hello Beautiful!