Don't tear down the Mies building at IIT

    "The whole is more than the sum of its parts" - Aristotle

    Richard Lacayo's recent visit to Chicago reminds me that I have unfinished business. This past summer we both wrote (read his here, mine here) about a little building by Mies van der Rohe that the City of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology appear ready to allow to be demolished. They wish to make way for a mostly empty "Donkey Kong" plaza in front of a generic corporate unremarkable but functional commuter train station. The other three corners at this site are vacant and could hold the station, but Chicago seems to want to tear down Mies.

    Many people commented on those posts. Some supported saving it. Many others said that this little brick building with a gate and two brick walls was not an unimportant project to Mies and he must have just turned it over to some unknown junior member of the office. That was pure speculation; the people who assumed that were not in Mies's office at the time. But what we know to be fact is that in the published Mies van de Rohe archives the building in question, called the Test Cell, is included with more than one detailed and interesting drawing.

    More of Mies's papers exist than have been published and they are stored mostly in the Mies van der Rohe archives in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I visited there to see what they had on the Test Cell building that Chicago and IIT plan to tear down.

    I asked to see the documentation on the Test Cell. The very helpful Paul Galloway brought me the file folders. Thank you Paul, for all your help. Each was filled with papers and correspondence regarding the design and construction of the Test Cell. You read on some letters, "Very truly yours, Mies van der Rohe, by:"

    The correspondence regarding the Test Cell is not addressed to some "junior member" of the office - but to Myron Goldsmith. Some letters speak of direct person-to-person conversations about the Test Cell between contractors and others and Myron Goldsmith. Such as this one that made me smile from October 27, 1950 in which Gerson Electric Company says they spoke with Mr. Goldsmith of Mein van der Rohe. (sic)

    The list of payments to the contractors for the brickwork, glass, and all work on the Test Cell was approved and signed (Feb. 6, 1951) by Myron Goldsmith.

    We know Myron Goldsmith of course. He was hardly that dreamed up "junior member" of the office. An important architect in his own right, he worked closely with Mies on, oh for example, another project some might consider unimportant - the Farnsworth House.

    In a 1966 address to the Royal Institute of British Architects (junior members don't usually get to address Royal Institutes) Myron Goldsmith said,
    "If I have a total vision of architecture, it is that the majority of building should be a structural solution, the most modest solution to the problem that one can find, executed carefully and placed carefully in its setting.
    Which is what he and Mies came up with at the Test Cell. A carefully executed modest solution placed carefully in its setting. I respectfully suggest again that we keep it. The Test Cell can still teach us those lessons.

    Goldsmith finished his paragraph to RIBA thus,
    "If buildings are approached this way, there will be civic order."
    Hm. He thought so. I thought so once. The optimism of the modern era. These buildings on the IIT campus are the progeny of the European Enlightenment. They are intended among other functions to provide order to society and to uplift us. Today most of us can not hear their message over what has become real chaos, individualism and cacophony in the modern, industrial American city. Perhaps they are too subtle for us.

    On April 9, 1951 M. Goldsmith writes to people working on the building,
    "I am leaving for a long vacation and remaining matters on this building have been turned over to Mr. J. Fujikawa of this office."
    So clearly he had been in charge and let's see, he turns it over not to some "junior member" but to another top man in Mies's office, Joseph Fujikawa. Fukikawa was "a patriarch in Chicago architecture" and studied at IIT and then worked very closely with Mies starting in 1944. He was important enough that when the name of Mies's firm was changed after Mies died, it became Fujikawa, Conterato, Lohan & Associates.





    View of the Test Cell with one of two adjoining brick walls
     by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
    Part of the great ensemble at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, Illinois.

    In his Graham Foundation Chicago Architects Oral History Project Joseph Fujikawa recalls what simple brick, bricks and joining them meant to Mies; how the first thing Mies spoke to Fujikawa about was not glass, not steel, but bricks.
    Joseph Fujikawa: I came to IIT (from USC architecture school in Los Angeles), and it really shook me because the first thing Mies said to me was, "Well, I don't know what you did back there, but do you know about the brick?" I said, "Brick? Well, you lay up brick, you make walls out of brick,"and such things, and I thought I did. "Well," he said, "can you lay up a good English bond in a brick wall?" Well, hell, I didn't know what an English bond was!

    Betty Blum (interviewer): What is it?

    Fujikawa: It's a pattern, and each of these patterns evolves out of a way of setting the brick. See, the whole idea in a brick wall is that you don't have joints that line up with the one below, so that if water gets in it will run all the way through the wall and the thing would freeze and break up. What you want to do is stagger joints, and all of these bonding methods are done just for that. They sort of knit and weave bricks together so that they make a stronger unit. Well, I learned about English bond, I learned about how you turn a corner with a brick wall, how you cut a door or a window in, and it was a real revelation.
    And Mies made manifest this revelation in the Test Cell that we want to tear down.
    Fujikawa: We never concerned ourselves with things like that back as USC. Mies said, "Well, before you could design, you have to know your materials," the same
    thing Frank Lloyd Wright said and the same things all good architects say. You've
    got to know your materials.
    That's why it's good to be able to look at the Test Cell and the brick walls Mies built with it before you look at Crown Hall.

    Crown Hall is design at the highest level. The brick Test Cell is how you get there. How you learn about the materials of architecture. How you put them together in honest ways and with modesty. To full appreciate Crown Hall, first look at Mies's test Cell for a while. Walk past it. Look and listen.
    Joseph Fujikawa: I think IIT was a fantastic school, the curriculum that Mies set up, because you learned all these things—how wood goes together, how you build with steel, concrete, brick, masonry, all these materials. With that as a foundation, then you can go out and design a proper building, a building that will hang together.
    Pun intended? Crown Hall's ceiling hangs from trusses overhead. Mies wanted to free up the space below from columns. To allow total freedom for the people and activities gathered within. The design suits the purpose. As at the Test Cell.
    Blum: Do you think that IIT was unique among schools at that time?

    Fujikawa: I think there was no other school in the country that was comparable in the grounding of fundamentals. Students at the school—I didn't have to do this,
    but I know in their earlier years they would have to draw up a brick wall.

    They'd spend half a semester drawing up a brick wall, showing every joint
    and every brick in a wall.

    There used to be constant griping about "What good does this do?" but you know, Mies was teaching something more than just drafting.

    Of course, you had to be an excellent draftsman to be able to
    draw this way convincingly, but he was teaching something else.

    He was teaching order, he was teaching discipline at the same time, and these kids were picking it up without realizing it.

    "Order, discipline," no wonder people don't understand or value the Test Cell. Order and discipline are not the most highly esteemed values of our day. But maybe future generations will find these values truthful and beautiful again.

    Mies's first hired draftsman in America, George Danforth, who succeeded Mies as Dean of Architecture at IIT tells us in his Graham Foundation Chicago Architects Oral History Project of the IIT campus,
    Mies’s spaces and his buildings evoke a kind of peacefulness. Maybe people don’t like to be at peace with a space. They like something going on. This is why there are different people, of course. That’s the way some people look at it. Maybe that is somewhat what they mean by “cold.” It also challenges them, as a good work of art does, to give something to it, to think about it. Lots of people don’t like to be challenged to think about a play, a piece of music, looking at a painting, or dealing or working within a space.
    (This all makes me miss my late friend George Danforth.) Mies died in 1969. For some time before that he had arthritis and moved around in a wheelchair. George Danforth in his oral history continues,
    Danforth: In the later years, Mies gave more and more of the work with buildings on the campus to Joe Fujikawa to do. Joe was a very good man in his office. His (Mies's) health was failing.
    I take this as confirmation before Mies's later years he was involved in the design of the campus. The Test Cell is dated 1951, Mies was healthy then.

    What was the Test Cell to the office? In Mies's MoMA archives I saw a handwritten note about installing a telephone in the little building. The phone company had said they would not bury the cable to the building along the nearby railroad tracks, so who should they get the cable to the building? Any other solution would alter the appearance of the Test Cell. We read in personal handwriting about this,
    "Checked with Mies and Spaeth. ... S decided put temporary pole ... (illegible) will erect 19' high pole near gas tanks, use 2" pipe."
    Why would a person in the office bother checking with Mies about a simple phone line if he didn't care about the project? Even though the phone pole will be temporary the answer from Mies and/or Spaeth specifies how high it will be and even how thick the pipe will be.

    I also saw a letter from April 18th, 1951 reading,
    Gentlemen: Enclosed is my drawing of the STEEL GATE for the Test Cell for Armour Reseach Foundation (now part of IIT) dated April 16, 1951. A quotation at your earliest convenience is urgently requested.

    Very sincerely ,
    Mies van der Rohe
    by:
    Mies needs the quote urgently, but he's not going to have the office just buy a steel gate which would have been readily available for an unimportant project. No, he or someone in the office whom he has trained and whom he designates will draw a gate for this building. They want it custom fabricated by the Western Architectural Iron Co. in Chicago, to whom the letter is addressed.

    The office then sends 3 prints of the gate post to the contractor describing how to install it. Looks to me like they're paying to details with this project. I am not surprised.

    Here's what Myron Goldsmith said in the Chicago Architects Oral History Project about the thought processes in Mies's office.
    In all his work Mies realized, I think, that he was doing something of great importance. He did everything as if the world depended on it. No shoddy work, no shoddy letters, no shoddy ideas, everything was as good as he could do it whether it was an exhibition, or the toilet of a house, or the materials of a house.
    When Myron Goldsmith passed away in 1996, his New York Times obituary printed this:
    "He managed with gentleness to exist and prosper in a field that is otherwise eaten up by tigerish egos," said Franz Schulze, an art historian and Mies biographer.
    I wish we could say the same about the Test Cell.
    .
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