The shade of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe must be looking down on the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) a bit quizzically these days. The complex on Chicago’s South Side was designed by Mies during the twenty years (1938-58) that he presided over IIT’s College of Architecture and he built it as an expression of his modernist aesthetic.
After a period of physical deterioration—and talk of moving the science and engineering university to a suburban location—the school has chosen to refurbish its inner-city property and restore its Miesian landmarks, including the 1956 masterwork S.R. Crown Hall.
More controversial among Mies disciples has been the recent international design competition for a $25 million student centre—the first new building on campus in twenty-five years. A decidedly non-Miesian set of five finalists presented their plans earlier this year and in February a jury awarded the commission to the Dutch rebel Rem Koolhaas. The 100,000 square foot structure is the first major US project for the London-trained Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
Koolhass, fifty-four, celebrates urban chaos and post-modernity in his books Delirious New York and the doorstop-sized S,M, X, XL. He struck many observers as the logical choice for a competition with the title, “Beyond Mies”.
Beginning with Mies’s grid system, the bad-boy architect and polemicist has proceeded to run diagonal slices through it, which, he says, follow foot-traffic patterns on the current site.
The goal, IIT officials say, is to create a jumble of urban intensity in an area of relatively low density. All of the finalists—the British Zaha Hadid, Chicago’s German-American prodigal son Helmut Jahn, New York’s Peter Eisenman, and Kaznyo Sejima and Ryne Nishikawa of Tokyo—sought to take on the master of “less is more”. But Koolhaas’s proposal was the most eye-catching because it seeks to explode Mies’s theoretically open box.
Koolhaas’s idea of building the centre directly under Chicago’s notoriously loud elevated train tracks—which he would encase in a sound-reducing, sleek steel tube—adds a cartoonish aspect to the plan. Designs from all of the finalists for the campus are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1 May-25 July.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Challenging Mies'