Mies arrives in Chicago

Arts and CultureArchitectureLudwig Mies van der RoheIllinois Institute of TechnologyEducationFrank Lloyd Wright

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, former head of the Bauhaus School of Design and a recent emigrant from Nazi Germany, was to be honored this evening on his appointment as director of the Armour Institute of Technology's department of architecture. But at a dinner in the Red Lacquer Room of the Palmer House, another architect upstaged him, presaging a struggle that would leave its imprint on American architecture for the remainder of the century.

The scene-stealer was Frank Lloyd Wright, who introduced the guest of honor as "my" Mies van der Rohe and told the audience, "But for me there would have been no Mies--certainly none here tonight." Then, according to Franz Schulze's biography of Mies, Wright "strode out of the room, followed by a train of acolytes, even as Mies was taking his place at the dais."The master Modernist was 52, spoke no English and had been in Chicago for only two months. He spent the next 20 years at what became the Illinois Institute of Technology, training a generation of architects and influencing countless others with the buildings and homes he designed in the austere International Style he brought with him from the Bauhaus.

Mies never commented on Wright's behavior that night, but disciples of each man did their best in the years that followed to discredit the other camp. The Mies camp championed buildings constructed without ornamentation; Wright dismissed such structures as "flat-chested architecture." The Miesian designs that "made poetry of technology" for his admirers were so cold and mechanical to his detractors as to be downright un-American.

Mies, who famously coined the phrase "less is more," is credited with ushering in "a new age of architecture" with his glass-and-steel high-rise apartments at 860 and 880 N. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Completed in 1952, they were the first to be built without mortar and were free of exterior decoration. Their influence can be seen in countless steel-and-glass towers that sprang up in cities around the world.

Other hallmark designs that continue to grace Chicago are the IIT campus, the Federal Center and the IBM Building.

Though Mies shared with the native-born giants of Chicago architecture--Louis Sullivan and Wright--what biographer David Spaeth describes as technological roots and a concern for structural expression, he was determined to remain his own man. "I really don't know the Chicago School," he told an interviewer, referring to the work of turn-of-the-century Chicago architects. "You see, I never walk. I always take taxis back and forth to work. I rarely see the city."

Although the stark but elegant approach that put him in the forefront of Modern architecture reached its zenith with the Seagram Building in New York City in 1958 (the "Whiskey Building," Wright called it), Mies lived and worked in Chicago until his death in 1969.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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