Chicago – By German Design

By John Bareither on Email

Chicago is a city of great architecture and architects. When people think of Chicago’s great architects they think of Louis Sullivan and his Auditorium Building (Roosevelt University today) and Frank Lloyd Wrights Prairie Style architecture. German architects also made contribution to Chicago skyline in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Probably the earliest of these German architects of the latter 20th Century was Mies Van Der Rohe. Mies was born in Aachen, Germany on March 27, 1886, During his youth he studied with his father a master stonemason. When he turned 19 he moved to Berlin to worked with Bruno Paul, the art nouveau architect and furniture designer. By 20, he received his first independent commission, to plan a house for a philosopher Alois Riel. In 1908, he began working for the architect Peter Behrens, he studied the Prussian Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the rising Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

He opened his own office in 1912 and married the following year. After World War l, he began studying the skyscraper and designed two innovative steel framed towers wrapped around with glass. One of them was the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper, designed in 1921 for a competition. The Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper was never constructed, although the design drew critical praise and foreshadowed his skyscrapers designs of the late 40’s and 50’s.

By 1921 his marriage had failed, he decided to change his name, adding the dutch “Van Der” and his mother’s maiden “rohe”: Ludwig Mies became Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe.

During the 1920’s he was active in many of Berlin’s avant-garde circles of design and architecture. In the late 1920’s and 1930’s, he was named artistic director of the Werkbund. Under his leadership the Weissenhof project was initiated, a model housing colony in Stuttgart. The modern apartments and houses were designed by leading architects, including a block by Mies.

In 1927, Mies designed one of most famous building, the German Pavillion at the International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. By 1929, this small hall, know as the Barcelona Pavillion, was know for it’s flat roof supported by columns. The pavilion’s internal walls, made of glass and marble, could be moved around as they were not required to support the structure. His design of fluid space would appear in design in future decades.  A smaller Mies design,”Barcelona Chair” a chrome and leather designed chair was a spinoff of his work on the Barcelona Pavillion.

In 1930, Mies was introduced to New York architect Philip Johnson. Through Johnson help, Mies designs were introduced to the United States at MOMA’s first architecture exhibition “Modern Architecture” in 1932.

During the 1930’s none of his designs were built because of sweeping economic and political upheaval overtaking Germany. He was director of the Bauhaus school of design from 1930 to its disbandment in 1933, due to pressure from the Nazi government.

In 1937, he emigrated to the United States. The following year he decided to make Chicago his architectural  home for the next thirty-one years. In 1938, he was named head of the architecture department at the Armour Institute of Technology (Illinois Institute of Technology today) and would remain the head of the department till 1958. During the 1940’s, he was asked to design a new campus for the school. The building showcased his steel-and-glass style design.

By 1944, he became an American citizen and a well established architect. His designs caught the eye of an adventurous and wealthy Dr. Edith Farnsworth. She commissioned Mies to build a  weekend retreat for her along the Fox River near Plano, Illinois. The house was design with no foundation, it’s support was central cylindrical core, the house only touches the ground through the elegant structural legs of the walls. Dr. Farnsworth-claimed that she didn’t care for the house-finally sold it in 1972. Today the Farnsworth house is managed and accessible by the State of Illinois for all the states residents to enjoy.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s he made his most significant design within the city limits of Chicago. In 1951, his design of Twin Towers 860-880 Lake Shore Drive were completed. Other Mies towers would follow in New York, Detroit, Toronto culminating in 1954 with what is consider his masterpiece of skyscraper design-Seagrams Building in New York.

Mies also added to Chicago’s office space with the design of the IBM building (today AMA Plaza) at 330 North Wabash completed in 1969. The 52 story and adjacent plaza sits on the Chicago River and Wabash Avenue. He died one year before the building was completed.

During Mies’s life he made an impact on Chicago and world architecture. He also made an impact on our lexicon. Two phrases of his that come to mind during these difficult economic times are “less is more” and “God is in the details”.


Photos by UGArdener & eston via flickr and J. Crocker via Wikipedia

Show your love & become a Patron. Get exclusive content, rewards and more!

John Bareither
John Bareither's writing spans a 15 year period, covering topics of crime, personal interest stories, biographies and more. He is currently working as a real estate researcher for Start Rehab and previously was employed by two commodity firms for 20 years. He's been a life long Evanstonian and Chicagoan.