Crown Hall IIT Architecture in Chicago: Glass Box

February 5, 2020

Why Crown Hall is so amazing

IIT Crown Hall can be seen as a masterpiece by Mies van der Rohe because it expresses all of Mies’ philosophies he gained over time to the fullest extent. Crown Hall was not a peak for Mies but instead a stepping stone that brought Mies to reach even more truth and greatness in his architecture. Many people see the simplicity and generalize his architecture as so. Many do not see how the greatness lies within the strategical arrangement of space and form instead of the superficial use of ornamentation. Crown Hall is a prime example of “less is more” as Mies said himself that the building is almost nothing. IIT Crown Hall acts as a container in many ways, containing what is actually important; the functions taking place inside.

Mies used a strict grid system for the plan of IIT’s campus and Crown Hall itself, giving order and seriousness to the campus design. One of Mies’ philosophies was that architecture starts with reason and therefore should follow a strict functionality. The IIT campus was based on a 24’X24’ grid that was derived from logic and reason at its core. A typical room was figured to be 24’X24’, calculated from the size of desks, drafting tables and lab benches. The size of basic furniture elements led to the proportion of rooms which lead to the size of buildings and then the building’s context being the campus overall (Blaser 9). One reason this organizational strategy was used was to allow for easier future expansion. This system was not seen as a limit of architectural design but more of a guideline for growth with direction.

crown hall

Who Mies really is

A prominent teaching philosophy that Mies had was for students not to replicate his or any other architecture in their designs but to create new architecture derived from his basic principles of architecture (Carter 159). Ironically or perhaps purposefully, IIT Crown Hall being the architecture education building for IIT showcased this idea of inventiveness in almost all of its architectural aspects.

The proportionally large, painted black, beams are situated above the roof plane instead of being underneath; this structural system was a newly explored idea for the time. The only other structure with a “floating roof” like this was one of Mies’ previously designed but never built buildings, the Cantor Drive-In designed in 1946. The Cantor Drive-In was the source of many aesthetic and structural features for the design of Crown Hall.

His Design

Even though it might be awfully hard to give up a creative architectural idea for a certain design, it is sometimes inevitable but most likely the idea will not be wasted but stay doormat until it will manifest even greater and enhanced into a future design, as many architecture teachers and professionals in the field say to pupils.

This was the case for Crown Hall, and in an overall sense it thankfully was because if the Cantor Drive-In was actually built it would not have showcased all of the architectural glory that Crown Halls does. This replication of architecture goes against Mies’ core idea of creating new architecture in your design, but can technically be seen as an exception as he replicated architecture from his own design that was original to his creativity.

The Crown Hall is considered the pinnacle representation of Mies’ architectural philosophies, specifically embracing an honest structural system. The façade on all four sides was unique in that it is composed of very large panes of glass that leave the structural system completely bare and skeletal. This idea of an honest structural system was originally sparked by Mies during his youth as he once said, “it was at Berlage’s Amsterdam Stock Exchange,” a visit to Holland in 1912, “that the idea of clear construction came to me as one of the fundamentals we should accept” (10 Mies at Work).

His Work

This architectural idea of stripping buildings to its structural elements was not widely accepted by many schools at the time, especially in The United States. Crown Hall was constructed in 1950-56, making it post WW2 architecture. The cost efficiency was a large influence in Mies’ philosophies. Mies not only lived during WW1 but served in the forces back in Germany, and then he lived through the Great Depression and then WW2.

These events were a catalyst to Mies’ idea that “less is more” in the economically and resourcefully efficient aspect. These aspects can be seen as the engineering aspects of architecture (Le Corbusier 13).These concepts grew into what see as mid-century modern. When Mies immigrated to The United States in 1938 to take over IIT’s architecture department and design the campus he brought this concept with him and began designing IIT’s entire campus with such efficiency.

Looking again at Berlage’s inspirational Stock Exchange building, being constructed in 1903 it was made from red brick and iron; materials that Mies did not use in his own designs. The building was not inspirational to Mies in its use of materials, as they were not the technologically advanced and efficient materials such as the steel, glass and concrete that Crown Hall is composed of and Mies is famously known for using.

It is important to note that other than encompassing an honest structural system, Berlage’s Stock Exchange is completely open on the interior with no interruptions or separations. Similarly, Crown Hall was intentionally designed to have no separations of space or interruptions.

More information

The concept was that all architecture students would work in one universal-space no matter their skill level in order to gain a realization of their developmental progress as their education continued (Carter 87). The spatial functionality and relations of both Berlage’s Stock Exchange and Mies’ Crown Hall are similar to one another. Both buildings contain a large amount of people that are simultaneously working to advance individually from the influence of one another.

Mies’ idea of containment can be felt inside of IIT Crown Hall because the windowed areas below door height are sand-blasted to block out visual contaminants. The windowed areas above door height are clear to show tree-filtered light surrounding you. A feeling of isolation from the chaotic city is sensed. At night, the building glows of diffused interior light with shadows of working architecture students.

The only interior walls in Crown Hall are not full ceiling height, expressing the open-spanning structure and uninterrupted spatial sense. These walls are made of Oak, the only part of the building that has a sense of ornamentation for its non-functional aesthetic beauty. Mies ornamented IIT Crown Hall in this abstract, simple way. From the outside the building almost showcases the naturally beautiful oak grain within a glass barrier.

Why his design is so great

Mies also explored the idea of layers with Crown Hall. The façade walls meet the roof at a corner on the outside yet from the interior you do not see where the façade walls meet the roof because the interior ceiling is dropped and floats below the cornered edges. From the inside the uninterrupted ceiling defines the edges of space and the façade walls give a sense of expansion and space in a poetic and natural way. In this way Crown Hall might not visually appear to encompass a natural sense as it actually encompasses a natural feeling with the use of space and form.

crown hall

Mies’ use of layering is also noticeable on the outside as the entire building seems to float on a layer 6 ft above grade. This further gives the building a sense of expansiveness to outside. The only windows that view the outside ground are the transparent ones on the entrance. A slab of concrete is used cantilevering from the entrance to emphasize this idea of layering. From the inside you see the cantilevered entrance levels, similar to the façade that seems to expand beyond the roof, the concrete ground seems to hover the grade in an expansive way.

Crown Hall magnificently represents the teachings and philosophies developed and mastered by Mies. In a poetic way Mies was able to use technology to further progress his architectural era with IIT Crown Hall’s extreme skeletal aspects he was able to incorporate because of the technological development of steel, concrete and glass and through his comprehensive understanding of construction. IIT Crown Hall is astonishing in that it is beautiful in all of its logical ways.

Annotated Research Sources

Blaser, Werner, and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Mies Van Der Rohe - IIT Campus: Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2002. Print.

Werner Blaser was a very well-known photographer and document writer during the same era of Mies van der Rohe. Mies collaborated with Mies van der Rohe for an intense 6 month visit to Chicago to write The Art of Structure. He is a primary source for an insight into Mies van der Rohe’s architectural ideas. This amazing man is also very factual in his documentations. This book documents Mies van der Rohe’s plan for IIT’s entire campus. Blaser wrote about IIT Crown Hall very thoroughly, as it is a main building of IIT.

The book goes chronologically starting in 1938 when Mies van der Rohe took his position at IIT. The book gives a view into the initial ideas for IIT’s campus starting from Mies van der Rohe’s original office in the attic of The Art Institute. The format was originally written in German and translated into simple English. It is simply written and comprehensive for any reading level. As Werner Blaser was a photographer, the book contains many full page images that go along with the text to give a visual supplement. Original plans of IIT’s campus are also included and give an understanding of the grid system that Mies van der Rohe used.

Carter, Peter. Mies Van Der Rohe at Work. New York: Praeger, 1974. Print.

Peter Carter is credible in that he worked with Mies van der Rohe for over 10 years first as a graduate student from IIT then in his office until Mies van der Rohe’s death. The book delves into extreme detail and elaboration of every aspect of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture.

It is organized chronologically. Large full-page prints of the buildings discussed architecturally give more meaning to the text. Detailed plans and sections give meaning to the actual construction process that the buildings had. The reading level and required background are very basic. The language is simple and concisely explains Mies van der Rohe’s architectural ideas and philosophies that contributed to each buildings.

Corbusier, Le, and Frederick Etchells. Towards a New Architecture. London: Architectural, 1946. Print.

Le Corbusier was a majorly influential mid-century modern architect alongside Mies van der Rohe. Le Corbusier worked mainly in Europe as Mies van der Rohe was mainly in The United States. The concepts explored in Towards a New Architecture are very relatable to those of Mies van der Rohe which makes sense being both of the same architectural era. The book delves deeply into Le Corbusier’s philosophies in a more subjective manner rather than Mies van der Rohe’s objective explanation, yet they both had the same view on the role of architecture as a functioning role taking importance overall over aesthetics.

The book is organized by starting with Le Corbusier’s primary philosophies on the new architecture of the time, then he goes into detail and explanation of these ideals and refers them to modern day living and historical societal aspects, especially with urban planning. The language was written for an audience with an understanding of adult-level yet common knowledge. The vocabulary can be understood by teenage-level readers and above.

Rohe, Ludwig Mies Van Der, Martin Pawley, and Yukio Futagawa. Mies Van Der Rohe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. Print.

Martin Pawley was a popular architecture critic editor and writer known for his provocative critiques explicitly on modern architecture. He was an editor and contributor for all of the leading international architecture magazines and featured on BBC television. Yukio Futagawa was a well-established architecture photographer and founder of Global Architecture Magazine.

He was known for his elegant photography of architecture and placement of them in books and magazines. The book is an analysis of Mies van der Rohe’s architectural expression and its influential sources that led to them. The majority of the book it then comprised of images by Futagawa. There is then a section noting the images.

There is then a chronological list of Mies van der Rohe’s projects. The reading level is fairly simple, yet Pawley refers to many historical events and architectural knowledge that an educated adult or at least high school level education would need to comprehend what he is saying. The scope gave an in depth look into more of the political and social aspects that influenced the architecture of Mies van der Rohe.

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