3360 South State Street
What the Parthenon is to ancient Greece, Crown Hall is to 20th century modernism. Well maybe a couple of other buildings share that honor, but one thing can’t be denied: Crown Hall is a definitive building of our time.
Located on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), it was one of 20 buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the school (then called the Armour Institute of Technology). Completed in 1956, it was built to house IIT’s architecture department. Mies was asked to lead the school’s architecture program in hope that he would transform it into a school of international acclaim. As the last director of the Bauhaus school (the world’s leading think-tank for modernist art, craft and architecture before it was forced to close due to pressure from Nazi Germany), and regarded as one of the greatest modernist architects of his time, Mies was the natural choice to lead IIT forward.
The design of Crown Hall is the architectural embodiment of his philosophy of open cooperative education – an idea he brought with him from the Bauhaus. In keeping with this approach to teaching, Mies designed a building without walls. The main level of Crown Hall contains 26,000 sq. ft. of uninterrupted space with 18 ft. ceilings. This large expanse allows for classes to be held in different parts of the room simultaneously, while also providing teachers and students of various levels the ability to easily interact with one another when classes are not in session. Other than a few mobile partitions, and two floor-to-ceiling panels which hide heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts, the space is unobstructed. This was achieved by hanging the building from steel plate-girders that bridge the entire width of the building, further supported by exposed exterior columns. This revolutionary technical innovation was one of Mies’s greatest contributions to the field of modern architecture. The result was what Mies called universal space.
Not only is the concept of universal space beneficial to interactive learning, but it also makes the building adaptable to change. Mies believed that the reason we tear down buildings is because they outlast their purpose. He was known to say, “We do not let the functions dictate the plan. Instead, let us make room enough for any function.”
Crown Hall is honest and simple architecture. Unencumbered by superfluous ornament, the structure and materials of the building are celebrated. This building shows the potential for glass and steel to be beautiful. Repeating vertical beams combine to form the building’s metronome. Where the interior and exterior of the building merge, one reflecting the other, Crown Hall is nearly musical. As Mies said, “Less is More.”
If you’re interested in visiting Crown Hall here’s the website to IIT. The Mies van der Rohe society offers a wide array of programs dedicated to preserving Mies’s legacy. To learn more about the society and their offerings visit their website. And they have a their own write-up on Crown Hall that goes into much more detail – read it here. And for a super fun and very brief introduction to Mies van der Rohe watch Big Ed’s biographical music video all about the man and his buildings.