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IBM Building

2010 September 14
by Caroline Nye Stevens

330 N. Wabash

The “City of the Big Shoulders” may have originally referred to Chicago’s industrial history, but the nickname could just as easily be shared with Mies van der Rohe and his muscular buildings that transformed Chicago’s skyline. Mies’s IBM building has the biggest shoulders of them all.

Completed in 1972, The IBM tower was the last American office building designed by Mies before he died in 1969 just weeks after the designs were finalized. It wasn’t an easy project. When Mies first saw the site for the tower he inquired on where exactly the site was. It wasn’t obvious. It was an irregularly shaped 1.6-acre plot of land – small for a tower as grand as IBM had envisioned. That wasn’t the only complication. There were railroad tracks running beneath the site that delivered newspaper rolls to and from what was then the building’s neighbor – the Chicago Sun Times Building.

Despite the limitations he had to work with, Mies managed to erect a tower that looked anything but crammed into Chicago’s streetscape. He designed a 52-story tower and saved half of the site for a surrounding plaza. And though the building may have broad shoulders, it still maintains a sense of weightlessness in typical Miesian form. The lobby soars to a height of 26ft and is encased in floor to ceiling glass. Pilotis elevate and support the upper floors allowing for the lobby to be open and mostly unburdened by structural concerns.

CNS 2010

At first glance many might criticize the IBM building of being just another steel and glass box. But to appreciate a building like this one requires an open mind and a closer look. Mies was known to say, “God is in the details.” His partner traveled through quarries in Rome to ensure that the honey colored marble adorning the lobby’s walls would be carefully cut so that the horizontal grain would be horizontally matched. Follow the lines in the plaza’s pavement – they line up perfectly to the central point of every piloti and window mullion. They even continue uninterrupted inside the building forming a grid of polished marble tile flooring.

Mies was onto something when he famously declared, “Less is More.” His buildings are structurally simple – they celebrate the industrial materials which made them possible: steel and glass. But in their simplicity subtleties become important. The IBM tower is transparent. Its interior and the exterior are separated only by glass. Repeated lines of steel at regular intervals give the building a sense of rhythm. And depending on the time of day the tower becomes a canvas for reflecting all of the complex shapes and colors of its surroundings.

IBM, or the International Business Machines Company, commissioned Mies to design a modern building for a modern company. The motive was to consolidate all of their Chicago offices under one roof. 2100 IBM employees used forty percent of the building, and the rest was available for lease. Because it was full of computers (before computers were popularized), the building had to have a sophisticated system of climate control. Associate architects CF Murphy designed a heating and cooling system that could be automatically controlled by an IBM 1800 computer. And the architects went through the added trouble of double-glazing the curtain wall to maintain a high level of interior humidity.

CNS 2010

So the IBM building isn’t so simple after all – there’s a lot going on inside and outside this steel and glass box.


The official name of the building was changed to 330 N. Wabash when IBM moved out in 2006 – but everyone still calls it the IBM building. Want to learn more about the IBM Building? It was recently landmarked, and everything you’d want to know about it is included in the landmark report. Just for fun, watch this hilarious and educational short video all about Mies.

3 Responses
  1. Madeleine Raymond permalink
    September 14, 2010

    I thoroughly enjoyed the video! Thanks!

  2. September 17, 2010

    I just found out exciting new information about the IBM Building:

    After a recent renovation the building was awarded LEED Silver status. Read this article for more information:

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