Emigration to the United States

With the political situation in Germany making it increasingly difficult to work, Mies emigrated to the United States in 1938, accepting a position as Director of the Department of Architecture with the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology, IIT) in Chicago.  America would afford him the opportunity to build at a scale he had never done before.

His first commission was the campus plan and the attendant buildings for IIT (from 1940). The plan incorporated a modular grid for the entire site on which Mies arranged rectangular buildings.  Coinciding with his design work at IIT was his work on the Farnsworth House (1946-51) in Plano, Illinois.   The house is a pavilion on an elevated platform made of white-painted glass and steel. Crown Hall for the School of Architecture and Design at IIT (1950-56) repeated the theme of the ethereal elevated pavilion. Columns support the perimeter, but the roof is hung over its vast span by girders above the building, thereby allowing for a column–free interior.

Mies’s two best-known skyscrapers, 860|880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51) in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York (1954-58), are both steel skeleton structures. The two apartment towers stand at right angles to one another and are connected by a long steel canopy and a travertine-covered plaza. The Seagram is set back from the street with a deep plaza serving as its forecourt. In both projects, vertical towers and horizontal public spaces create a deliberate tension.

Mies would tap the pavilion scheme again when he designed the New National Gallery in West Berlin (1962-67), completed not long before his death on August 19, 1969 at the age of 83.

“His great art – the seedling art of 20th century architecture – came before [the Bauhaus] and after it. It made him as significant in architecture as Picasso was in painting and Stravinsky in music.”

William Barry Farlong, The Patient Genius of Mies van der Rohe, Chicago Tribune, September 14, 1969


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