Innovations and Influence

“The twin apartment buildings erected between 1949 and 1951 at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive belong among the several most influential designs for high-rise structures of the twentieth century. They were surely the most important conceived after the Art Deco skyscrapers that flourished in America at the turn of the 1930s.”

Franz Schulze, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, 1985, p. 241

Check any work of architecture history and you’ll find the 860|880 buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. These paired buildings are among the most important and influential structures of the 20th century. Not least among 860|880’s contributions was the introduction to a new vision—one that is frequently emulated— of what domestic architecture could look like.

What truly distinguishes 860|880, however, is aesthetics. Using glass and steel—the stuff of industry and manufacturing—Mies built beautifully proportioned and detailed towers as elegant and moving as a work of classical architecture built of stone or a gothic cathedral.

The refinement of these buildings is often mistaken for simplicity. But everything was considered; everything was designed for a purpose. The way the first-story is set back from the towers’ perimeters, for example, reveals structural columns, opens the plaza in a surprising way, offers protection from the weather, and adds ceremony to one’s arrival. The two center windows of each bay from the second floor to the top are wider than those to either side. This subtle, nearly indiscernible, design emphasizes the verticality of the buildings, accelerating the speed of the climb upwards. Every feature of the buildings has a similar motivation.

Many of the unusual construction and compositional elements Mies employed were not, strictly speaking, original. But the combination of these strategies and the intention behind their use made for a wholly new, wholly original pair of buildings.

The buildings are identical in volume and form. But their placement at right angles creates a compelling tension, as does the strong vertical expression of the towers set in opposition to the horizontal pull of the terrace and its canopy. These tensions are never fully resolved, nor do they conflict; rather the opposing forces exchange dominance serially, like a Rorschach test that looks like an ink blot at one moment and a butterfly in the next.

This continuous dynamism in the visual play between the two buildings is compounded as movement past, around or between the buildings is added to the already complex equation. New tensions in composition are created to hold and delight the viewer as he or she moves about and beneath the buildings and plaza.

Rather than a curtain wall, which as the name suggests is an exterior plane draped over the building, Mies incorporated window and structure into one surface with the intention of making the steel frame legible. That was not to be, however, as the Chicago fire code required a two-inch-thick layer of concrete to encase the steel structural members. Left thus, the buildings would have been ugly and ambiguous concrete cages.

Mies’s solution was, in a sense, to bring back the steel frame to the surface of the building. He covered the required concrete layer on the beams and columns with steel plating. To emphasize the verticality of the buildings, he had slender I-beams welded to the steel plates covering the mullions and columns. The applied I-beams were of minimal use, stiffening the mullions somewhat. For the columns, the added beams did nothing useful, that is if one does not count harmony and balance.

To the architectural functionalists who decried the I-beams as decorative, Mies was unapologetic. The applied I-beams were primarily an aesthetic gesture and Mies said as much. Aside from emphasizing height, the beams created depth and texture that dramatize the play of light and shadow and mark the passage of the day.

The “honesty” of “expressing the structure” is bound up in mostly European intellectual philosophies dating back to the period between the First and Second World Wars when young artists and architects were straining to put the Victorian era behind them. Acolytes of this thinking wanted to strip away the embellishments that disguised structure in buildings and made other products like furniture pretentious and costly.

These new thinkers embraced the new industrial age and sought to reduce every man-made thing to its essentials. Industrial processes would make comforts which once only the rich could afford accessible to everyone.

There was a pronounced social reform agenda behind this thinking in Europe, a desire to erase the bourgeois and class divisions. Yet as the European architects like Mies van der Rohe came to America, they found the to-the-ramparts philosophy lacked appeal to American audiences.

Americans were not interested in philosophy, and the postwar economic boom left Americans with no need for social reforms. Despite this, Mies still found a meaningful link between his architectural aesthetic and the American love of the new, of technology. Increasingly, Mies’s interpretation of the new was expressed in steel and glass.

860|880 was among MIes’s earliest and most comprehensive architectural works in America. These buildings established a building grammar for Mies, which would be traceable throughout his later work. They also marked the way forward for American architecture everywhere. Sadly, only a few brought the same level of sophistication to the work. As time went by the architecture became formulaic, and debased.



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