In honor of Mies' birthday this week (March 27), I'm taking a look at Chicago's Federal Center.
One of Chicago's most recognizable landmarks, the Federal Center is Mies at his very- well- Miesian. Located in the heart of the city's densely developed southern Loop, the Federal Center stands as a monument to the architect's "less is more" maxim, a design that trades the typical ceremonial grandeur of government buildings for the universal language of Modernism. The Federal Center is (almost) everything you need to know about Mies' Chicago work in one complex, so on his birthday, here are the ten highlights.
1. Completed in 1974, five years AFTER Mies death.
In 1960, the General Services Administration (GSA) handed over the contract for a new federal center to a team of Chicago architecture firms with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe serving as the project's (unofficial) chief designer. Taking more than a decade to complete, work on the government complex unfolded in phases, finally commencing in 1974, five years after the world's most famous architect passed away at age 83. (Mies is interred at Chicago's Graceland Cemetery).
2. Design fell to Mies' most trusted associates.
Though Mies (ceremoniously) acted as the project's chief designer, the architect, in the final years of his career, handed off much of the design and planning work to his most senior staff. Mies' right-hand man Gene Summers (who was instrumental in the design of the Seagram Building and went on to become the dean of Illinois Institute of Technology's College of Architecture) and trusted associate Bruno Conterato (a Mies student who worked with him for much of his professional life) managed most of the project's design with the latter having the political savvy to see the almost fifteen-year project through until the very end.
3. Replaced a Beaux Arts-style landmark.
In 1959, the GSA announced the replacement of the Henry Ives Cobb-designed U.S. Post Office and Courthouse that had served Chicago since the turn of the twentieth century. A Beaux Arts behemoth, the classical courthouse was elaborately ornamented and crowned by a monumental dome that reportedly rivaled the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Lasting just sixty years before deemed inadequate and outdated, the opulent courthouse (which saw the sensational trials of Al Capone and Jimmy Hoffa) was demolished in 1965 to make way for Mies' minimalism (the dominant architectural force in Chicago at the time).
4. High Rise + Low Rise
An exercise in Miesian bravura, the Federal Center consists of three separate but related buildings- the 42-story John C. Kluczynski Federal Building, the 30-story Everett McKinley Dirksen Courthouse, and a one-story post office- extending over two blocks. Taken as a whole, the complex combines the two major themes of Mies' career- the glass, high-rise block (think Seagram Building) and the expansive open space of a low, transparent box (like S.R. Crown Hall). With bones of steel and skin of glass, the Federal Center is the culmination of the master's long career, a design clearly devoted to principle.
5. An open plaza unites the composition.
Known as Federal Plaza, the half-block urban square unifies the complex's varying dark slabs, while visually and physically connecting the interior spaces to the outside. The granite pavers of the plaza continue into the glazed public lobbies, their seams running consistently in a remarkable calculation of order and repetition. Low granite benches and rectangular planters define the edge of the outdoor space, offering more material cohesion. Today, the plaza functions as a place for movie crews to film (like the day I was there), a farmers' market, and of course, the occasional protest.
6. A key example of the Second Chicago School
Designed at the height of Mies' influence, the Federal Center is the ultimate expression of the Second Chicago School- a style of architecture overseen (might we even say ruled?) by Mies and characterized by the straightforward glass and steel skyscrapers that we mostly take for granted today. With their rigid geometry, minimal detailing, and double-height ground floors that work to blur the boundaries of inside/outside, the dark steel and glass buildings of the Federal Center embody the architect's vision of a universal architecture.
7. Not your typical government iconography.
Though the language of the Federal Center had already been perfected (to some degree) in earlier projects, the complex's interpretation of its civic function was quite radical for the time. Setting aside the historic traditions usually associated with government architecture, Mies and his team embraced the principles of Modernism to convey its public program. Here, ornamental pomp is replaced with a mature and consistent vocabulary of glass and steel, dramatic scale, and precise proportions. By design, the complex signals its civic value not by its connection to stylistic precedent but by the way its monumental profile cuts through the city.
8. Criticized for being "too rational".
Too rational? That sort of seems like the point. But over the last several decades, many have disparaged the design for its willingness to discard the traditional grandeur of civic architecture. For some, the complex reads as too cold and abstract. I'll let you be the judge.
9. There's a Flamingo in the yard (plaza).
Imagine a tinker tape parade, thousands of spectators lining the streets, a smiling celebrity waving from the back of a bandwagon. As unlikely as it seems, this is exactly what transpired on October 25, 1974, when the City of Chicago unveiled its newest piece of public art- Alexander Calder's Flamingo. Set within Federal Plaza, the sculpture was the first work commissioned by the GSA's Art in Architecture Program and emerges from the urban square bold and dynamic, its brilliant red color activating the dark facades of its Miesian neighbors.
10. Listed on the NRHP.
The Chicago Federal Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, and it remains one of the city's most identifiable icons. (You can thank the Flamingo for that.)
Happy Birthday, Mies! See you next week, archilovers.
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Chicago Federal Center, Chicago, Illinois, 2017. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2017650002.
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