"Contributions to the Epoch"

Left:Glass Skyscraper Project Mies Van Der Rohe 1922. Right: Jeanne Gang Aqua Tower 2008.

“Some people think that you should always be doing something new, they ask for more and more novelty – not the essential things.” Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

“Things you couldn’t do before maybe because you were forced into repetition from construction, that’s where we’ve really been liberated. I love Marina towers, but they are the way they are because they needed to be repetitious. We can break away from that.” Jeanne Gang

The glass skyscraper project by Mies Van Der Rohe is striking in the context of all his other works. This seems to be a building of free flowing form, truly and literally thinking outside the box. His motives behind the shape were the combination of a strange site and games played with the reflectivity of glass. He stated that an all glass skyscraper was less about light and transparency and more about reflectivity. One can imagine Mies systematically and scientifically going through hundreds of permutations to arrive at a volume with maximum reflective potential. It’s strange to hear the motives for a Mies building seemingly having only one dimension: the reflectivity of glass. This seems to be a case where a small idea dictates to an exaggerated amount the built form. His subsequent works would subsume this into an increasingly holistic and spiritual approach to architecture. This building was outright revolutionary for its time. Beyond the strange shapes, Mies begins to show a building that is interested in being honest about how it’s constructed. One can clearly see the structural concept after a cursory glance of the model photograph. Floors are held up by interior columns and the floor plates branch off of these. The facade is applied and non-structural, it is clipped on, and we can literally see the clips holding the glass up at the top. It’s not far removed from the free plan associated with Le Corbusier, however this is more like a free facade. The model photograph further shows the revolutionary nature of this project by contextualizing it with a bunch of opaque low-rise cottage looking forms right out of Caligari’s Cabinet.

I can’t help walking around Chicago today, and going past the Aqua Tower by Jeanne Gang and seeing at least a superficial resemblance to the Glass Skyscraper project. They both have sinuous facades, although the Aqua Tower keeps the glass plane vertical and uses the floor plates to create the curves. The motives behind the building also seem to have a similarity. Whereas Mies’ curving forms were about reflectivity, Gangs’ are about maximizing views. There is an interesting diagram that shows points of views emanating from the tower block and pushing and pulling it in certain directions. It seems like a similar method that Mies might have used to find his perfect reflectivity. However, it seems this “maximum view” motive is a little dubious. I get the impression from both of these projects that the initial decisions were purely aesthetic and that a justified motive was attributed after the fact. The idea of views is arbitrary: the flowing forms are what the architect was looking for. And they have a beautiful effect when standing right up to them, but the rationalist inside of me does not see the justification or the posterity for such exaggerations of form. Jeanne Gang passes herself off as an architectural scientist, using research and modern technology to inform and dictate her architecture. I wish that this could be more boldly asserted in a high profile project such as this, because the rationalist/spiritualist duality seems to be tipped too far in one direction even if at the same time the mouth is speaking of rational motives for the given results.

The most striking element of the Aqua Tower is the scrim effect it gives looking vertically at close proximity. When further away this dissipates and the building seems to just be a regular skyscraper block with slightly tweaked fringe. Again it reminds me of Mies Van Der Rohe and the scrim effect that can be found on his skyscrapers with the protruding I-beams. Of course Mies’ scrim is looked at horizontally and not vertically like at Aqua. It’s a lovely trick that enhances the ambiguity of a buildings solidity and transparency. I believe the subtle way that Mies did it seems to have much more weighted substance. In other words, it allows you to discover it on your own: the building isn’t mastered by the scrim; it is just one element of many. (When at the IBM building, be sure to check out the adjacent parking garage and revel in the cleverness of it’s cladding. It reflects the scrim effect!). I’m also disappointed in the cumbersome and sometimes careless detailing of the Aqua Tower. The mullions are graceless, and the balcony railing is a jolting afterthought. In defense of the tower though, it has beautiful proportions, very tall and slender, and most importantly, at least it is something new and refreshing to the city that opens up room for discussion.

Both of these buildings seem to suffer from being mastered too highly by one conceptual triviality. Mies would later use the ambiguity of reflectivity to much more refined effect beginning most strikingly with the Barcelona Pavilion. Hopefully, Jeanne Gang will be able to subsume some of her scientific concepts into more solidly rationalized buildings.

The newly constructed Trump Tower is problematic in a whole different realm, but that “contribution to our epoch” can be a topic for next time…..

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