Reactions to Context: The Duality of the Circumstantial and the Willed.

MVDR. Glass Skyscraper Project. 1922. and Lake Shore Drive Apts. 1951.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” -George Bernard Shaw

In this context heavy era it is easy for architects to become mastered by their site.  The question is; do we create place or do we let place emerge? The word “organic” has permeated all facets of architecture from form to site context.  Architects like to use the word to justify the conclusions they’ve drawn.  It can be a pragmatic, almost scientific, matrix laced over the will of the architect.  If not done masterfully, justifying a building in this way can lead to reduced potency or muddled ideas.

Mies Van Der Rohe and his evolution of contextual reactions is a good lesson for architects today.  In examining his early skyscrapers and comparing them to his later work we can see an architecture that goes from circumstantial place to willed place.

MVDR: Glass Skyscraper Project. Site Plan

Glass Skyscraper project site plan.

The Glass Skyscraper proposals of 1922 by MVDR is an example of a buildings formed by its site.  It is a shape that emerges from the edges of its site like a liquid pouring into and conforming to the contours of a glass.  The shape of the site is a wedge, thus it emerges roughly as a wedge.  He justifies this shape in publications as a reaction to the materiality and reflectivity of glass. Similarly, the Friedrichstrasse glass skyscraper project is a wedged shape building on a wedge shaped site.  This is almost a complete extrusion of the site parameters.

Friedrichstrasse collage.

Nevertheless,some interesting deviations from site extrusion are made in these projects. Both projects seem to pinch in at the midpoints and create wells that catch light and permit a maximum amount of views.  These pinched wells are the precursors to the plaza obsessions found in his later high-rise work.

In the context of their time, before the widespread emergence of Modernism, (more specifically before the clinical pragmatic strain of modernism emerged triumphant), these projects are expressionist and daring.  They fly in the face of convention.  By flaunting classical notions of symmetry and orthogonal, geometrically derived form, these projects have a revolutionary looseness.  Only with hindsight and comparison to his later work do we see the flaws of these projects.  Mies would learn to master site in a more potent yet subtle way.

Friedrichstrasse plan.

Lake Shore Drive Apts. Plan

The apartments at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, built from 1948-51, are perhaps the best examples of Mies’ approach to site context in his later American work. Mies is dealing with a wedge shaped site similar to the earlier glass skyscraper projects, the result, however, is completely different.  Instead of a building that rigidly reacts to the edge of the site, Lake Shore Drive Apartments are broken up into two buildings that are orthogonal and symmetrical.  The two high rises hug the edges of the site furthest from the lake and are arranged asymmetrically, sliding past one another like volumes in a Modernist painting.  This maximizes views of the lake and creates a grassy space for repose.  This open space is a direct break from the traditional wall of skyscrapers that skirt the edge of Lake Shore Drive.  By not conforming rigidly to the shape of the site, Mies creates a point of interest and a break in the monotony of the Lake Shore Wall.  Not to mention the revolutionary use of an all steel and glass facade shorn of all traditional decoration!  At the Lake Shore Apartments we see a building where place is willfully created as opposed to being an organic result of site conditions.

Lake Shore Dr. Apts. showing well the site.

This approach to site would inform all of Mies skyscraper work in America.  Famous examples of the stepped away plaza include the Seagram Building, the IBM building in Chicago (Which has a very demanding site), and the Chicago Federal Center.  All of these buildings are symmetrical, classically inspired but distilled volumes that are arranged in an asymmetrical fashion (Except for Seagram’s single tower). All of these works break the regularity of their immediate urban condition creating modern piazzas that are very popular.  MVDR evolved his approach to site to create better solutions to urban problems.  A novice to his work may assume that because he was a “minimalist” his work was unsympathetic to its surroundings but this could not be further from the truth.  Simply look at the countless models he worked through for the Chicago Federal Center to see that his volumes were very carefully situated and proportioned.

MVDR. IBM, Chicago. 1971. Model.

IBM. A difficult site.

In this age of organic contextually, we need to look at the work of Mies Van Der Rohe and learn how to master a site.  The duality between organic and willed architecture will be a constant point of debate in the field. I believe in the end architecture can’t truly work without the other.  One is lying to themselves if they believe their decisions are complete organic outgrowths of constraints. Conversely, problem solving inevitably goes a long way towards informing the forceful will of the architect.  Architecture is both of these things.  The question is what side you lean towards.

Final note:  Apologies for the long delay.  I’ve been rehired at my old firm (Murphy/Jahn) and moved back to Chicago in the last two months so it’s been pretty hectic.  From now on I hope to keep up my old pace!

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5 Responses to Reactions to Context: The Duality of the Circumstantial and the Willed.

  1. Kyle Martin says:

    Nice article. Site context is certainly challenging. Do you think the corncob building near IBM works with the same ideas or was it more of an architect’s will to just create the form through its structure? I haven’t walked around the base of that building much to know.
    What about building additions? There is always a balance to honor the previous architect’s design but also to make a new statement while making the old and new more than the sum of their parts?

  2. RTA says:

    I enjoyed your perceptive article and particularly that fresh side-by-side image illustrating the differences between the Glass Skyscraper and the LSD Apartment towers.

    I would add that a very significant aspect of his later skyscraper projects is the emphasis on the interior and exterior spaces at the ground level. Mies settled on his ideal form for his skyscrapers and adapted it for all his subsequent towers, as a “universal” solution to the tower. But those who observe that his American towers all look alike may be missing the differences in the way ground level spaces in each project are a unique response to the conditions of the site. Mies sought a configuration of forms that would be an “organic” order, i.e. an architecture that grows out of responding to a number of forces, very much including the conditions and opportunities of the site and its context.

    Purposeful interior/exterior spatial configuration of the site is what makes each tower project distinctly different and worthy of a careful look.

    Congratulations on being rehired in these tough times.

    • argitect says:

      Agreed with you completely. A duality I will explore in a future post will be how this idea of the “universal” reacts to a context. This seems like a contradiction, but that is what makes it interesting. When I think of contextuality in Mies American skyscraper work I think of that great photograph showing the beaux arts building across the street reflected in the lobby glass of the Seagram Building. The entrances are basically symmetrically facing one another. Mies is very deliberate; his universal solutions never compromise the context they are in. One of my slight disappointments in his work is the way that the Mondadnock Building is seemingly neglected at the Chicago Federal Center complex. I feel if he just pulled one of the buildings back just a little further, the plaza would engage the Monadnock more. Thanks for the comment and the well wishes!

      • RTA says:

        The neo-Platonic balance between the immutable laws of the universal and the individual, newly reborn in the new industrial age, was a hot dialectic challenge for early modernists. That topic was particularly a concern for Theo van Doesburg (and Mondrian too). Mies was his pal, and certainly aware of those overwrought De Stijl theoretical preoccupations.

        Yes, many lament the concealment of the Monadnock, particularly since the west end of the tower has a setback from LaSalle St. I speculate that Mies was concerned that two overlapping black forms, both in shadow, would be blended and confused when looking south along Dearborn St. We do know the massing of the new Federal buildings within the context was studied intensely, using models, so there must be a reason it was done that way. Perhaps Gene Summers might know the answer. Your boss should have his number.

  3. Pingback: Mies-Conceptions | the lying truth

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