“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!