May 17: smashing Mies

2012/05/17 § 1 Comment

On this day in 2005 Crown Hall closed in preparation for a vast restoration.

Mies’ great work was just shy of fifty years old when its keepers decided to give it a massive overhaul.  Like a movie star of a certain age, the old dame of IIT required a little work at mid-century.  However, on both counts, we prefer to see women and buildings  embrace their age and to be judged by what they’ve accommodated rather than by what might be sagging a bit here and there.  But Crown Hall required significant attention: its precise connections, perfect geometries, and absolute flatness of planes do not admit any wear and tear.  The interior may have been designed to be “universally” functional, but its envelope admits nary a scratch or finger print and required significant surgery to correct decades of peeling paint, rusting steel and insufficient heat/light control.

Treating the envelope really was the extent of the project: like other materials (iron, wood) that are happiest under a coat of something, Crown Hall’s steel skeleton needed a new paint job.  There’s no fixing funky glass, and the single-panes simply had to be replaced.  This simple-sounding solution required the building to be shut down for months and the university to dole out of $4 million.  Part of that sum was raised through clever fundraisers including a “Smash Bash” (see video here) in which high bidders on eBay won the rights to swing sledge hammers into the glazing.  The project was a tremendous success in terms of bringing the building back to its drop-dead perfection.  The picture above was taken soon after the bandages came off, when you could still see your reflection in the gloss of the painted steel.

 But the project and even its fundraiser raise certain questions.  How often is demolition of a majority of the building’s envelope a significant part of renovation?  At what point does a project cease to be ‘preservation’ and instead become ‘rebuilding’?  Removing the same percentage of a traditional building’s envelope as was done at Crown Hall would call into question the very status of the building as historic.  And it is a great irony of Modernism, a movement heroically charged with newness and ahistoricity, that (1) it is preserved at all (rather than being swept up in the destructive demands of Sant’Elia for every generation to ‘build its own city’), and (2) that is requires such painstaking hand craft to accomplish.  But when it’s done, done right, it does give us some sharp buildings that look amazingly pristine–at least until the students move back in, or it rains, or the grass beings to grow. And then we see the truth of aging: traditional buildings might patina; modernist buildings just look old.

Good study of the restoration with great pictures here.

Image: Crown Hall, approximately five minutes after the restoration (Clio’s)

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§ One Response to May 17: smashing Mies

  • Patrick Pinnell says:

    America’s version of rebuilding the Temple at Ise? There, the building is not only a building but each generation’s agreement to shoulder the task of rebuilding, uniting it with all those who came before.

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