In the aftermath of the Nazi party’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s, many of that country’s most-talented artists, musicians and designers, as well as innovative scientists and engineers, fled to other countries for the sake of their work and lives. The United States welcomed many of these luminaries; among them architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who immigrated to Chicago in response to the Nazi party’s denouncement of modernist design as “un-German.”

Mies (who took on an adapted version on his mother’s maiden name, Rohe, early in his career) was born in Aachen, Germany, in 1886. He worked in his father’s stonemasonry business and apprenticed for both furniture designers and architects. He got his first commission at age 20 for a residential project. He went on to work for Peter Behrens, teacher of Le Corbusier, and eventually set up his own office.

World War I temporarily put his career on hold. Mies served in the German army, building roads and bridges. Following the war’s end, Mies’ career boomed. In addition to his design work, he helped found G: Material zur Elementaren Gestaltung (G: Materials for Elemental Form Creation), a magazine that prominently featured collage and drawing. He also served as director of the famed Bauhaus school of design, but shuttered it due to pressure from the Nazi party.

The black rectangular facade of S.R. Crown Hall.
S.R. Crown Hall. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Arturo Duarte Jr.

In 1938, Mies arrived in Chicago and became director of the architecture at the Armour Institute (later the Illinois Institute of Technology). It was here that he met Florence Knoll, whom he mentored. Years later, Knoll would have exclusive rights to produce Mies’ furniture designs, including the Barcelona collection and Brno chair.

While at the institute, Mies was tasked with expanding its campus, overseeing its growth from 7 to 120 acres. Among the buildings he designed for the institute was S.R. Crown Hall, a stunning 120 x 200 x 18-foot glass and steel structure completed in 1956 and named a National Historic Landmark in 2001.

The white rectangular repose of the Farnsworth House.
The Farnsworth House. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Victor Grigas

This design took cues from the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, completed in 1950. Now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the one-room weekend retreat features a concrete slab roof and floor, glass façade and steel skeleton. The openness of both buildings helps ease the transition between indoors and out, and, particularly at the Farnsworth House, lets visitors fully appreciate their surroundings.

The Seagram Building. Source: Wikimedia/stevecadman
The Seagram Building. Source: Wikimedia/stevecadman

In addition to these examples of wide, flat, rectangular buildings, Mies also designed influential skyscrapers for commercial and residential use. In New York City, the Seagram Building is a study in sleek modernism. Completed in 1958, the building features a starkly beautiful bronze and glass façade, while its interior radiates understated cool with glass, travertine and marble. Included in the design is a courtyard that pushes the tower back from Park Ave. and provides a spacious area for pedestrians. The Mies-designed federal plaza in Chicago has a similar look and feel, a modernist gem rubbing shoulders with the city’s impressive array of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century skyscrapers.

The boxed exterior of the Lafayette Towers.
The Lafayette Towers. Source: Wikimedia Commons/LafayetteTowers

Mies brought these design sensibilities to his work in Lafayette Park, a residential development in Detroit consisting of townhouses (completed in 1960) and apartment towers (completed in 1963). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 46-acre community is now known as the Mies van der Rohe Historic District and is still used for housing. Units in this community do come on the market from time to time.

The designer resigned from his post at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1958. Following his retirement, he was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. Mies died in 1968 and his memorial service was held at Crown Hall. His legacy is supported by the Mies van der Rohe Society at the institute.


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