860-880 Lake Shore Drive
by: chicago designslinger
[860-880 Lake Shore Drive (1951) Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect; Pace Associates, Holsman Holsman Klekamp & Taylor, associate architects (2009) restoration, Krueck + Sexton; Harboe Architects, PC; architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
On April 15, 1951 a group of Chicagoans participated in a momentous event - they moved into an apartment building unlike any other on the planet. For the first time in history, people would be living in a high-rise residential tower surrounded by exterior walls made of glass - instead of brick and plaster. A few of these cutting-edge tenants had second thoughts after moving in, either because there was no place to put the furniture, or because they were afraid to go near the floor to ceiling windows for fear they would fall out. The sleek looking tower would be copied over and over again - sometimes successfully, sometimes not - but life for office workers, and apartment dwellers, would never be the same again.
[860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's twin towers broke the mold. Up until these two buildings appeared on Lake Shore Drive, tall architecture was wrapped in a skin of masonry, concealing the great structural innovations pioneered in the late-19th century. Although the groundbreaking use of the steel frame had allowed architects to build tall for two generations, by the mid-20th century most of that slim framework was still hidden behind brick, stone, concrete and plaster. Van der Rohe was ready to build outside the box and create a new architecture for a new modern age. He'd been thinking about constructing towers of glass in his native Germany since the 1920s. But it took the Nazis, a move to the United States, his landing in Chicago, spending over a decade as the chair of the architecture department at I.I.T., and partnering with a brave like-minded developer, before he was able to realize his glass-walled, structurally-revealing concept.
[860 Lake Shore Drive, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Van der Rohe was lucky to have a partner who believed in the architect and was not afraid of trying something new. Developer Herbert Greenwald was only 29-years-old when he asked the 61-year-old department chair to design an apartment complex that Greenwald was developing in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. The Promontory Apartments were moving toward Mies's desire to express the true essence of a modern building, but the designer still relied on the plastic quality of concrete to bring the project to fruition. In 1949 - the same year that the Hyde Park buildings were completed - a scion of one of Chicago's storied families, Robert Hall McCormick, announced that Herb Greenwald would be developing a cooperative apartment complex on McCormick-owned land on Lake Shore Drive between Delaware and Chestnut Streets. And that Mies van der Rohe would be the architect.
[860 Lake Shore Drive, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
At the time of the Promontory construction, Mies had already been experimenting with a design scheme that better expressed a building's true, steel, structural nature. He'd worked-out a concept with one of his students Earl Bluestein prior to the completion of the Promontory drawings, but he wasn't ready to commit to this new construction method just yet. But, by the time the McCormick/Greenwald project was underway, Mies was ready to launch his revolutionary new idea. Although the main structural steel frame had to be covered in concrete because of fire codes, the masonry cover extended only as far as the code required. On the other hand, Mies was able to attach unfettered steel I-beams to the vertical edges of the window frames - which helped hold the 9-foot tall, single-paned pieces of glass in place - but also increased the visual upward thrust of the building and gave the exterior surface much more visual interest. Although criticized for decorating his "pure" steel structure with the seemingly needless beams, the man who became forever attached to the statement "Less is More," also fundamentally believed that aesthetic choices, over an absolute strict practicality, always triumphed.