A Classical temple of the third millennium
The IIT campus was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on an expansive site in Chicago’s Near South Side. Originally a mixed-use neighborhood, IIT is today close to block after block of impoverished housing and major traffic infrastructure including Chicago’s famous elevated train. Mies also designed several dozen buildings for the ambitious new campus, from the iconic Crown Hall and laboratories - temples for the technological faithful - to smaller components such as the IIT chapel and boiler house. If the IIT campus is marked by a pragmatic, at times bleak, mid-century Modernism, it also on occasion beguiles with the physical evidence of Mies’s sublime skill. In the late 20th Century, the IIT campus had seemed locked in its Miesian legacy, unable or unwilling to evolve and incorporate new voices or, arguably, new needs into its physical plant. That status quo was challenged by Rem Koolhaas / OMA with the McCormick Tribune Campus Center. That design inflects Mies’s orthogonality by dipping beneath the elevated trainlines and animates it by threading diagonals (like another Dutchman, Theo van Doesburg, in his art a century ago) across the campus grid. Programmatically, the McCormick Center not only acknowledged but capitalized on the informal, interconnected nature of student life today. Now fifteen years after McCormick, the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship gives IIT another welcome intercession. Designed by John Ronan Architects, celebrated for the Poetry Foundation (2011) in Downtown Chicago, this standalone building channels Mies’s strict orthogonality and famed attention to detail while unmistakably belonging to the 21st Century. It is another rectilinear pavilion but with two carved-out patios to literally bring the surrounding campus into the heart of the new institute and with an upper skin of translucent ETFE panels that elegantly signal change within Mies’s classic masterplan. Crown Hall is not only the central pavilion or landmark on the IIT campus, it is also the School of Architecture, the mid-century design studio as perfect industrial object. It is a single rectangular volume measuring 67 x 36.6 m, a piano nobile raised above a semi-basement, accessed via cantilevered steps and with a canopy roof held in place by four expressive girders. The Kaplan Institute also has a rectangular plan, albeit more extensive (80.5 x 44 m), and a piano nobile. But here the plan is eroded by the patios and the piano nobile floats out above the ground plane like a carefully tailored dirigible or habitable cloud. At Crown Hall, lower panes of glass are translucent; upper zones are transparent, allowing views in to Mies’s great floating ceiling and views out to surrounding trees and sky. Recessed below a contiguous, overhanging soffit, the lower level of the Kaplan Institute is transparent, allowing views of activities inside, and interrupted to fold inward and wrap the two courtyards. Passers-by can see directly into the patios - planted with American hornbeam and eastern redbud trees -, the studios - classified as “maker space”, “idea shop”, and “innovation alley” - and a café served, Miesian-style, from a rectangular core housing most of the building’s technical services. Unlike Crown Hall, where visitors ascend to enter, the Kaplan Innovation Center is accessed directly from the surrounding campus. Visitors are reoriented in either courtyard to the sky above before entering and encountering a stepped auditorium, termed the “tribune stair”, linking lower and upper floors at the heart of the institute. This is a space for informal gathering, a kind of social condenser unknown in the 1950s but now so vital for university life. Above the polished concrete floor, the steel frame with its columns and the many exposed components of the roof structure are uniformly white. Light fixtures are suspended in linear arrays from this ceiling. In this sea of white light, there are clues to John Ronan’s own sense of innovation in detailing decisions. At ground level, for instance, the fire retardant coating the steel columns is left exposed and cabling is housed in the vertical troughs between column flanges. A simple sash of expanded metal mesh wraps each column from shoulder-to-knee height, providing protection but also suggesting a kind of improvised or DIY contemporary order. There are splashes of color inside the building’s cores and on cushions distributed across the stepped tribune between floors; these colors are appropriated from the Post-it Notes found on boards throughout the facility. A long-time faculty member at IIT, Ronan knows the campus well, its Miesian heritage and the subsequent mimicry of that taut language of post and beam. He has maintained the 7.3-m campus grid to structure the Kaplan Institute and allowed the ground surface flow, as intended by Mies, into and through the new building. The Kaplan Institute feels less like a classical temple, less fixed and static. Occupying the upper level (there is no basement), the Institute of Design extends out beyond the frame to be wrapped - or upholstered - by the ETFE membrane with diaphanous glimpses of the exterior. Ronan likens the experience to being “in a cloud”. This membrane is assembled from four layers of ETFE (Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene). Reacting to sensors, the two inner layers move to adjust the interstitial pockets of air and thus mitigate temperatures inside the building. Here, the steel columns suggest another new order, with pipes between the flanges linked to monitors (not unlike cardiac devices) on the ETFE membrane. In the corners - always a locus of Miesian scrutiny - this tectonic or language derived from environmental engineering is compounded by the duplication of monitors and pipes servicing adjacent facades as they meet at right angles as dictated by the IIT grid. On a modest budget, the architects have created a new kind of studio space that is democratic (there are very few enclosed offices), green (communal tables are made from ash trees originally on the site), and energy-conscious (the metal deck floor further facilitates heating and cooling). There is logic and rationalism in this latest contribution by John Ronan Architects to Chicago’s robust built environment, but also a calibrated joy, a sense of pleasure and informality in tune with institutions of creativity today.