Topic: Architecture / Chicago
In his popular book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), architectural historian Charles Jencks makes a number of cheeky, provocative, humorous, and often enlightening observations about high-Modern and contemporary architecture. In his first chapter, "The Death of Modern Architecture" (which occured at 3:32PM in St. Louis on July 15, 1972 with the demolition of a notorious housing project), Jencks includes a rather sarcastic analysis of IIT's campus. He calls the Boiler Plant a cathedral, since it is divided into 3 long sections with a smokestack/tower--"a central nave structure with two side aisles expressed in the eastern front....there are clerestory windows on both aisle and nave elevations. Finally, to confirm our reading that this is the campus cathedral, we see the brick campanile, the bell tower that dominates the basilica." He goes on to (mis)read the plain campus chapel as a boiler house and the architecture school's Crown Hall as the President's Temple.
He caustically attributes the unexpected employment of these forms to solemn old Mies van der Rohe's "stunning wit." I came across this book in a used section of the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, Chicago's fabulous architectural bookstore. It seems to have been owned (and discarded) by an offended Miesian who wrote several angry comments in the margin (which abruptly end halfway through the first chapter). I found Jencks' analysis to be irreverently hilarious, but there are reasons why Mies is still interesting and relevant today. His forms are ambiguous, and depending on their function might communicate a number of conflicting ideals: do the open glass ground floors of his Federal Center in the loop denote a transparency and honesty of government, or a higher pure order of authority? Does an empty glass house place its inhabitants in the midst of nature, or do its materials, in their climactic insuitability and bird-killing invisibilty betray a complete disregard for the environment? There are no right answers, but to get the most out of Mies, it's important to ask all the questions, and I think that's something Jencks does well.