Armour Institute, one of Illinois Institute of Technology’s predecessor entities, was founded just as Chicago was emerging as a center for progressive architectural thought. In 1936 when Earl Reed resigned as director of the Institute’s Department of Architecture, the school engaged Chicago's architectural leaders in the search for a new director. The search committee, headed by John Holabird, recruited Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with a mandate to "rationalize" the architecture curriculum.
Mies came to the university to head its Department of Architecture soon after the closing of the Bauhaus, the renowned design school that flourished in Germany from 1919 until the rise of Nazism in 1933. During his 20 years as director of the department (1938–58), he established a curriculum based on the Bauhaus philosophy of synthesizing aesthetics and technology. His emphasis on a strong grounding in the fundamentals of architecture and on a disciplined method of problem solving is reflected in Illinois Tech’s curriculum today.
When Mies arrived in 1938, he championed a back-to-basics approach to education. For him, architecture students had to first learn to draw, then gain thorough knowledge of the features and use of the builder's materials, and finally master the fundamental principles of design and construction.
Mies was also tasked with designing the university’s main campus. When Armour Institute and Lewis Institute merged in 1940 to form Illinois Institute of Technology, Armour Institute's original seven acres could not accommodate the combined schools' needs, and Mies was encouraged to develop plans for an expanded campus.
Not since Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia (1819) had an American campus been the work of a single architect. Mies' original proposal called for a more traditional layout of several large buildings grouped around an open space but in his final Master Plan, he embraced Chicago's rectilinear street grid and designed two symmetrically balanced groups of buildings.
Mies' academic buildings stood in sharp contrast to the patrician campuses of the past. His buildings embodied twentieth-century methods and materials—steel and concrete frames with curtain walls of brick and glass.
His buildings were both magisterial and harmonious, and they set a new aesthetic standard for modern architecture. The sleek urbanism of Illinois Tech’s campus became a reflection of the school’s technological focus; it also evoked the openness of the Midwestern prairie—an oasis in the midst of a major city.
The master plan of the Illinois Tech Mies Campus was one of the largest projects Mies ever conceived and the only one to come so close to achieving complete realization. The campus encompasses 20 of his buildings, the greatest concentration of Mies-designed buildings in the world.
Visit the Mies van der Rohe Society website.