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On the Importance of Design Maintenance.

Buildings represent a major investment for any institution. Often, in order to present a better face and draw students, Institutions will turn to designers and architects to create a unique and functional space that ties in with their goals as a school. The Illinois Institute of Technology did this in the early decades of the 20th century by hiring and committing to the then-recently-immigrated German architect, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe.

Mies was hired at the dawn of the university, as it transitioned from a merger between Armour Institute and Lewis Institute into its current namesake. It was determined that Armour’s old campus would not be large enough to sustain its vision of the future, and purchased 113 acres around the Armour Institute’s original 7 acres in Chicago’s Bronzeville District. As head of the architecture department on campus, Mies and his firm were given exclusive rights to design a campus master plan and the buildings within.

Mies by this time had already established himself prominently as a designer in Germany, and is often called the father of Modernism. Having established and developed his design principles in Germany at the Bauhaus (another design school he was president of briefly before emigrating), he set to work using IIT as a laboratory to refine his principles to their extreme conclusion. His classrooms, laboratories, chapel, and residences have proven to be an exemplary testament to the International style he helped create. Even though Mies left the University in 1959, his tradition continued in most of the buildings put up after he was gone. Firms like Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill explored further Mies’ ideals of Modernism and the “less is more” aesthetic. In 2005, the campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and has been consistently recognized as one of the 200 most significant works of architecture in the United States. All of this historic design work is a major draw both for potential students and tourists from all over the world. However, it also bears with it a major responsibility to maintain the historic nature of the campus. Over the years, IIT has had numerous successes and failures in preservation and design as it has tried to respond to the constantly changing needs of its student body while keeping its role as guardian to the Mies legacy, and serves as a great example of the potential bonuses and pitfalls of sticking with a designer’s ideas for long after the architect would normally no longer be involved and others ideas move in.


On Interiors. One of the greatest strengths of Mies Van Der Rohe is his ability to create excellent interior space. He was a master of the use of materials, proportion, and understanding how people move through a room. His public space was often sparsely colored, though with rich, interesting materials. It also often included large glass windows, allowing the natural world outside to flow inside and capture the attentions of the user. Many of the 20th century early Modernists felt strong convictions that nature was an important part of a person’s life, and that being removed from it impacted a person negatively. By subduing the interior with neutral color, the rich color of the outside world became the focus instead. These ideas of a reduced color palette, emphasis on proportion, and a focus on the outside world are all tools Mies used to create spaces that would be good no matter what was required of them. They were designed to be able to adapt to changing needs and still hold onto the core of what made them enjoyable to be in. And just as predicted, changes to these spaces have occurred over time. However, these changes were often done with little consideration to the original intent around which a room was designed. In the following pictures, we can see a lobby in one of Mies’ buildings that has been maintained to reflect his ideas, versus a lobby on campus which has been allowed to change at the whim of the dollar, with little thought to the original design intent.

Looking at these 4 shots, one can see where the inclusion of the worn red furniture creates an intrusion in the space by removing the subdued ideas of space and replacing it with a more focused view of the furniture itself. In the top photos, the eye tends to flow past the furniture and grab on to the landscaping outside. On the bottom, the eye is drawn away from the courtyard by the contrasting red color of the furniture. Also, as seen in the bottom-right photo, the worn look of the furniture also


detracts from the space. One final note on this furniture is that in the more successfully maintained lobbies in the top photographs, the furniture was largely designed by Mies Van Der Rohe for public lobbies similar to this one, while the rest was put in after the fact without consideration for restraint. These small details like matching a designer’s furniture with his architecture can help present a cohesive image to visitors, as well as lend a better sense of the history of the campus. In this particular case, Mies’ chairs also happen to be very durable and comfortable, while the red plush furniture has faded quickly and looks worn. A good example of compromise between affordability, durability, and aesthetic demands can be found in the campus dining building, Mies’ Commons. This dining hall serves thousands of meals a day, and as such, the furniture sees the expected amount of wear and tear. Selected during the renovation of this space into a cafeteria were two colors of durable and reasonably comfortable plastic seat and heavy grey-veneered tables. Though the red may be seen as distracting, as in the previous example, it turns out that scale becomes an important factor in the success of this furniture. While the lobbies previously shown were comparatively small, intimate spaces where ever detail matters, the scale of the Commons’ open interior makes the alternating red and grey seating turn into a background texture more than a focus. This allows a users’ focus to shift to one of three areas: the signage which serves to advertise and attract, the food which is the main purpose of the space, and the view outside of the large picture windows in the central bay of the space.

On Koolhaas. Around the turn of the 21st century, IIT held an international design competition for a new student center and a new dorm building. The winner of the student center commission was European architect Rem Koolhaas, who became famous over the course of his career for his publications like “Delirious New York” and “S,M,L,XL” which investigated ideas of Urbanism and Postmodernism. Koolhaas proposed a radical move away from the traditional International Modernism of the old campus with a brightly colored examination of student movement through the proposed site. As staff and students have been smoothing the wrinkles associated with any new building, it has been necessary to make a number of changes to the original as-built building. One thing the management office has done that is relatively unique today is set up a consultation agreement with the original architecture firm (Office of Metropolitan Architects, which Koolhaas leads) to work with them on any proposed changes made to the building in the future. This has helped immensely in maintaining the original design ideas of Mr. Koolhaas and with maintaining a cohesive image of the building for visitors. These changes have ranged


from the changing and addition of furniture, to the redevelopment of foyer space for the in-building campus radio station and the South-facing lounge.

This first example is new outdoor furniture selected to go into a courtyard that provides natural lighting to offices and a main corridor. The courtyard was designed as a retreat from the busy urbanity of the interior of the building and modeled (very) loosely after a traditional Japanese rock garden. The elements were blended between natural and artificial and designed to greatly contrast the difference between the two. The ground is red gravel, with carefully placed larger rocks scattered and providing visual weight. The White Pine provides a sense of calm and nature, and interacts with the blue sky above, which is framed by the roof line of the building. This is all contained inside of an aluminum and glass box that shows the interior palette of orange and silver walls and aluminum floors. This contrast became an important theme in the selection of the furniture. As the furniture was artificial and an intrusion into the space, it was important to avoid materials that sought to look natural. Before the addition of this furniture, this space was largely unused by students except as an aesthetic feature. After the installation of this furniture, the space has become heavily used by students seeking a break between classes in nice weather. The light weight of the furniture makes it very easy to rearrange as necessary to accommodate almost any sized group of friends or individuals. Lastly, another important part of the selection of this furniture was that its designer was an alumnus of IIT, famed designer Richard Schultz. By referencing and supporting alumni, a university can help show a sense of pride and prestige in itself, which will carry on to students having pride in their own school. Another good example of maintaining consistency of design through a building’s changing needs is the current use of Panelite furniture in the student center. Panelite is a unique composite material consisting of a sandwich of two pieces of Plexiglas filled with straw-like sections, which create interesting effects as lights passes through. It is used fairly heavily as a finish material in the student center, including as exterior window, translucent walls for a bathroom, and also as furniture. Though expensive, the decision to maintain the use of Panelite throughout the building helps the building seem more cohesive. Additionally, it lends uniqueness and creates an interesting visual aesthetic as well as a conversation piece. The unity of the building and the attraction it can provide to students, potential students, and visitors is well worth the higher cost for a university wanting to make a name for itself.


On Renovation. Occasionally, a university may find that they need to make adjustments larger than just the furniture in a room. Doing so, however, requires much greater care when it comes to respecting a designer. Space, and how it interacts with other spaces around itself, is what can decide the success or failure of a building more than anything else. As an example, one may look at the Grover M. Hermann Hall, designed by Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill around the time that Mies left IIT. This building was designed to house a number of student and administrative programs, including student dining, conference space, and offices in an asymmetrical core surrounded by lounges and large, open spaces well suited to both student life during the day, and hosting conferences of all types at night. As the needs of the University have grown, this open space has been slowly whittled down to incorporate more free-standing office space outside of the central core. These generic offices have robbed the building of some of its original intent and life, as well as leading to a number of problems with lighting and heating which weren’t originally foreseen.


The top photographs show a main office for the building and a small conference space off of the same lobby. It is worth noting that the lights above these spaces have been out for quite some time due to the cost and difficulty associated with changing the bulbs in these fixtures. The combination of the high ceiling and the boxed off space beneath means it is impossible to get the necessary equipment into this space to change those lights. And even if it were possible, why justify the cost when those lights just light up the top of a ceiling? The bottom two photographs show similar halls on the East and West sides of this largely symmetric building. The photo on the left shows the East hall as it was originally designed. It serves frequently as a conference space. When not in use to that end, it creates a destination for students to go and relax between classes by way of removable furniture. This is exactly the design intent of the building, to have highly flexible space that can be used just as well for a number of different activities and to provide a space for students to gather and socialize. The high ceilings and open space create an inspiring view of the landscape outside, as well as allowing ample natural light into the building on even a clouded day. The photograph on the right is a recent renovation to the West hall to provide offices for an academic program on campus. This space essentially becomes cut off from the student population and promotes disuse of the building in general; it becomes vestigial and lifeless the general student body.

(get better crown picture) Another example of renovation is in the IIT campus jewel, S.R. Crown Hall by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Completed in 1956, Crown Hall serves as a Magnum Opus of sorts for International Modernism. Its open plan sans-columns divided up by free standing panels and lockers is considered by Mies to be the purest expression of his ideas in architecture, space, and structure. As such, the building is treated with a special sort of reverence which necessitates intense scrutiny of any minor change. When first constructed, the lower level was largely given over to an affiliate school of IIT, the Institute of Design (founded along with IIT by the Bauhaus’ Walter Moholy-Nagy). However, due to their own growth, they moved out in the early 1990’s, and the decision was made to put in an architectural reference library where they were previously housed, with a further expansion to the library in 2008. The space was carefully designed to reflect the original ideas about interior space of Mies Van Der Rohe. The palette was limited to black, white and natural wood finishes and utilized industrial materials like black painted sheet metal for book shelves. The overall effect is one that a visitor today might never know that the library was ever anything else, and serves as a welcoming and thoughtful environment for students and researchers paying homage to its wealth of information.


On Façade. The façade of a building serves as a public testament to the ideas that are expressed within. It is here that an architect may establish a system of organization (or lack thereof) that expresses to the user what to expect when they enter the interior. As a sort of distilled expression of style, it is important therefore to maintain the exterior to a high quality. Faded paint and rust are one of the first things a visiting student or donor may notice when seriously considering spending their money at an institution. For example:

The two buildings shown here are early academic building by Mies and the previously discussed Grover M. Hermann Hall by Walter Netsch. When a building is designed with a minimal number of elements like these two are, it is crucial that each of these elements is maintained to a high standard. And this holds true for more than just an aesthetic effect; failure to properly keep up a system like this can easily lead to even more expensive repairs down the road as the entire steel window system may need to be replaced if rusting becomes too serious. Similarly, cracks and problems with brickwork will only grow worse with time if not addressed early on in their development. These two buildings can be contrasted with two of their counterparts, which have been restored recently:

It is simple to see the stark difference of this other Mies academic building and Mies’ Crown hall from their counterparts because of their restoration. The freshly painted steel and clean bricks of the academic building lend an entirely different feel to the façade and better capture the clean, crisp lines that are so important in the design. Were these façades to be worn and spotted, as seen above, the feeling of unity and rhythm would be quickly lost and the entire façade would take on a drab look.


One last potential benefit of making a clear dedication to the maintenance of a campus is the potential effect it has on the students who live and work there every day. One’s attitude can be strongly influenced by their environment, and a fresh, bright campus can help keep the spirits of the student body high as well. In fact, the population on campus may feel strongly enough about their buildings that they may even volunteer their own time to cleaning and maintaining the buildings, which would be a simple thing to set up and would further develop a sense of pride in the campus on which they live.

On Landscape. Just as it is vitally important to maintain the interior and exterior of a building, it is also important to preserve the landscape in which a building sits. Often campus master plans and building landscape plans play an integral part in a building design. Mies Van Der Rohe, for example, worked with famed Landscape Architect Alfred Caldwell on laying out IIT’s campus landscaping while designing each of his academic buildings. The result of this forethought is that the landscape feels integrated with the buildings and works logically with regards to color and pedestrian traffic. Paths lead directly from one building entrance to another, often with scenic views of lawns and local trees. Landscape can also be used to further design concepts. Modernism is well known for its extensive use of floor to ceiling glass. However, what is less often spoken of is that the Modernist architects had a very clear idea behind this extensive use of glass which often had to do with connecting an interior user with the world around them. They understood that nature and natural forms were an important part of human health, and sought to reconnect building users with the world outside of their walls. As such, architects like Mies worked with designers like Caldwell to create landscapes around their buildings that drew inspiration from the natural world and provided a respite from the constant hustle of modern life. The view out of and setting in which a building takes place is just as important as the building itself, even in more urbanized projects where the view tends to be other buildings. If the plans of the designer who first did the landscape are not considered, it could be very easy to completely dissipate the very ideas that made a landscape successful. A building disconnected from its landscape in this way will always seem incomplete and out of place.


In the above examples, one can see a few ways in which landscape can interact with a building. The fall colors of the left-most photo reflect the vibrant oranges of the Panelite façade and create a visually interesting divider for the campus’ main thoroughfare. The center shot is an attempt to recreate some of Alfred Caldwell’s original ideas for how the campus should be designed. The left side of this shot shows a large open space which may be utilized by students for recreation and also creates expansive views for the buildings adjacent. The linden trees on the right provide a barrier between this field and a driveway that services the campus main administration building (not pictured). The stark difference in material between the grass and the small stone groundscape clearly delineates difference in function; active recreation versus passive recreation. One thing to note about this section of campus is that it is very specifically designed to both attract people to use the outdoor space, as well as provide attractive views for adjacent buildings. The final photo on the right side is a former reflecting pool to the North of the Grover M. Hermann Hall. It is a great example of the role that hard-scaping can play in a landscaping design. On the other hand, without proper maintenance, what was once a grand central feature to a view has since become an eye-sore.

On the Importance of Design Maintenance  

An essay on the importance of maintaining an architect's design well after they have left a project. Lays out ideas on design and renovatio...