S.R. Crown Hall, IIT Campus, Chicago – Mies van der Rohe
The S. R. Crown Hall is a landmark building designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the early 1950s for the Illinois Institute of Technology campus in Chicago.
Despite not being the first to be built, the Crown Hall is arguably the finest of the twenty buildings that Mies designed for the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where the German-American architect was also director of the Department of Architecture from 1942 to 1956.
Cover image: the south side of the S. R. Crown Hall in Chicago; photo Peter Alfred Hess (CC BY 2.0).
Commissioned to Mies in 1950 with a view to creating a new home for the IIT’s College of Architecture and Institute of Design, since the beginning the S.R. Crown Hall was intended by its architect also as a means to showcase the possibilities of modern architecture while, at the same time, bringing them to the limit. In the master plan of the IIT Campus designed by Mies in 1940-1941, a building pretty similar to the future Crown Hall is visible south of the current Siegel Hall.
Construction works for the new building began in December 1954 and were completed in 1956. Immediately recognized as an International Style masterpiece, the Crown Hall was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1997 and a National Historic Landmark in 2001.
In 2005, after almost fifty years of continuous use, the building underwent extensive restoration and renovation after a design by Chicago-based architectural practice Krueck & Sexton Partners.
While most of the buildings Mies had designed previously for the Illinois Institute of Technology were brick-clad, the facades of the Crown Hall consist of slender black-painted steel frames entirely filled with glass panels.
The building’s monumental main hall is a typical example of what Mies called a “Universal Space“, namely a large column-less volume enclosed by glass facades that, to his mind, was the ultimate concept both in terms of functional flexibility and architectural purity.
The S.R. Crown Hall is a two-story construction, with a total area of 52,000 square feet / 4,800 square meters, whose plan, which measures 120×220 feet / 36×67 meters, is based on a 10-foot/3.05-meter module. The main floor is raised 6 feet (1.80 meters) above the ground; similarly to the Farnsworth House in Plano, Il, that Mies had designed some years before, the main floor can be accessed through two broad flights of stairs divided by an intermediate platform, paved in travertine stone, called South Porch.
Photo mjcd (CC BY 2.0).
The main entrance of the Crown Hall with the so-called “South Porch”; photo Peter Alfred Hess.
View from the southeast; photo Scott Dierdorf (CC BY-NC 2.0).
The building’s main level contains a single, column-less space. The removal of intermediate columns and other structural elements allows for a free and flexible subdivision of the hall, through a series of low oak-wood free-standing partitions, into work areas for the students and exhibition areas. Below the main floor, there is a basement level – which houses workshops, lecture rooms, offices, toilets, and building services – naturally illuminated by seventy 4 feet-tall clerestory windows. The interiors of the Hall have been recently restored and renovated – with the addition of study rooms, offices, and a library – by architects Dirk Denison, Gene Summers, and Wiel Arets.
Three interior views of the open, columnless space on the main floor of the Crown Hall, also known as the “Upper Core”; the hall can be flexibly divided through a series of 7 feet 3 inches tall free-standing walls made of wood; photos Timothy Brown (CC BY 2.0) and Eric Allix Rogers (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
A view of the basement; photo Jonathan Rieke (CC BY-NC 2.0). The materials used for the interior are terrazzo flooring (with Virginia black marble and Tennessee gray marble aggregate), white acoustic gypsum tiles for the ceiling, and white painted plaster for the walls of the service shafts.
The glass panels that, inserted into a grid of thin steel mullions, form the building facades are translucent from the ground level to a height of 13 feet 8 inches (4.16 meters), and fully transparent from there up to the roofline.
The load-bearing structure of the Crown Hall, which may look deceptively conventional at first sight, was actually extremely innovative in the early 1950s and is pretty audacious still today.
The building is topped by a large flat roof suspended to four long-span metal frames each consisting of a massive 120-foot long and 6-foot 3inch deep girder supported at both ends by slender H-beam columns; the roof cantilevers twenty feet beyond the lateral girders.
During the building construction, the girders were field welded to the metal columns to reduce the bending moment in the beams and, consequently, the need for larger steel profiles for the columns. This ingenious structural design – which was the final one of several different approaches as we can see in some preliminary drawings of the Crown Hall – was devised by Mies in collaboration with structural engineering firm Frank Kornacker and Associates to allow for the realization of the huge 18 foot-high open hall on the main floor, as well as to contribute to the exceptional spatial quality of the interior spaces.
The facade glazing is divided into three horizontal layers, the lower layers are equipped with translucent glass panels, while the top one consists of large panels of clear glass; photos by angela n. (CC BY-NC 2.0) and Jan Uy (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Close-up view of one of the steel I-beam mullions running the full height of the facades; photo Ani Od Chai (CC BY-NC 2.0).
How to visit the S.R. Crown Hall
External visitors are not allowed to enter the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology without previous consent. Therefore, visits to the campus and its architectural landmarks must be arranged through pre-authorized guided tours or individual agreements.
The Crown Hall, which is regularly in use as an academic facility, can be visited as part of a 2-hour tour of the Campus organized by the Chicago Architecture Center with the assistance of the IIT staff; advance reservation is required (more at https://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/buildings-of-chicago/building/crown-hall/).
Alternatively, you can arrange a visit by contacting the IIT College of Architecture (write an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1 312 567 3230) or through an IIT faculty member; the organizers of tours of more than 10 people must coordinate in advance with the College of Architecture’s Director of Buildings & Operations.
Visitors can get to the Illinois Institute of Technology either by automobile (there are several metered parking lots in the area) or by public transportation (through the Chicago Transit Authority Red and Green rapid transit lines or by bus (go to https://www.transitchicago.com/ for details.)
Photo Thomas Nemeskeri (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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