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Chicago: Sky high

‘Less is more’ was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's mantra. He was clearly referring to the decor, not the scale. Because, as one of the most famous architects of the modern age got older, he built bigger.

Chicago: Sky high
330 North Wabash, Chicago. Image: Alamy.

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Built in 1973, the former IBM Building in Downtown Chicago begs to be stared at — and I do just that — yet defies a naked-eye measurement. It requires a physical strain for me to lean back and look up at its heft. It represents an idea of purity — of pure form and pure ideology.

What does this mean? That this building is the ultimate embodiment of simplicity and functionality, with all excesses stripped out. Well, sort of — but more of that later. My eyes immediately recognise it as ‘a skyscraper’ and yours would too, because Ludwig Mies van der Rohe invented a visual language for the same kind of skyscrapers we see in London, New York and, of course, all across Chicago; a city he called home after he fled here from the Nazis in the 1940s. It’s a black box — deceptively simple, stylish, cold, austere, crisp, rational and arch.

Wags said it was a case of “Less is bore”, that this minimalism was a yawn, but I love its expensive, understated finishes: brass and polished steel and plate glass everywhere. I run my hand over the building’s cold, smooth surfaces. The devil is in the detail.

It was the last building the German ever designed and he died before it was finished. Renamed AMA Plaza in 2013, its top half houses a law firm and the American Medical Association. Its bottom half is the new Langham Chicago hotel. Fittingly, Mies’ grandson, Dirk Lohan, kept things in the family by doing the hotel conversion. However, I wonder what Mies would have thought as I explore the hotel’s blinging reception and bar. Less is more? Not any more.

In the ground-floor lobby they’ve spent a fortune on art — there’s a Jaume Plensa, which seems apt as his supersize-me works are all around Chicago. And Mies’ supersize-me works are too. There’s the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments and the entire campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology he designed — this was also the university where he taught architecture. And one of his students took the chance to respond to his master.

Come round the back of the former IBM Building with me. It’s windy — it always is here. Skyscrapers and open squares create their own unfriendly microclimates. I’ve seen a lot of skyscrapers but I’ve never seen people choose to congregate at the bottom of one. It’s empty, of course. The Chicago riverfront is here, boats toot their horns — one of them is running an architecture tour. On Saint Patrick’s Day they dye the river green. Right here is Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg — two corncobs of flats that stand as proud as pie, with docks for boats by the river and car entry ramps from street level, two floors higher up.

They’re simple, cheap, organic structures. They look like they grew from the ground. They were built in 1964. Now look at Mies’ Empire Strikes Back black tower. The two are cheek by jowl, an incredible contrast, and I can’t stop looking from one to the other, seeing the beauty in both ideas — rational versus natural. Goldberg was never as famous as his teacher, though — back in the lobby of the IBM Plaza, out of the wind, I discover a bust of Mies by Marino Marini. Looking stoic, missing his favourite stogie, but realising — I think — that he’s defined the way the city of Chicago, and the skyscraper as we know it, look.

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