Second life for a Miesian masterpiece

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By Garret Eakin


In 1973, Progressive Architecture magazine featured a stark and powerful image of the then IBM building in Chicago. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed this 52-story steel building with an aluminum and glass skin as a simple yet sophisticated corporate office building. The orthogonal frame was set in contrast to the irregular site. 

The International Style building was designed to be flexible as Mies believed that a good plan should be able to adapt to the changing needs of the users. The building cost a whopping $33 per square foot and was the first to incorporate insulated glass. Mies said, "Form is not the aim of our work, but only the result." 

Last year a portion of the building on floors 1 through 13 were converted into a luxury hotel, the Langham Chicago. It is remarkable how this challenging conversion of a prominent Chicago icon was deftly managed. For anyone attracted to architecture, this project is sure to be interesting. 

The new hotel entrance is marked on the east side of the building with a cantilevered bronze canopy, designed by Mies' architect grandson, Dirk Lohan. Like many hotels on Michigan Avenue, the ground floor lobby is simply a pick-up and drop-off reception containing a couple of elegant sitting areas grouped around some carefully placed sculpture and paintings. The travertine walls and granite floors provide a beautiful background for the art (140 artists represented in the collection), which were selected by interior architect Lauren Rottet. My favorite is a vertically stretched marble bust by Jaume Plenza of Crown Fountain fame. Glittering bronze chain-mail drapes soften and separate the lobby from the busy plaza. 

The second-floor reception desk is served by eight elevators, ensuring a no-wait assent. The elevator cabs sport a glitzy collage of architectural facades applied to mirrored surfaces. The reception desk occupies a two-story space with spectacular views down the river and to the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The monumental room contains a suspended art installation of 500 glass-blown "pebbles" lit from above with LED lights. A composition of elegant lounge seating and two intimate fireplaces complete your first impression. 

Goettsch and Partners served as architect of record, and London-based interior designer Richmond International was responsible for the interior design, while David Rockwell conceived the restaurant and nightclub. All of the team members displayed a respect for Mies' highly rational "skin and bones" architecture while providing designs that challenge the master's iconic restraint. Everything starts with the panoramic vistas of the river and the Loop. 

Opposite the lobby, a reception desk and geometric screen, framed by wine racks, is a compelling composition defining the restaurant and bar named Travelle. Playing off the word "travel," the restaurant's concept was inspired by the popularity of Mediterranean travel in the late 1960s when the IBM Building was conceived. The dining room, with a glassy, open kitchen as the focus, sets the tone for this elegant yet functional room. 

The unique, pinwheel-shaped bar anchors the corner with views to Marina City and the Loop. In the spirit of the '50s and'60s, which is echoed in the design of the mid-century modern-inspired room, a beverage trolley moves through the bar and lounge serving cocktails tableside. 

Geometric floating banquets offer socializing opportunities, with one wall containing a 30-foot-long by 8-inches-high digital art display by Yorgo Alexopoulos while another sports an embedded geometric "computer chip" painting by Peter Halley.

Mies has proved a simple orthogonal plan is highly adaptable when considering a radical change of use, such as offices to hotel. I wonder how well the current crop of flamboyant skyscrapers will live and adapt to the changes sure to come. This project has demonstrated Mies' strategy that a second life can be an elegant one.

Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, a member of the village's Historic Preservation Commission, and an adjunct full professor at the School of the Art Institute. 

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