For many Modernist masterpieces, 'the future' toward which their sleek designs propelled us came much sooner than even their creators could have imagined, leaving us to answer the question, 'What do we do with them now that the future is here?'
Mies van der Rohe’s last project and a late entry in the Modernist canon, the 52-story IBM Building in Chicago, dedicated in 1972, was well ahead of its time in many aspects. Winning the first Midwest Excellence Award for Energy Conservation from the Federal Energy Commission, it was among the first curtain-wall designs to employ thermal breaks, and used tinted double glazing to cut UV rays and match its bronze-anodized aluminum cladding. Despite these features and its deployment of all the classic Mies moves - travertine marble, expressive gridlines, a Spartan, high-ceilinged lobby, column-free floorplates - the fast-changing needs of the American company most synonymous with 'modernity' in the 20th Century meant the pristine spaces were first subdivided, then gradually emptied and, only 33 years on, abandoned entirely.
The legendary skyscraper was tossed around like a hot potato between numerous owners from 1996 to 2008, who floated various plans ranging from multi-tenant offices to condominiums to hotels, which resulted in the clearance of several floors before the 2008 financial crisis stopped work.
Hope sprang anew when Langham Hotel Group acquired the first 13 floors and announced plans to install a new luxury hotel in the vein of its successful London flagship. The move apparently inspired others; the turning point for the tower came when the upper office floors were taken by the American Medical Association in December 2012. The building is now on the eve of its Sept. 3 rededication as AMA Plaza, and the Langham Hotel Chicago at its base has just opened.
Purists would probably never be satisfied with any redesign of a Mies building but Langham has produced a bronzed beauty so gorgeous you can forgive it for being 'unfaithful'. A team of designers - Richmond International on upper-floor public spaces and guestrooms, van der Rohe’s grandson Dirk Lohan on the ground-floor lobby, David Rockwell on resto-bar detail and Goettsch Partners as architects of record – has produced a winning and consistent experience in tune with the spirit of our times, if not the letter of Mies’.
Contrary to earlier reports, the hotel is neither a reproduction of Late Modern style nor an abandonment of it in favor of comfort details that connote a 'traditional' sense of luxury - read: crown molding. While there are soffits and chandeliers above and graduated chair rails here and there, this is not an Edwardian assault on the Atomic Age. It’s a synthesis of themes and eras that might have devolved into schizophrenia in the hands of lesser designers.
The design offers a sophisticated take on the dynamism of global travel, while simultaneously exerting a calming influence. Choices such as replicating the lobby’s original caramel-colored travertine in the guest bathrooms provide continuity without overweening verisimilitude. There are also small gateaux for the trained eye throughout - the mesh screen in the lobby recalls IBM’s predecessor scrim in the Seagram’s Four Seasons while the circular lamp sconces in the Revelle restaurant nod to the honeycomb-shaped neighbor Marina City. A chain-link pattern on the carpeting is picked up in the fogged glass framing the bathroom mirror.
For those who must have the real thing, Lohan has placed authentic Mies furniture throughout the ground-floor lobby. The rest of us can be contented with honeyed light and warmly-toned surfaces throughout, which recall the swaddling melodrama of a Mad Men episode - without the stale cigarette smoke that would have accompanied the 'real thing' - hough there are cigarette-shaped lighting standards in the lounge. Richmond International’s custom-designed cellarettes may not be authentic period pieces but their lacquered, curved profiles, drop-down trays revealing espresso machines and hermetic doors concealing minibars and drawers replete with mixology tools. You have to wonder why the world hadn’t thought of them earlier.
The 'reveal' glass separating the bathroom tubs from the bedrooms as could be seen as contemporary voyeurism gone wild, or as an ode to Mies’ famously transparent Farnsworth House - either way, it can be dismissed into gray opacity with the push of a button. If one finds the Easter-Island-like visage of Jaume Plensa’s seven-foot alabaster head a disconcerting seatmate in the lobby, familiarity beckons in the form of numerous William Wegman dog photos hung in the guestrooms. In total, there are more than 140 pieces of art in the 316-room Langham. Lauren Rottet has skillfully selected a variety that should appeal to a range of tastes.
It’s clear Richmond understood the challenge they were undertaking.
“There is that juxtaposition between a very clean and tidy building and a hotel interior,” says Fiona Thompson, Principal at Richmond. “They are realistically rather at odds with each other, so you try to respect things like the material palettes of the building, but obviously it has a different level of detail than the original office building had. Inevitably there is going to be criticism, because it’s not how Mies originally intended it, but we have tried to keep it clean and simple, protect the façade, so that when you experience it, it’s all about the city, the relationship to the urban environment. All of those elements have been maintained.”
Clearly, there are choices throughout the project that are not 'what Mies would do'. The harshest critical eye will most likely be turned on Lohan, who holds the unenviable position as steward of the legacy and inheritor of the challenging task of dividing the most publicly-visible and cleanest space - the lobby - into something that would allow the hotel and office sections to function separately. Floor-to-ceiling 26ft glass walls separate the hotel and office lobbies and cut off an original pass-through between elevator banks. While Lohan attempted to make the glass as unobtrusive as possible, there is no getting around the fact that this was never intended to be a multi-tenant building with the security and privacy concerns the 21st Century demands.
“Technology has moved on dramatically, and so all of those things that we’re putting into the building are never going to be what would have been used originally,” Thompson says. “It’s not a museum, and if these buildings are going to survive and become part of society they have to be adaptable.”
Surely, the man who developed a technologically sophisticated building for what was then the most technologically sophisticated company on the planet, and who preached the elimination of forgoing styles, would understand that architecture moves on. The instant the visitor comes in from the bustle of the street, 330 North Wabash still projects strength, modernity, reserve, and cool. And if it is no longer a beehive for Organization Men, the former IBM building is still a vessel that 'creates order out of the desperate chaos of our time'.