Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Named Among Top Artistic Breakthroughs in Chicago History

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and S. R. Crown Hall

Chicago Magazine selected Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and László Moholy-Nagy as two of the most important artistic breakthroughs in Chicago history in the September article “Chicago’s Top 40 Artistic Breakthroughs,” recognizing Mies’ design of campus master plan Illinois Institute of Technology and especially S. R. Crown Hall as the beginning of “a second golden age for Chicago architecture,” and Moholy-Nagy’s founding of the New Bauhaus, which became the IIT Institute of Design.

After being forced to close the Bauhaus school in the early 1930s under political pressure from the Nazi regime, Mies emigrated to the United States from Germany to head the architecture school at the Armour Institute of Technology in 1938. After working to “rationalize” the architecture curriculum with a back to basics approach, Mies’ second task was the expansion of the south side campus.

In 1940, Armour Institute and Lewis Institute merged to form Illinois Institute of Technology. Armour’s original seven acres could not accommodate the combined schools’ needs, and Mies was encouraged to develop plans for a newly expanded 120-acre campus. Not since Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia (1819) had an American campus been the work of a single architect.

Mies’ original proposal called for a more traditional layout of several large buildings grouped around an open space, but in his final master plan he embraced Chicago’s rectilinear street grid and designed two symmetrically balanced groups of buildings. Mies’ academic buildings stood in sharp contrast to the patrician campuses of the past. They embodied 20th century methods and materials: steel and concrete frames with curtain walls of brick and glass. The sleek urbanism of IIT’s campus was a reflection of both the university’s technological focus and the decidedly blue collar, first generation college student heritage of its predecessor institutions.

The Master Plan created an oasis of calm that emulated the opennes of the Midwestern prairie in the midst of the chaotic surronding city. Mies’ buildings are both magisterial and harmonious, and they set a new aesthetic standard for modern architecture.

Indeed, Mies’ designs have so pervaded our definition of architecture that it is difficult to imagine how revolutionary, even radical the campus was when it was first built. Mies went on to design some of the nation’s most recognizable skyscrapers, including the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York City.

Whether or not you agree with Mies’ assertation that less is more, his contribution to the modern urban landscape cannot be overlooked. Learn more about Mies’ life and work with the Mies van der Rohe Society.

Filmmaker, photographer, and graphic designer László Moholy-Nagy fled Nazi Germany for Chicago the same year as Mies, and brought the Bauhaus tradition with him to found the New Bauhaus at the Prairie Avenue mansion. Moholy-Nagy’s commitment to the unity of art and technology made him one of the most influential art and design theorists of the first half of the 20th century. He coined the term New Vision to characterize his belief that photography could introduce a whole new way of seeing the world and became a leading experimenter in both photographic technology, photomontage, and photogramsimages created by laying objects on light-sensitive paper.

Moholy-Nagy brought this creativity and his European experiences to the educational programming of the New Bauhaus, but the school lost its financial backing after only a year and closed. Walter Paepcke, chair of the Container Corporation of America, however, continued to support the school, and it reopened as the School of Design in 1939, becoming the Institute of Design in 1944.

Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia in 1946, but the Institute of Design stayed alive and became part of IlT in 1949. Moholy-Nagy’s influence was strongly felt even after his death, as faculty and students of the Institute of Design led the development of post-war commercial photography. The Institute of Design has evolved into one of the nation’s leading educational centers for innovation and human-centered design today.