The Ultimate Mies: The IBM Building

The IBM Building, Chicago, IL. Photo by author

by guest author Elisabeth Logman

To the casual onlooker the IBM Building may appear to be just one modern highrise among many in Chicago, but the building’s prototypical character speaks volumes about the powerful influence of the building’s iconic architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies came to Chicago in 1938 from Germany to serve as Dean of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology (then called Armour Institute), and by the time of his death in 1969 he had designed some of the Chicago area’s most recognized modernist buildings, including the IIT Campus, the Federal Center Complex, fourteen apartment buildings, most notably 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, and two corporate office towers, including the IBM Building. He also designed the Seagram Building in New York, which is widely considered a masterpiece of corporate modernism.

The lobby level of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive shows Mies’ characteristic use of columns to form the base of his highrises. From Architecture in Detail Chicago by Thomas J. O’Gorman.

His work has inspired countless skyscrapers that rely on the Miesian formula, which utilized prisms of black steel and glass to create monolithic buildings that rested on airy, columned bases. Each of Mies’ highrises represented new iterations of this basic formula, but his final—and arguably most challenging—commission, the IBM Building, shines as on of his most sophisticated achievements. Mies’ office received the commission in 1966, the year he turned 80. By this time his health was failing and his staff was handling much of the day-to-day work, but Mies remained actively engaged in the significant decision-making for each project. He died in July of 1969, shortly after the completion of the plans, and the building itself was finished three years later in 1972.

The IBM Building is a pure and powerful expression of his style and an example of his deftness with materials. The simple, boxy massing forms what is essentially a 52-story rectangle that is defined by Mies’ hallmark use of steel and glass. Another signature element is the exposed vertical I-beams, which draw attention to the verticality of the building while also revealing the structural framework. Mies’ previous designs, including 860-880 Lakeshore Drive and the Seagrams Building relied on this signature formula of steel and glass geometry, but the IBM Building represented a leap forward both in its internal technology and the use of the awkward 1.6-acre lot that the building sits on.

Looking north toward the IBM Building and Marina City. Photograph by Hedrich Blessing.

As home to IBM and its computer systems, the building required precise temperature control, which was a challenge given the vast expanse of glass. The engineering firm of C.F. Murphy collaborated with IBM to set up a sophisticated heating and cooling system that continually responded to weather conditions, but Mies also incorporated groundbreaking design elements, such as double glazed window, a thermal barrier, and a pressure equalization system that integrated climate control mechanisms into the very fabric and design of the building.

Looking west toward the IBM Building and the Marina City towers. (Photo by author)

Perhaps a more visible example of Mies’ problem solving was his carefully calculated use of the site, which posed a number of challenges. Sandwiched between Wabash and State Streets on the north side of the Chicago River, the awkward triangular site was already small and it was further constrained by underground rail lines and a pre-existing agreement to provide onsite storage for the neighboring Sun-Times building (now demolished). Mies’ solution was to locate the building on the north side of the lot, which left an expansive plaza on the south side while aligning the building with Bertrand Goldberg’s neighboring Marina City towers. This calculated setback also avoided prevented any additional incursion on the existing lake view looking east. Mies’ careful approach to the IBM Building site was successful as an individual achievement, but it also refuted the frequent criticism that Modernists generally, and Mies specifically, were not sensitive to the context of their projects.

The west side of the lobby of the IBM Building. (Photo by author)

Ultimately, the IBM Building showcases iconic design, functionality, and a seamless integration into its context. Its architectural significance was officially recognized with City of Chicago landmark designation on February 6, 2008, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. IBM moved out in 2005, but the American Medical Association recently signed a 15-year lease and plans to move into the building in 2013, when the building will be renamed the AMA Plaza.

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