On campus with Mies, Corbu and Saarinen.

A student of modernism will recognize Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Eero Saarinen as designers of tables and chairs, but some may be surprised to recognize the work of these masters on American college campuses. In honor of the upcoming academic year, we’re looking at three buildings on the campuses of Illinois Institute of Technology, Harvard and MIT.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was originally trained as a bricklayer before becoming a master of proportion in other materials, like steel and glass. It’s also ironic that Mies directed the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), as he had no formal architectural training of his own. Mies had a strict, meticulous approach and a belief in using only the finest materials. The precision with which he worked and the timeless architecture he created were the result of looking, studying and spending time with a problem until he was fully satisfied with an ordered and logical solution. Even after he mastered the principles that would forever define his work, Mies remained a student of materials and technology. “I don’t want to be interesting,” said Mies. “I want to be good.”

The S.R. Crown Hall, built in 1956, was the last of seven buildings Mies designed for the IIT campus in Chicago. In 2005, the S.R. Crown Hall underwent a $3.6 million restoration, kicked off when Mies’ grandson, Dirk Lohan, took a sledge hammer to one of the Hall’s windows. The privilege to do this to a National Historic Landmark was something Lohan won the right to in an eBay auction (he paid $2,705). The building houses IIT’s College of Architecture, which was directed by Mies for 20 years, ending in 1958, two years after his S.R. Crown Hall was built. Never one to add unnecessary ornament, the exterior of the rectangular building is made up of a steel frame with clear and frosted glass walls. The interior is an open, universal space, which Mies created so it could be adapted to meet changing needs. Visit the building when class is in session and you’ll find it filled with drafting tables at which students work by natural light coming through the 18-foot-high floor-to-ceiling windows.

While Mies created buildings that appeared almost to be floating, Le Corbusier built a “tight, dense world…where space seems almost carved out of tense volumes.”1 Early in his career, Le Corbusier was apprenticed to Mies, and while the latter would go on to have a 30-year career in America, Corbu would not find the same success. In fact, there is only one building on the North American continent designed by Le Corbusier: the Carpenter Visual Arts Center at Harvard University. The building, which was completed in 1963, houses the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Shortly after breaking ground to build the Center, Corbu was awarded the 1961 gold medal from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Upon accepting the medal, Corbu said, “I live in the skin of a student,” referring to his desire to find new ways to apply industrial design to built structures, which he called “machines for living.” An early teacher of Corbu’s, Charles L’Eplattenier, told him to “Learn every possible form of classic art – and forget it as quickly as possible in order to create something new.”

The Carpenter Center stands five stories tall, with a ramp through the building to encourage circulation and make visible the light-filled studios where students paint, draw and sculpt. Francesco Passanti, a Le Corbusier scholar, has compared the experience of walking by these studios to that of being on a train as it passes another train going the opposite direction. The fact that the Visual Arts Center does not blend in with the rest of Harvard’s brick and ivy-covered campus was intentional, as doing so would have been a contradiction. “Architecture,” said Corbu, “goes beyond utilitarian needs. You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart. You do me good and I am happy and I say, ‘This is beautiful.’ That is architecture. Art enters in.”

Le Corbusier was called “the Leonardo of our time” by Eero Saarinen, whose campus commissions included the Noyes dormitory at Vassar, the Kresge Auditorium and Chapel at MIT and the D’Angelo Law Library at the University of Chicago Law School. Barack Obama taught constitutional law at this school from 1992 to 2004, but he did not experience this building as it exists today, following a $32 million renovation completed in 2008. Saarinen’s concrete-framed six-story Law Library, with its “pleated” dark glass, was originally completed in 1959. The structure is devoid of the grey limestone, gargoyles and spires that are characteristic of the rest of the gothic campus, but it doesn’t conflict with them either. “Saarinen referred to his style as ‘neogothic,’” wrote critic Judith Russi Kirshner, “yet the very structure and materials – glass, steel and concrete – exemplified a contemporary aesthetic objective and philosophical idea of clarity.”

Saarinen’s design called for open areas that encouraged discussion, and the recent renovation has stayed true to that goal, while adding the best tools of the digital age to the collaborative, inviting work space. Unlike Corbu and Mies, who created open flexible areas that could change with use, Saarinen created the Law Library for the University of Chicago law students, and not for anything else. “The overall concept seeks to reflect the importance to the legal profession,” said Saarinen, “of both the written and the spoken word.”

The D’Angelo Law Library is not open to the public. For access to the Carpenter Center and S.R. Crown Hall, check with Harvard and IIT, respectively.

1. The New York Times, “Architecture: Mies at National Gallery,” October 20, 1979.