Throw the Box Away

Mies_box

It’s a brick box. No windows. One sign on the wall that says “PTSM –>” The building is known as “the Test Cell” or “the Gunnery” because,
rumors say, it was used to test explosives during the Cold War, but no one knows for sure what it’s being used for now, if anything. And it’s become the snail darter of the historical preservation world.

The building is slated for tear down to make way for a commuter railroad station serving the IIT campus, upon which the building sits; the White Sox’ home park US Cellular Field; and the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood. Preservationists are fighting to protect the building because it was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who also designed most of the rest of the IIT campus on Chicago’s South Side.

No one claims that the building enhances Mies’s reputation as a modernist master, but preservationists argue that we don’t pick and choose which Picasso paintings we like, then throw away the rest. Besides, the Metra station doesn’t have to be placed right there. It can be moved further south. The city has a long history of demolition projects we later regretted, and this could be another one.

Writing in today’s Chicago Tribune, architecture critic Blair Kamin endorses the plan to demolish the building. Kamin has been an energetic defender of threatened modernist structures throughout the region, but he’s writing the Mies building off.

These advocates are vastly overstating the merits of a building that is
utterly dispensable. They are engaging in hero worship when they ought
to be thinking dispassionately about what, if anything, this building
means in the broader arc of Mies’ career and the very real consequences
that would result from stopping or significantly slowing construction
of the Metra station.

Historic preservation should not occur in an urban planning vacuum.

Preservationists should be more careful about the fights they choose, Kamin argues. And he’s right. Architecture exists in a living context. We should preserve every historically significant building we can, because architecture is part of our shared cultural history. But not every homely little box is worth preserving. If architects are going to argue that their design labors invested in new buildings make them more useful, then once a building has long outlived any use whatsoever–and a new one can do so much for the community–it should be torn down. In other words, you can’t argue that path-breaking new designs aren’t just expressions of architects’ egos, then turn around and say that a useless building has to be preserved because it’s an expression of a dead architect’s ego.  That position diminishes contemporary architecture, and the works of architects from the past.

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2 Comments

  1. Once I got over the idea of Mies I decided I really hated what his influence did to Chicago. Big, sterile glass boxes certainly countered the ornate relics of the past – but in their own dotage do not hold up well – for me. As to the pill box – oy vey. “Design” and this building probably should not be in the same sentence. Whyever would anyone want to keep this?

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  2. That was one of the main drawbacks to the International Style: it was inexpensive and (apparently) easy to design, so the style was picked up by a lot of hacks. However, I was walking through the Federal Building Plaza a couple of weeks ago and, to my mind, the Mies buildings there have stood up to time. They’re still elegant and serene, if a bit foreboding.

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