With the recent opening of the Langham, Chicago hotel inside 330 North Wabash Avenue, there’s been a lot of focus on Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 skyscraper.
Usually mentioned only briefly on architecture tours, this elegant structure doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves. Perhaps because it is often overshadowed by the popular Marina City “corncobs,” and more recently by the assertive Trump Tower. But I would argue that both Marina City and Trump Tower are better and stronger because of the elegantly dark slab between them.
I.B.M. has been in Chicago since 1914, and by the late 1960’s was experiencing a period of tremendous growth. To create a signature headquarters building, it naturally turned to one of the most renowned names in modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies had lived in Chicago since the late 1930’s and was the head of the Architecture Department at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His stripped-down, but luxurious, perfectly proportioned glass and steel structures fit the post-war American corporate aesthetic perfectly.
With a newly purchased 1.5 acre plot between State Street and Wabash Avenue on the Chicago River, construction of One IBM Plaza began in 1969. The office of Mies van der Rohe, along with associate architects and engineers C.F. Murphy Associates, created a design that followed the successful pattern set down by Mies in the late 1940’s. The iconic 20th-century technology corporation found its perfect complement in the iconic modern architect.
It would be the last building that Mies would design. He died in August 1969, before it was completed. It would be one of his tallest buildings — his tallest in the United States at 52 stories and almost 700 feet.
Construction was completed by 1971 and thousands of IBM employees began moving in from the company’s former regional headquarters on South Michigan Avenue. But the official dedication wasn’t held until September 20, 1972. A small bronze bust of Mies by Italian sculptor Marino Marini was unveiled in the lobby in honor of the late architect.
One IBM Plaza was a technologically advanced building for its time, thanks in no small part to I.B.M.’s unique requirements. Not only did the building have a powerful electrical system to handle the room-sized computers of the era, but the floors were extra strong, the ceilings extra tall, and the heating and cooling systems specially created to control and distribute all of the the computer-generated heat. Four banks of eight sophisticated elevators meant virtually no waits for tenants. The windows were among the first designed with thermal breaks to insulate the structure and minimize the oven-effect of earlier glass buildings. The result was one of the world’s most energy efficient skyscrapers –then and now.
The location was, at first, a challenging one. When Mies first saw the small, irregular site (then a parking lot) he asked, “Where’s the site?” The building’s design also had to traverse and accommodate the railroad tracks and storage space below that served the adjacent Sun-Times building.
Mies overcame those challenges while fitting the tower gracefully into its context. It was sited magnificently up and back from the river to allow an expanse of plaza and to avoid the visual obstruction of Marina City, completed just a few years before. The position also made the most of the lake views to the east. It is one of the few Miesian projects that contains a single tower, as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin put it, rising in “solitary splendor.”
The structure of the building is expressed in the large stilt-like columns – pilotis – left bare at the ground level. These columns are also visible behind the windows – as is the Miesian way – as they extend all the way up through the building. I-beams are welded to the anodized aluminum exterior of the building to emphasize its structure and verticality, while adding pattern and texture to the building’s curtain wall. Beyond the arcade formed by the pilotis is the 26-foot tall, glassy lobby, which gives the building a sense of weightlessness.
One of Mies’ most successful and noteworthy designs, architecture writer Lynn Becker calls it the “apotheosis of the skyscraper.”
It is in many ways similar to Mies’ other high rises: rectangular, well-proportioned, unadorned steel and glass, but everything seems to have come together here exceptionally well. Becker asks, “Has any other architect — including even Louis [Sullivan] himself — ever bested Mies in realizing Sullivan’s vision of the tall building as ‘every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation, that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line?’”
After a quarter of a century as its midwest home, I.B.M. sold the building, and by 2006 its employees had moved out. Other tenants began vacating as well. Without its marquee tenant, the building became known by its address, 330 North Wabash.
In 2004, the Sun-Times building was razed to make way for Trump Tower. A year later, the owners of the largely vacant building contemplated converting to condominiums; and in 2007, to a hotel. But neither idea came to fruition.
The building was declared a Chicago Landmark in 2008 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, the youngest Chicago building on both lists.
That same year, 11 lower floors of the building were bought by Langham Hotels International. And in 2011, the American Medical Association announced that it would move its headquarters and 1,100 employees to eight of the top floors of the building. The Langham, Chicago opened this month and the A.M.A. is scheduled to move in by September. The building will soon have a new name: AMA Plaza.
For now, much of the excitement at the building surrounds the premiere of the Langham Hotels line in Chicago. One of the world’s most luxurious hotel brands, well-known in Europe and in Asia, Langham is expanding in North America. The Langham, Chicago is the first hotel in the world inside a Mies building. The soft-opening was July 10th, while the formal grand opening is set for September.
The second through the fourteenth floors of the building have been fully converted to a posh hotel, complete with 316 spacious rooms and suites, a spa with pool, ballrooms and meeting rooms, a tea room based on the one in the first Langham Hotel in London, an upscale restaurant, as well as many other amenities. The look and feel of the hotel is in keeping with Langham’s rich, contemporary design aesthetic: soft colors with fine furnishings and art.
Former office floors have even been converted to two-story spaces by removal of I-beams. Goettsch Partners of Chicago oversaw the architectural conversion.
I visited on a recent afternoon and was given a royal welcome. I’ve never had so many people vying to open doors for me. Entering from Wabash (the revolving door was “started” for me…), I was welcomed by one of the Chanel-suited greeters who was more than happy to answer my questions and show me the lobby space.
Designed by Mies’ grandson, architect Dirk Lohan, the glassy lobby with white travertine walls maintains the original modern, transparent feel of the space while adapting it for the hotel’s use. A highlight is the lounge space, which features cream-colored, Mies-designed furniture and a large, mesmerizing alabaster head by Jaume Plensa (of Crown Fountain fame) called “Anna.”
I was then taken to the second floor by an actual, specially-trained butler who normally works on an upper guest floor, but was assigned to the lobby for the afternoon. He was more than happy to introduce me to the concierge staff and show me more of the public spaces. He informed me that Travelle, the all-day Mediterranean restaurant and bar led by executive chef Tim Graham, formerly of Tru, and designed by the Rockwell Group, is still in preparation.
The expansive, two-story second floor contains the reception lobby with a desk designed by Lohan, based on an original design from the famous Farnsworth House. One’s eye is immediately drawn to the glass ceiling pebbles by lighting design company Lasvit, of the Czech Republic. They are inspired by “the movement of the Chicago River…colored glass chosen to represent the reflective and fluid qualities of water.”
A concierge filled me in on the architecture, design, and art in the hotel. More than 140 pieces will be featured throughout, including a work by Anish Kapoor (best known locally for Cloud Gate [“The Bean”]) in the Chuan Spa fourth-floor hallway.
I was welcomed to take photos and look around. Everything looked and smelled shiny and new. Finally, I was bid the most civilized adieu with handshakes all around and wishes for my return.
But one caveat: If you want to photograph the bronze bust of Mies that stands on a pedestal off the main entrance, realize that it is located not in the hotel lobby, but in the office building lobby, and the niceties end at the glass doors. As I took aim at Mies, I was unceremoniously confronted by a security guard who barked, “No photography allowed!”
In this classic, glassy modern building with its floor-to-ceiling views of the surrounding city, a new chapter is unfolding…and it appears most likely that Mies’ final building will receive its due.