“Buildings by Modernist master Mies van der Rohe have reached an age where they may require rehabilitation. Recent examples include alterations to the 1972 Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, D.C., by Mecanoo and to the 1968 Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin by David Chipperfield. Both projects involved painstaking restoration. In Chicago, for the $70 million makeover of three dormitories, which form a quadrangle at the northeast corner of the Mies-designed campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), architect Dirk Denison took a different approach.
“When we think of Mies, we usually think of elegantly detailed curtain walls with refined vertical proportions. But these nine-story, 72,000-square-foot dorms, originally completed between 1953 and 1955, are more modest. Alternating horizontal bands of buff-colored brick and aluminum-sash windows fill their exposed concrete frames. Former Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin calls them ‘workhorses,’ in contrast to ‘masterworks’ such as Crown Hall, the much-revered 1956 steel-and-glass landmark, which is home to IIT’s College of Architecture and was faithfully restored by Krueck Sexton Partners and Harboe Architects in 2005.
Does a workhorse deserve the same deferential preservation as a masterwork? That depends on several factors, including how badly the buildings have deteriorated. Deferred maintenance had rendered these unhabitable. Water penetrated roofs, basements, and brick knee walls, which had no weep holes to let it out; radiant heating in concrete floors was beyond repair; and windows, badly corroded, single-glazed, and thermally unbroken, rendered interiors defenseless against Chicago’s weather extremes. As a result, the dorms sat vacant for 10 years.
Then, there was the renovation budget: approximately $300 per square foot and a condensed schematics-through-construction schedule that ranged from 15 to 18 months for each building.
“‘A reliable preservation motto,’ says architectural historian Michelangelo Sabatino, who, like Denison, teaches at IIT, ‘is repair, don’t replace.’ But Denison and project architect Justin DeGroff, working in a design-build partnership with Gilbane Building Company and guided by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, determined that little beyond the painted concrete frames and brick-clad elevator cores could be salvaged. ‘We recognized,’ says Denison, ‘that we needed to go beyond preservation into what we’ve been calling ‘heritage renovation.’ Our first and most crucial decision was to set a constraint: we would maintain the exterior appearance in line with Mies’s design intent.’
“Denison completely rebuilt the exterior envelope. He replaced the outer wythe of brick, matching the color as closely as possible while adding insulation and moisture management behind. New windows look much like the originals, but with insulating glass and thermally broken aluminum frames in a clear anodized finish. On the ground level, floor-to-ceiling glass enclosures now have double glazing. To accommodate its additional thickness, the architects had to beef up the storefront-style framing, but they diminished its visual impact, ironically, by adding a signature Mies detail that had not been there: the re-entrant corner.” (Gauer, Architectural Record, 11/14/22)