Big Mac a la Mies?
It has been nearly 10 years since architect Mies van der Rohe died, but his firm in Chicago is alive and busy-designing, of all things, a huge new world headquarters complex for the McDonald's hamburger empire.
The German-born Mies, as everyone called him, was one of the two most influential architects of this century. The other was the Swiss-born Frenchman Le Corbusier, who died in 1965, and whose romantic sculptural style was the very anthithesis of Mies' steel-and-glass classicicm.
Mies was an esoteric bon vivant. At the height of his career in Chicago he lived in a Victorian apartment house rather than one of the pristine glass towers that made him famous. He loved good wine and Paul Klee paintings. He worshiped the abstract idea of technology, but was a highly individualistic craftsman and artist.
He would not have touched a massproduced hamburger with a chromed I-beam.
Yet, I think the master would approve of the new McDonald's headquarters complex located amidst manmade lagoons in Oak Brook, III., which his associates have designed. "Ja, das ist good," he might have observed after a long look. He might have been mildly bemused about this ungeometric slackening of his rigid less-is-more architectural discipline.
Mies never changed, he only perfected his style, from his first work the Perls house in Berlin of 1911 to his last-Berlin's new National Gallery, which was completed after his death in 1969.
Although he tried to create a universally valid architecture for our mass culture (a Mies building in Mexico looks no different from a Mies building in Chicago) he created and perfected it alone. He never associated with anyone. It was always just Mies van der Rohe.
Only at the very end when, at age 83, his body began to fail him, did his assistants persuade Mies to form a partnership so that his work would survive him. The principal partners were Joseph Fujikawa, who had studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology; Bruno Conterato, a Mies student who worked with him all his professional life; and Dirk Lohan, Mies' grandson, who had studied in Germany before he came to America to work in his grandfather's office.
The new partnership was called "The Office of Mies van der Rohe." It is now called Fujikawa Conterato Lohan and Associates, or FCL for short.
In contrast to the successors of Frank Lloyd Wright, who practiced a perfumed cult, rather than architecture in Taliesin West in Arizona, there is not a trace of sentimental hero-worship at FCL.
The firm is no longer located in an old loft on Ohio Street, but is in one of its own buildings-a very Miesian one-in Chicago's burgeoning Illinois Center. It is an 83-acre "city-within-a-city" being built on an abandoned railroad yard along the Chicago River just east of Michigan Avenue. The complex, which includes a major Hyatt hotel, was planned by FCL with a vast labyrinth of undergoing shopping concourses, parking, a new subway station and traffic arteries.
Mies never did any urban planning, but focussed entirely on the individual building. His successors have broadened the Miesian prespective.
"Obviously, we see ouselves rooted in the Mies design philosophy," says Dirk Lohan, Mies' grandson. "But with these roots, which are strong, We are branching out. We see architecture as more than the individual building. We also see architecture not exclusively as art, but as a response to human needs."
"Tomorrow's buildings," Lohan adds, "must offer new solutions because the chaning times will demand them." Back in 1957, when he studied at IIT, his grandfather's rather doctrinaire academy, he would have been excommunicated for such heresy. Although Mies himself was tolerantly amused by architectural heathens, his disciples were convinced that wellporpotioned glass panels in an elegantly lithe, black steel frame were the universal solution to creating "universal spaces."
You still see an abundance of black steel grids forming plain boxes on stilts as you wander around the FCL drafting room.
But you also see freehand sketches, some graceful curves, planning studies examining the relationship of buildings to one another, and photographs of buildings with people in them -things unseen in Mies' studio.
The most un-Miesian project in the shop is a terraced townhouse megastructure that covers an entire city block, somewhat reminiscent of Mosche Safdie's famous Habitat '67, the sensation of Montreal's Expo. Six rows of two-story townhouses are stacked in the configuration of an "A." The roof of one house serves as garden-patio for the one above it. The lofty space inside serves as a covered park, with shops and community buildings and meeting places.
Mies' successors won the McDonald's commission in an invited competition. The design breaks up a huge corporate headquarters (it also serves as a center for hamburger research and development and a training school for franchise holders) into several small buildings grouped in a relaxed, sylvan setting.
One will hardly see the buildings for the trees and the water. Further more, most have large terraces on all floors as well as inner courts to help bring people into contact with nature. All parking is underground. From the looks of the model, this complex could be a fancy summer resort as easily as a corporate establishment. The complex is designed to blend with nature, a revolutionary departure from the Miesian aloofness from nature.
The architectural detials of the buildings, however, are strictly Miesian, demonstrating what German architects at the inception of the modern movement calld "Neue Sachlichkeit." This is commonly translated "functionalism;" a better, though perhaps awkward translation is "matter-of-factness."
At any rate, the building's design vocabulary is not new; but as Mies once said: "I would rather be good than original." CAPTION: Picture 1, McDonald's Headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill.; Picture 2, FCL design for terraced housing in Chicago.