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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

September 2006 Issue

Moving Beyond Mies
Can a landscape redesign that invokes the spirit of Alfred Caldwell improve a modern masterpiece?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Moving Beyond Mies Moving Beyond the Mies: Leslie Schwartz

The pairing of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell for the design of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) campus was a surprising one.

The German-born Mies promoted an international modernism with little direct reference to indigenous materials. The Bauhaus tradition that Mies and his architecture faculty at IIT epitomized embraced a bold future where functional design transcended the constraints of geography and, especially, the historicism of nineteenth-century architecture. Beginning in 1940, two years after his arrival on campus, Mies would design 18 buildings for IIT and influence thousands of others throughout the world. For the Bauhaus and its practitioners who emigrated from Germany to the United States, Machine Age design could be applied at any scale ranging from kitchen utensils to entire cities. The history or ecological nuances of a project’s location mattered little.

Caldwell, by contrast, was a local Chicago-area practitioner who is still relatively unknown in the history of American landscape architecture. He was a protégé of legendary Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen. Between 1924 and 1929, Caldwell assisted Jensen on some of his most important projects, including the Edsel Ford Estate in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan. Caldwell described his mentor as “the great symbol of my life.” He was also strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he visited at Taliesin (Wright’s home estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin) in 1927 at the recommendation of Jensen. Caldwell’s landscapes and indigenous stone buildings show a strong Wrightian influence in the way foundations seem to flow out of the ground and buildings wrap the visitor with very tactile limestone. He carried this theme back to Chicago, where he designed several park projects, including the Lily Pool in Lincoln Park in the late 1930s.

The Lily Pool project so impressed Mies that he originally took it to be the work of Wright. As he got to know Caldwell, Mies became interested in his ability to draw and his understanding of how to abstract the native Illinois landscape into forms that work in city parks and campuses. In the 1940s, Caldwell began to collaborate with Mies’s IIT faculty and ultimately graduated with architecture and planning degrees to become a faculty member.

At the IIT campus, Caldwell’s abstraction of the Illinois landscape took the form of scattered groves. Through the late 1940s and 1950s, Caldwell worked with a mostly native palette that included honey locusts, elms, hackberries, and white oaks with an understory of redbuds, serviceberry, and hawthorns. Few plantings were placed around the bases of the new modern buildings with the effect that the plants stood out on the flat ground planes.

Yet, as often happened on campuses in the postwar years, Mies’s architecture took precedence over landscape investments. Through the 1950s, the campus grew along the orthogonal layout largely envisioned by Mies’s 1940 master plan. Turning away from its neighborhood and Chicago itself, IIT became its own environment, a modernist radiant campus where “landscape” became not so much a cultural and ecological context as the visual foreground for buildings.

Crown Hall, the architecture school and Mies’s masterpiece, floats in space, hovering over plinths of green lawns with cascading planes of travertine steps. Now a National Historic Landmark and 50 years old, Crown Hall exemplifies Mies’s vision for open, flexible architecture.

Yet even as IIT continued to grow, its South Side neighborhood rapidly deteriorated. Despite the changes in the world around it during the 1950s and 1960s, IIT continued building Mies’s designs and a handful of other buildings designed by noted Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects Walter Netsch and Myron Goldsmith. Throughout this time, Mies worked with Caldwell to build his vision of “a campus in a park” with buildings set amid pools of forested open space.

When postwar building on campus ended in 1971, the campus remained largely unchanged for the next 25 years. The “L” corridor endured as a windswept gash separating academic and housing zones, buildings began to deteriorate, and there were few hubs for campus social life. Equally serious, with the creation of new campuses in downtown Chicago and suburban DuPage County, enrollment on campus dropped from a peak of 6,000 in 1970 to 3,200 by 1996.

‘‘You can’t imagine how desolate this campus felt in the mid-1990s,” recalls Donna Robertson, Affiliate ASLA, who serves as dean of IIT’s College of Architecture. In 1995, the university debated whether to completely relocate to Chicago’s suburbs. During this time, one college-ranking publication listed IIT as one of the most unpleasant campus settings in the nation.

It was at this critical moment that noted Chicago architect Dirk Lohan offered to develop a new master plan for the campus. An IIT trustee and Mies’s grandson, Lohan had the authority to question previous assumptions. His plan’s boldest suggestions were to build a long residential structure on the half block between the “L” and State Street to screen the train and to enclose the lawn left unbuilt to the north of Crown Hall. Also in front of the “L,” he proposed a new campus center along with an international competition to select its architect. Ultimately, Rem Koolhaas was selected from a rich field of noted designers for the campus center, and Chicagoan Helmut Jahn was commissioned for the housing project.

In 1999, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), in association with Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture, completed a landscape master plan that set forth proposals for circulation, tree species, ground covers, lighting, and a combination of straight and curved paths.

Thanks to Lohan’s master plan and the major donation of $120 million by trustees Robert Galvin and Robert Pritzker, the campus began a steady process of rebirth. In this process, as further refined by the 1999 landscape plan, the legacy of Alfred Caldwell returned to prominence. Even though Koolhaas’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center and Murphy/Jahn Inc.’s State Street Village residential hall complex stand in distinct contrast to the previous Miesian idiom, Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Schaudt, ASLA, found inspiration in the long-neglected groves of Caldwell. His landscape palette of largely native locusts, hackberries, redbuds, and hawthorns could become a new fabric to hold the campus together.

One of the most astute observations of MVVA’s landscape master plan, subtitled, “After Mies and Caldwell,” is that the landscape work was never really completed. “The Miesian plan for the west campus laid down a strong overall structure, but a corollary landscape master plan for the campus was not forthcoming,” the plan stated. The result was that Mies’s seemingly open and flowing spaces can be poorly suited frames for Caldwell’s clusters of courtyard trees that draw attention inward. What most likely happened was that buildings were built incrementally and the connective landscapes of paths and streets were never fully funded.

The report also notes that misguided incremental changes such as the plantings of dwarf evergreen shrubs and exotic flowers “are of a domestic landscape scale and material type that is completely at odds with both the Miesian architecture and Caldwell’s intentions for a regionally specific landscape.” Such horticultural “beautification” plagues many historic campus landscapes across the country regardless of their age and architectural styles. Sadly, in the past 50 years, campus managers have forgotten that readily available decorative plantings are no substitute for the long-term stewardship of campus forests and the spatial structures that they achieve.

Campus planning and renewal can never be credited to one person or firm. In looking over the master plans and designs beginning with Lohan’s seminal 1996 Main Campus Master Plan, MVVA’s 1999 IIT West Campus Landscape Master Plan, and Schaudt’s implementation designs for the landscape elements, it’s clear that all three efforts form a greater whole.

The rebuilding of State Street and the Crown Hall Field (2001) are only the first of several projects that Schaudt has implemented as a result of the MVVA Landscape Master Plan. In succeeding years his office has designed and completed projects for the realignment of Federal Street with Caldwellian plantings by the Main Building (2002) and three courtyards with birch bosques at the west entries to State Street Village (2003). Still in process is a replanting and new streetscape for the IIT research park at the campus’s southern edge and a new plaza at the IIT Tower on 35th Street. The four completed projects won a 2005 ASLA General Design Award of Honor. IIT’s story of rediscovering and expanding its historic designed landscape exemplifies how designers can collaborate to realize master plans over time.

The Experience of Being There

On this flat campus, just a few feet of grade change can immerse you in a much quieter and calmer world, even though busy State Street edges this space on the east. On a spring afternoon, you can look north from Crown Hall to see students sitting on the benches or throwing a Frisbee in the sunny opening of the flat expanse. Once slated to be a solid modern structure, the lawn is now a sun opening in the campus forest much like one of Jensen’s openings in the woods where a council ring might be set. It’s an outdoor room that shows the adaptability of IIT to change within the strong frame of existing buildings.

The Lohan and MVVA master plans took the definition of “campus landscape” to a more urbane level. More than just trees and grass, IIT’s landscape today, especially along State Street, expresses an improved sense of enclosure, movement, and metallic urban materials. By placing the new McCormick Tribune Campus Center across State Street, a new hub is created between the still somewhat bleak housing district to the east and the academic core to the west. Murphy/Jahn’s State Street Village creates a definitive eastern street wall that literally leans outward to the boulevard and campus while concealing the noisy “L” tracks behind it. Koolhaas’s campus center does just the opposite in squatting low beneath the “L” tracks to celebrate them with a 530-foot-long sound-muffling tube.

Yet there is still much more to be done. After years of deferred maintenance, many of the residence halls and academic buildings are showing the wear of rusting window frames and construction built before modern energy-efficient practices. The campus currently bears little relationship to Lake Michigan, even though it is located only a few blocks to the east. Yet with the right vistas, along with the greening of 31st to Lake Michigan as discussed in the Lohan plan, a greater sense of connection could be achieved with the booming new neighborhoods of Lake Shore Drive.

One opportunity is to create stronger visual connections between the campus and the famous downtown skyline, only about 20 blocks to the north. Currently, you can catch a glimpse of the Sears Tower or parts of the skyline from only a few locations such as Morton Park or Wabash Avenue at the eastern entry to the campus center—and, of course, the “L” station. But what if more of IIT’s flat roofs became green and open to campus residents?

The private roof terraces in the new Campus Village project provide some of the best views of Crown Hall, the red brick Armour Hall, and the Loop. Coupled with residence hall renovations offering more loftlike apartment spaces that today’s students desire, the campus could significantly expand its on-campus, 24-hour population.

Landscape Preservation That Embraces Change

The real challenge for IIT and its future campus management is to preserve the spirit of Miesian modernism not as a set of static forms but as a continuing willingness to experiment with new materials, technologies, and ideas. Recently, the entire campus, including its landscape, was added to the National Register of Historic Places, so future projects are subject to The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes.

Yet historic landscape preservation, especially the treatment of modern-era landscapes, remains a new and inexact process. Because the designed landscapes of any era are inherently more ephemeral than buildings, their treatment over time must be more open to change. Especially on college campuses like IIT, new elements such as lighting, universal design amendments, and new signage are essential to institutional viability.

Can the spirit of Mies and Caldwell be preserved at IIT while leaving room for new advances in ecology and a broader plant palette? Pure preservation of modernist landscapes is not only highly costly, it can contribute to their growing irrelevance to user needs and sustainable practices. As IIT renews its residential life areas, how can new plantings and site design show respect for IIT’s “character-defining features”?

Future landscape development can demonstrate the use of rainwater gardens for runoff treatment, green roofs, and prairie restorations along rights-of-way such as along the “L” corridor. As one of the area’s most serene green spaces, Caldwell’s adjacent Morton Park also needs attention. Located on the campus’s northern edge, the park should be planted with a new generation of Caldwell’s trademark species and additional native spring ephemerals and sedges while reinforcing the walls of its oval-shaped open lawn.

Quiet areas such as Morton Park and the aging plantings in zones such as the Residence Towers and the Greek Life Quad offer design opportunities for a twenty-first century interpretation of Caldwell’s work. Just as Schaudt’s design for State Street extended Caldwell’s palette to a busy city street, future landscape architects working on campus and IIT’s new landscape architecture program that will begin admitting students this fall should explore broader planting solutions that respect the spirit of Caldwell’s spatial structures while offering a broader range of sustainable understory and ground plane treatments.

As a region set in an ancient lake bed, Chicago and the IIT area are built over many strata of limestone. Although the campus reflects the region’s historic flatness, future cuts into the ground planes can reveal the area’s geologic horizons for interpretation and teaching. On-site stone can, in turn, be used to create a new vocabulary for seating walls, dry-laid paving, and sign bases. This kind of assertive design is anathema in many state historic preservation offices (the regional agencies charged with National Register compliance). Yet who can say that Caldwell, Jensen, and their peers would not approve if they were working today? Why can’t campus landscapes remain “historic” while also becoming more sustainable than their original palettes allowed?

Architects Koolhaas and Jahn have moved beyond Mies with built forms and materials unimaginable in the 1950s. Yet their new buildings are true to Mies in their sheer daring and use of industrial materials. Can landscape architects devise equally contemporary yet compatible solutions for quads, lighting—which has never been fully realized—and parking? As Peter Schaudt argues, “IIT’s landscapes of the future have to stop decorating Mies and be much more assertive both spatially and ecologically.”

Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian, campus planner, and regular contributor to Landscape Architecture.

Resources

  • “Dialectic in a Landscape,” by Paul Bennett; Landscape Architecture, October 1999.
  • Alfred Caldwell: The Life and Work of a Prairie School Landscape Architect, edited by Dennis Domer; Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • “Rehabilitation in Context: Alfred Caldwell’s Planting Design for the Illinois Institute of Technology—Rediscovered and Interpreted,” by Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA; Vineyard, vol. II, issue 1, 2000.
  • The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s Parks, by Julia Sniderman Bachrach; Staunton, Virginia: The Center for American Places, 2001.

Project Credits
“IIT in the Landscape: 1999 Illinois Institute of Technology West Campus Landscape Master Plan”: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. (Matthew Urbanski, principal; Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, principal). Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture Inc. (Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, principal; Chandra Goldsmith, associate, project manager). “Main Campus Master Plan,” 1996: Lohan Associates. Crown Hall Field: Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, design principal in charge; Chandra Goldsmith, associate, project manager. Stone contractor: Lansing Cut Stone Co. Landscape contractor: Church Landscape and Clarence Davids & Co. Civil Engineer: Daniel Creaney Co. Electrical consultant: Jose de Avila and Associates. Fountain consultant: Naturescape Design Inc. Arborist: Chuck Stewart, Urban Forest Management. Construction manager: Janet Rogatz, Cotter Consulting. State Street Boulevard: Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, design principal in charge; Chandra Goldsmith, associate, project manager. Lead master planner consultant: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. Owner: Chicago Department of Transportation. Construction manager: Chicago Department of Transportation and Christopher J. Weullner, Civiltech. Landscape contractor: Edward J. Lovelace, Meranjil Landscaping Company. Civil engineer: Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates Inc. Owner’s representative: Janet Rogatz, Cotter Consulting. Federal Street: Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, design principal in charge; Stephen Prassas, ASLA, associate, project manager. Construction manager: Cotter Consulting. Civil engineering: Terra Engineering. Stone contractor: Lansing Cut Stone. Landscape contractor: Clarence Davids & Company. Arborist: Chuck Stewart, Urban Forest Management. State Street Village: Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, design principal in charge; Stephen Prassas, ASLA, associate, project manager. Civil engineer: Terra Engineering. Construction manager: Architectural Services Group. Soil consultant: Jim Urban, FASLA. Plant prepurchaser: Laurie Damgaard, Green/Planned Landscapes. Landscape contractor: Christy Webber Landscapes and Robert Ebl Inc.

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