Moving Beyond Mies
Can a landscape redesign that invokes the spirit of Alfred Caldwell
improve a modern masterpiece?
By Frank Edgerton Martin
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian, campus planner,
and regular contributor to Landscape Architecture.
- “Dialectic in a Landscape,” by Paul Bennett; Landscape Architecture,
- 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
- The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s
Parks, by Julia Sniderman Bachrach; Staunton, Virginia: The
Center for American Places, 2001.
“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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