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June 13, 2024

A pop-culture revisionist appraisal of Mies van der Rohe finds IIT as part of something perhaps greater than itself 

A Living Room for Bronzeville
Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)
Through September 2024

There are not one, but two, View-Master toys on display in A Living Room for Bronzeville, an exhibition at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) focused on how Mies van der Rohe’s epochal vision of the modern campus inflicted itself on its neighborhood.

Invented by a Black IIT graduate Charles Harrison, the first View-Master accompanies media and ephemera on the cultural vitality of the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood where IIT is located; a historic Black cultural enclave that was derided as a slum, and largely sacrificed to Mies’s vision. This View-Master acknowledges this ignored vibrancy, and seems to promise a look in on it—exoticizing it perhaps, but offering a joyful way of seeing. The second View-Master is a commemorative trinket celebrating the 2005 restoration of S. R. Crown Hall. Presented alongside fragments of Mecca Flats, the best-known architectural victim IIT’s development, and Jurgen Joedicke’s A History of Modern Architecture with S. R. Crown Hall on the cover, this View-Master offers a darkly canonical view of Mies and IIT; an allegedly more perfect world, imposed on the old order from above.

Postcards with images of the first red brick Armour Institute buildings (Bud Roedecker @ Span/Collection of Michelangelo Sabatino)

Between the two View-Masters is a complicated and revelatory story about how IIT emerged, the destruction left in its wake, and how it justified the act.

In A Living Room for Bronzeville, Michelangelo Sabatino, who curated the Driehaus Foundation–supported show and directs the architecture PhD program at IIT, tells this story with everyday objects and popular media. It’s a modest show that compresses a contested narrative into six small vitrines in the lobby of the Galvin Tower on IIT’s campus, deriving its moments of discovery not from didactic signposts, but from the loosely themed juxtaposition of objects in small spaces. It’s focused almost exclusively on material that could have been available to any midcentury media consumer. “The conventional archive of drawings and photographs are simply not enough to tell a complicated story like this one,” said Sabatino. The show was developed alongside a book edited by Sabatino and Kevin Harrington, IIT professor emeritus, as well as a documentary film.

It’s not the first show to a take revisionist, contextual view of Mies, but it is the most attuned to a wider, non-architect audience. The first step toward breaking out of the hermetically sealed ecosystem of Miesian cultists is the realization that IIT (originally the Armour Institute, named for founder and meat-packing baron Philip Armour) did not spring fully-formed from Mies’s ruminations. There was already a school here with its own institutional culture. The first vitrine focuses on this civic and team spirit, with toy box cars and pennants emblazoned with Armour heraldry. Postcards with images of the first red brick Armour Institute buildings (some of which are still part of campus) offer a strong counterpoint to Mies’s flat rectilinearity.

meat container
A tin of Armour spiced meat circa the 1970s (Bud Roedecker @ Span/Collection of Michelangelo Sabatino)

A tin of Armour spiced meat (“with natural juices”) circa the 1970s is perhaps the most compelling single object in the show. It’s not unlike a modernist tower tipped on its side, in its machine-pressed precision and ubiquity. This is how industrial standardization and mass production was actually experienced by Americans: as a procession of disposable consumer goods that aren’t actually good for you, not as an all-encompassing environment expertly tuned to serve as a catalyst for exultant humanism. Mies’s vision of modernism and mass production may have evolved from Bauhaus ideals of universal proletariat uplift, but it often used that legacy as cover for the fact that it was deployed a luxury good. It’s also a reminder that even something as idealized as IIT’s legacy of poetic minimalism had its origin in grubby commerce, shucking tinned slop into wobbling boxcars.

The second vitrine foregrounds Bronzeville’s cultural vitality, with pages of Esquire splayed open to show off a map of local jazz clubs. A photo of Mahalia Jackson’s brick South Side home, bucolic and lushly landscaped, preens in contrast to the austere Robert Taylor homes.

A later vitrine demonstrates the myth-making capacity of IIT, presenting Mies and his prototypical modern campus via a copy of Inland Architect featuring Mies on its cover 17 years after his death, and other contemporary design journals. Here, a about staunch Mies compatriot Ludwig Hilberseimer features his antiseptic high-rise necropolis on its cover, which gives viewers a fierce contrast to the teeming, messy, often impoverished and deplorable—but always alive—urbanism of Bronzeville. The book is titled In the Shadow of Mies, and beyond Hilberseimer, this could be referring to vast swaths of the South Side, whether inhabited by IIT, or the public housing high-rises that paired Mies’s modern program with racist housing policy—another high-minded veil that failed to obscure the problems of the midcentury city.

Pages of Esquire are splayed open to show off a map of local jazz clubs (Bud Roedecker @ Span/Collection of Michelangelo Sabatino)

The show concludes on an intimate note, with recent archaeological finds unearthed from the IIT campus by Rebecca Graff of Lake Forest College and her students; remnants of Armour-era buildings. There are soup bones, a toy solider, marbles, and porcelain doll feet. At a community event celebrating the exhibition, Sabatino lugged some of these objects to the Bronzeville Historical Society. “That’s very different than if you were to put them in front of a drawing,” he said. It’s hard to imagine Mies schlepping even his most prescient renderings of the future to anyone that wasn’t his client, and that this outreach and recognition of history is happening from within IIT is a step forward.

Archival image of Armour campus (Courtesy IIT)

The biggest, and largely implicit, question hanging in the air at the end of A Living Room for Bronzeville is whether the modernism of this era could have been relational; if it could have listened to people that were outside its narrow circle, and based its program on collaboration instead of dogma. Later designers, during the 1960s community design movement, would learn to work in collectively solidarity, “instead of shooing out Gwendolyn Brooks” said Sabatino, but this was a reaction against the Miesian consensus on top-down planning. The ironclad belief in technocratic rationalism that buoyed Mies and IIT seems fundamentally opposed to populist expression, which makes the inclusion here of popular media all the more refreshing. Letting small, simple things tell a big story is decidedly un-Miesian, but was undeniably how the impact of Mies was felt by those he never asked after.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist and critic that focus on how architecture and landscape architecture intersect with public policy.

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