March 7, 2008

Modernism’s Siren Song, Restored
Krueck + Sexton refocuses the buildings that inspired skylines across the world

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: Krueck & Sexton’s renovation of 860–880 Lake Shore Drive will sharpen the features of a definitively influential residential high-rise, the form and structural systems of which have been emulated the world over. Their work will restore the two buildings’ shared travertine plaza, replace glass panels in the lobby, fix lighting scheme distortions, and repaint the buildings. The architects were challenged by the buildings’ strict Miesian dimensions and proportions and the need to preserve both the buildings’ original appearances and the established social history and patterns of use.

How do you . . . renovate a historic residential Modernist masterpiece?

Pity poor Mies van der Rohe. When he and his throng of mid-20th century European expatriates washed up on American shores, their goal was to create a new Modernist language beyond style and trend, timeless in its perfection—an architecture of eternal ideas and ideals.

That didn’t happen. Modernism, too, became a fashion, although it was the defining mode of the century, and still is. Whether reacting against the International Style or acting concurrently with it, it’s hard to build anything without making some kind of comment on the legacy Mies helped establish. For many, this legacy is embodied by the apartment high-rises at 860 and 880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. One of the first glass-and-steel high-rises ever built, its wild success reproduced it into ubiquity; some might say excessively so.

But what was once hoped to be timeless has aged, and iconography guarantees no shield against the passage of time. So when Krueck & Sexton Architects of Chicago were given the opportunity to renovate the two buildings, their goals were to protect Mies’ timeless vision and to transform its cultural vitality into a bulwark against the creeping comodification of architecture.

“By taking good care of it, we’re ensuring that we’re going to pass this fantastic artifact on to the next generation to take care of,” says Krueck & Sexton’s Rico Cedro, AIA. “By being good stewards of the building as a cultural artifact, we’re also being good stewards of it as an environmental artifact.”

The fix
Built in 1949–1951, 860 and 880 Lake Shore Drive rise up 26 stories on the banks of Lake Michigan in Chicago, the city with the broadest sampling of Mies’s American work, according to the New York Times. The two buildings are some of Mies’ most severe and influential examples of minimalist composition and structural honesty. An early curtain wall system of clear glass panels attaches to a simple steel frame painted black. What you see is what you get, and nearly all there is. The two identical towers are set perpendicularly to each other and a travertine plaza connects and unites them.

Cedro’s firm principals Mark Sexton, FAIA, and Ronald Krueck, FAIA, both attended the Illinois Institute of Technology where Mies taught from 1938 to 1958, and the firm had previously renovated the college’s architecture school, S.R. Crown Hall, which Mies designed, in addition to other Mies buildings in Chicago.

Krueck & Sexton were hired by the buildings’ residents to fix insensitive renovations that have distorted the original lighting scheme and significantly deteriorated the travertine plaza to the point where water has infiltrated the parking garage below ground. The renovation will replace the aged travertine stones with more historically accurate matches, restore the original translucent glass in the lobbies, and repaint the structure in its signature Mies black.

The Lake Shore Drive Apartments have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980 and have been a City of Chicago Landmark since 1996. Because of these historical designations, Krueck & Sexton (as well as preservation architect Harboe Architects and forensic and structural analysis firm Wiss Janney Elstner) had to bring a very literal restoration to the building. Cedro and his firm began a forensic investigation into the structures in the summer of last year and hope to be finished with the restoration by December of 2008. Along the way, they were aided by one-of-a-kind historical sources. The Art Institute of Chicago had the original pencil-on-linen drawings of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive.

“We could see every erasure that was made on the drawings,” says Cedro. “We could see where they struggled with certain details and others that seemed to be quite effortless.”

Dogma in the dimensions
So resolute was Mies’ commitment to structural honesty and simplicity that Cedro says he suspects Mies couldn’t abide by simple diagonal wind bracing, instead employing perpendicular haunch frames to bond the beams to the columns. Even though these supports wouldn’t be visible, Mies couldn’t even mislead himself about the structural systems of the building. “Mies knew it would always be there,” says Cedro. “My sense is that it was quite deliberate.”

Cedro says such dogmatic dimensions and proportions of 860–880 were an unforgiving and exacting palate for renovation. “What was given to us in terms of dimensions we really had to stick to,” he says. “Because it’s a minimal structure, there’s not a lot of space to do things.”

As a result of these renovations, Cedro says his firm learned more than they might have expected about the day-to-day operations and performance of the building. They encountered ventilation and building envelope problems that can’t be addressed with the current round of more superficial renovations, but Cedro says knowledge of sustainability practices helped him to understand how all the buildings’ functions and systems are related.

Preservation without isolation
The most critical challenge for the Krueck & Sexton architects to meet is applying the restoration to a fully functioning building that already has a rich social history and pattern of use. “You’re not putting it in a vitrine like you do with a work of art or archaeological object in a museum [where the] relationship is purely visual,” says Cedro.

Especially with residential projects, the architects restoring 860-880 have to preserve without isolating—to preserve in a way that allows the building to be an active partner in the dynamic social patterns that come with a structure that is inhabited 24 hours a day. The building “acts as a player upon them; they act as a player upon it,” says Cedro. “When you really spend a lot of time up close on a great work of art, it’s like spending three or four years restoring a painting. You really get to know all of it very intimately in all of its glories and all of its flaws too, and I think the flaws reveal part of the story of the building.”

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Visit the Krueck & Sexton Architects Web site.

Read former New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp’s appraisal of Mies’ work in an Art Institute of Chicago exhibit from 1993—“Chicago Architecture and Design: 1923–1993.”

1. and 2. Photos © Hedrich Blessing.

Photos 3, 4, 5, and 6. courtesy of the architect.