CHICAGO -- The pandemic. The unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd. Rampant looting in downtown Chicago. Against that chaotic backdrop, it was moving earlier this week to experience the profound calm that characterizes the architecture of master modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
On the first floor of a newly renovated building at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the campus on Chicago's South Side that bears Mies' unmistakable imprint, floor-to-ceiling glass framed a serene view of honey locust and hawthorn trees. The looting that had ransacked downtown stores earlier that morning seemed far away.
The building I was touring was not S.R. Crown Hall, the clear-span, steel-and-glass masterwork that's home to IIT's architecture school. It was, instead, George J. Kacek Hall, a workhorse nine-story building that Mies designed in the mid-1950s as faculty, staff and married student housing and that Chicago architect Dirk Denison has creatively converted into an undergraduate dorm.
Kacek Hall's concrete and brick exterior is squat, lacking the perfect proportions and elegant refinements of Mies' iconic, steel-and-glass high-rises at 860 and 880 North Lake Shore Drive. But it speaks with an honest, sometimes stirring, voice.
Concrete columns step back as they rise, reflecting the lighter load they carry. As at 860-880, a masonry plinth lifts the building above quotidian clutter. Instead of being interrupted by massive walls, space flows through the building's base, courtesy of stiltlike columns and a recessed lobby sheathed in glass. Corner columns feature a signature Mies detail, the re-entrant corner.
After Denison's $22.5 million remake, this solid work of mid-20th century modernism has emerged with a respectfully refreshed exterior and an interior that messes ever so slightly with Mies to respond to how students live today. Even the sometimes-overzealous defenders of Mies' legacy, the so-called Mies police, are unlikely to object to the result.
Among other things, the project reveals how architects who do high-end work -- Denison's portfolio is filled with custom-designed, single-family homes for the superrich -- can apply wisdom from such jobs to those with considerably lower budgets.
Originally called Bailey Hall and now renamed for an IIT-trained engineer who bequeathed a major gift to the university upon his death in 2018, Kacek Hall rises at 3101 S. Wabash Ave., just east of the Green Line elevated tracks. Students were moving in Monday, two weeks before classes start.
COVID-19 still cast a shadow. To minimize crowding and the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the 328-bed dorm at first will house about 170 students. The elevators are supposed to be used by only one person at a time. Some furniture has been removed from the building's expansive student lounges to promote social distancing.
Nonetheless, the exterior has a new sheen after a gut rehab directed by Denison and his project architect, Justin DeGroff,, both graduates of IIT's architecture school. (Denison teaches at IIT.) The architects had contractors strip the building down to its concrete skeleton and elevator cores, then went about bringing it into the 21st century.