Frank Lloyd Wright

Small Steps (1960)

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14823224407_4a1b684304_bMies van der Rohe, Crown Hall, Neues National Gallerie

I arrived in Chicago, following the family’s charade visit to relatives in nearby Hinsdale, and found myself on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, a carefully organized place of tan brick and black painted steel, designed and constructed by the famed architect Mies Van der Rohe. I’d, of course, never heard of him. My singular architectural touch-stone was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work is dotted through the city and region. The IIT campus is a perfect example of Miesian style: a formalist kind of perfection working within a narrow, northern Germanic-derived pattern. It stood out as an anomaly, buried in the dominantly poor black ghetto of Chicago’s Southside, though it was also adjacent to a once Irish-Italian neighborhood, Bridgeport, home to many of the city’s mayors.

On one of my first days there, dressed in quasi-preppy DC-suburban Bermuda shorts, I decided to take a walk of 20 some blocks to the Hyde Park neighborhood, the home of the University of Chicago. Somewhere along the line, maybe 5 or so blocks south of IIT it dawned on me that mine was the singular white skin to be seen, and though I’d been brought up in the desegregated schools of the military, and in Virginia had frequented the black shanty town near my Fairfax home, I suppose I’d never been in a dense urban black-only ghetto. A fear entered me, and literally I began to whistle, as I tried to play the innocent 17 year old nonchalant, just cruising on through deepest darkest Africa. Twenty nervous blocks later I got to UC safe and sound, and took the El back. A local lesson learned.

southside chicagoFotos: John H. White

At IIT, I vaguely recall being assigned to a dorm room, which initially I shared with an Arabic student, I think from Saudi Arabia, there to study engineering. He was Muslim and prayed his five times a day. This didn’t last long, whether he or I asked for a change I don’t recall at all, though my guess is it was probably him. Not because of anything I did, but of what I didn’t: pray, be Muslim. Next in line was a fellow from Milwaukee, Ron Gutkowski – of working class Polish origins. We hit it off OK, though as I recall it was his intention to go in the Army and I already knew that wasn’t going to be my case. For some years I’ve tried to track him down, in part to see if he survived Vietnam – so far no luck.

Meantime in classes I got my serious dose of Mies, as the school functioned essentially to produce clones of Mies, a kind of architectural fundamentalism. Luckily the school was on the first floor of Crown Hall, one of Mies’ masterpieces: a vast open glass box space, with no interior columns, divided only by low partitions. The entire architectural department was there and as the partitions were open one could wander from the freshman area on through the grad school and see it all. I did, and over the year felt I had soaked up the entire 5 year course.

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6f6126d24e0492b5f3161509b1ed231d  Carson Pirie Scott Building

auditoriumMies, Louis Sullivan

The freshman classes never broached architecture, but rather dwelt on discipline: an architectural drafting class using T-square, triangles, and a year of drawing lines, grids, each requiring hours to make and designed to require perfection. At the time I found it irritating, as did my fellow students. Only later did I see the wisdom in this process. Other classes included free-hand drawing – models from life, visits to the botanical gardens, taught by a woman from the old German Bauhaus. And classes including algebra, economics and things of that kind required to graduate.

Within 6 weeks of being there I realized that architecture was a kind of corporatized business, and that I clearly wasn’t going to fit in. I also quickly realized I’d never get a degree. And I figured out how to game the system. As apparently is still the case in many colleges and universities, there one could sign up for a class and if you dropped it before six weeks were up, it never appeared in the records. So, knowing I wasn’t aiming for a degree, I dropped any course I didn’t like or at least didn’t like because of the way it was taught, and out the window went those basic degree-requirement courses. In turn after one semester I was on the Dean’s Honor List, Mr. Straight A’s. And I got another scholarship!! For a 17 year old I was learning fast.

At the same time I quickly gravitated toward the more Bohemian sorts in my class, and by the end of the first semester I’d connected with a handful of folks that led to me leaving the dormitory, and into an apartment block in the next door neighborhood, the Italo-American one next to IIT.

During that first period I leaped head-first into the arts world, going to the Art Institute Museum where I was quickly acquainted with the Impressionists, on up to the contemporary art world of Rothko, Pollock, Warhol and others. I went to some concerts at the Auditorium building, (Segovia, from the top-most seats, marveling at the amazing unamplified acoustics; van Cliburn and others), to some opera, and at the same time to the Maxwell Street area on weekends, listening to blues on the street, and once with an older friend, heavily into Chicago blues, going into the nearby apartment room of an old blind black blues singer, to hear him there. Myself, I played folk music, getting Sandburg’s American Songbag, and learning a sizable chunk of now-forgotten folk-tunes. My Virginia background convinced some of the college guys that I was the real thing, an Appalachian country folk warbler. I, of course, knew better, but it was a fun gig.

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At the same time I broke the Miesien strangle-hold imposed by the architecture department and rapidly acquainted myself with a range of others, from Louis Sullivan and Burnham & Root, to Corbusier, and the then-current crop from Ero Saarinen to Paul Rudolph and many others. Liking Corbu was considered heresy in the department, as was any variance from the Miesien grid. That rigidity merely underlined my inclination to flee.   I had a professor, in the terminology the time, who was a Negro, Charles Sharpe.  I rather liked him and we got along well, even if he was firmly of the Miesian religion of “form follows function,” and was busy teaching his students to make rubber stamp Miesien copies – which litter the midwest with poorly done copy-cat buildings by the students of this architectural factory.   This was the aesthetic base of Miesien logic, in which the structure of a building is in effect exposed, and shows how it stands. So with his buildings the basic frame is exposed, even celebrated. Crown Hall was a crowning example: four deep girders spanned the building, visible above, and hanging from it the smaller I-beams of the actual roof; from the edges hung vast windows, floor to ceiling. One could (sort of) see the entire structure. Having had this drilled into me as a catechism, I went up to see one of Mies’ new apartment buildings rising up on the North Side, the 2400 Lakeview Apartments.  They’d poured the reinforced concrete skeletal structure and I noticed that the columns were rather deep 2.5 to 1 rectangles, and that they were cladding the columns with some aluminum sheathing, but so that it appeared the columns were square in proportions. I went back to Professor Sharpe and told him this, probably with bit of sarcasm, and said in effect, “Well, what about this form follows function?” He initially denied that it could be so, but as he worked in Mies’ office, he was able to get a basic blue-print, which, lo and behold, showed exactly what I’d seen on the site with my own eyes. Mr. Sharpe ate humble pie. And I suppose my wariness of a certain kind of religious-like fundamentalism sharpened.

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In hindsight I very much appreciate my year there at the architectural school, as I was able to quickly absorb most, if not all, of the 5 year learning process in a fast year, courtesy of the open Miesien lay-out of the place, and my own hyper-eager desire to cram as much into my naive self as I could. But, I had quickly concluded, architecture was not to be my future – though I remain a serious buff, and would like, before I drop dead, to build at least one thing.

In December, classes over, I went to New York City, to my supposed new home on the then-military base on Governor’s Island, off the tip of Manhattan.  During the short three and a half months I’d had on my own, my somewhat would-be preppy 17 year old self got exchanged for something more grungy and rebellious. Having left Fairfax with a military crew-cut – the only permissible way in the household – when I went to my new, never-before-seen “home” I had whatever length one’s hair can grow in 100 days.  Maybe it was an inch and a half long.   I do recall odd looks from the jar-head military people on the ferry over, and then on the base.  Arriving at the front door of my alleged new home, I knocked.  My father answered the door, and the first words he said were, “get a haircut.”  I did an immediate about face, and left, and did not return, but went straight back to Chicago.  I am told my mother was devastated, and over the next months she apparently convinced my father that I should be allowed to do as I wished.  Perhaps a touch prematurely for me, the 60’s had arrived.

Detoured from architecture, in the late winter and spring of 1961, I cast about for an alternative, and without telling my parents a word of it, I applied to an art school in Britain, the Bath Academy of Art, sending them some samples from the drawing classes. I was accepted, and in June of that year I took a train from Chicago to Montreal, to catch a ship sailing up the St Lawrence to France, and then the UK. I’d saved from my monthly $100 allowance from the family to pay for all this, and had arranged it all without a nod to them.  Some dies had been cast.  It seems, at least in my head, I’d decided I would be some kind of artist.

LouisSullivan-1Louis Sullivan design