American Architecture Series
Second Chicago School

Origins, History: Mies van der Rohe, Skidmore Owings & Merrill.

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Second Chicago School (c.1940-75)


Origins and History
Mies van der Rohe
Lake Shore Drive Apartments
Structure is Paramount: Less is More
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
C. F. Murphy and Associates
Works by Other Mies-Trained Architects
Second Chicago School Building Designs by Mies van der Rohe
Seagram Building (1958)
Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower (1967-91)
Reaction: "The Chicago Four"

American Architecture Series
• For a general guide, see: American Architecture (1600-present).
• For earlier designers, see: Nineteenth Century American Architects.
• For an international view, see: Greatest Architects (1400-2000).

If you are looking for rare volumes
on Mies van der Rohe and
the art of building design,
see: Rare Art Books.


Not to be confused with the First Chicago School of Architecture, which flourished during the period 1880-1910, the "Second Chicago School" describes the type of skyscraper architecture which was taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) by Mies van de Rohe, and used by him in his architectural practice. Characterized by its focus on structure, its aesthetic minimalism and its use of glass and steel, it played a hugely influential role in 20th century architecture and influenced a host of American architects across numerous firms. Although the "School" embraced the works of other designers apart from Mies, it was he who initiated and embodied its style.

Origins and History

The origins of the Second Chicago School can be found in developments which took place in Europe during the 1920s, as architects - such as Le Corbusier (1987-1965) - searched for a "modern" style of architecture suitable for "modern man". Their goal was to create buildings that owed nothing to the past, and which would be highly functional. By comparison, in America during the late-1920s, despite the modern structural designs and building methods of the First Chicago School of Architecture (c.1880-1910), American architects seemed quite unenthusiastic about the typical rectangular shape of supertall buildings. They insisted on ornamention and seemed unable to break away from historical designs, inspired by either Beaux-Arts or Art Deco styles, a position exemplified by the ziggurat-like outline of the Empire State Building (1929-31), designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, and the flamboyant Art Deco crown of the Chrysler Building (1928-30), designed by William van Alen. At the heart of the issue was the excessive reverence felt by many US designers for European designs, in particular the Renaissance and Baroque architecture championed by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, or its interpretation of 18th century Neoclassical architecture.

As the Armory Show (1913) had demonstrated, almost two decades previously, European avant-garde art and design was considerably ahead of its counterpart in the United States. European artists seemed to be willing to embrace new concepts far more readily than their counterparts across the Atlantic. The Bauhaus Design School in Germany, for instance, had developed a set of aesthetics which paved the way for a style of public building known as "The International Style of modern architecture". This was an ultra-functional minimalist idiom, devoid of all ornamentation, which typically employed glass for the exterior facade, steel for exterior support, and concrete for interior floors and supports. Its name derived from the "International Exhibition of Modern Architecture" (1932) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which showcased structures which conformed to the minimalist template. Of these structures, almost all were designed by Europeans such as Walter Gropius, Jacobus Oud, Erich Mendelsohn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Alvar Aalto.

As it was, American architecture in the 1930s and 1940s was shaped by two major events: the Great Depression of 1929-39, and the approach of World War II. The first effectively curtailed all large-scale private building construction across the country, while the second prompted a mass exodus of artists and architects from Europe to the United States. Among these emigrant architects, who brought with them their experience of Bauhaus and International Style designs, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), who came to Chicago in 1938. It was Mies van der Rohe, supported by a general postwar desire in America for "modern" rather than "traditional" things, who acted as the catalyst for the emergence of the Second Chicago School.


Mies van der Rohe

The functional and stylistic characteristics of the Second Chicago School are exemplified by new residential apartment towers, which started to appear during the late 1940s, and new commercial office buildings, which appeared during the mid-1950s. Both types of structure owed much to the energy and ingenuity of Mies van der Rohe. A pioneer in the development of European modernism, Mies came to Chicago to run the School of Architecture at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology - now the Illinois Institute of Technology, or IIT - where he continued as director until 1958.

A number of his former colleagues, including Walter Gropius (1883-1969), also settled in the United States in the 1930s, where they too championed the cause of modernism by removing all obvious historical references in building design, so as to produce a more neutral and "high-tech" image. (See also the Hungarian modernist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) who emigrated to Chicago to set up the short-lived New Bauhaus School.) It was Mies, however, who benefited most from his new environment, not least because he found a receptive audience for his minimalist skyscraper architecture.

His first job was the reconstitution of the IIT campus, one of the most ambitious projects he ever conceived. Its revolutionary layout, landscaping and use of new materials, such as steel and concrete frames with curtain walls of brick and glass, exemplifies 20th century thinking - just like the rest of his architectural commissions.

Lake Shore Drive Apartments

After completing the redesign of the IIT campus, which did not reach the construction stage until 1944 but which nevertheless attracted significant national attention, Mies was lucky enough to meet Chicago property developer Herbert Greenwald, who commissioned him in the late 1940s to design a number of high-rise apartment buildings, which became tangible expressions of his core principles. A perfect example was 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51), Mies's first steel and glass skyscrapers, which were noted for their clarity and order, rather than ornamentation and opulence.

Structure is Paramount: Less is More

For Mies, structure was paramount, hence his emphasis on the rectilinear frame constructed of familiar building elements, including most importantly the wide-flange beam. Mies's buildings are typically dependent, for their exterior structural materials, on steel or (less often) reinforced concrete, along with broad expanses of glass. Like the Prairie Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies's skyscrapers blurred the boundary between interior and exterior space, as their glazed curtain walls became filters instead of barriers. Above all, Mies believed in creating friendly functional structures to serve people, rather than decorative structures to serve historical notions of artistic style. His focus on minimalism was expressed in his famous aphorism "less is more".

By the early 1950s, as a teacher, Mies van der Rohe had begun to produce a generation of students who shared his principles of design, while at the same time he had succeeded in impressing a number of independent architects and interior designers with his completed buildings. By the late 1950s, the first signs of a Miesian school were beginning to appear, most noticeably in Chicago. But within a decade, this "Miesian" school had expanded to become a "Chicago" school in order to reflect the growing body of Chicago architecture which was derivative but not directly imitative of him.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

The first major firm of architects to produce steel and glass high-rise buildings in keeping with the main characteristics of the Second Chicago School was Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), founded in Chicago in 1936 by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings. The Inland Steel Building (1957), the first high-rise construction in the Loop of the postwar period, was famous for its stainless steel frame, its exterior columns (positioned outside the curtain wall), and its column-free interior. After this came its two iconic tubular frame buildings: the 100-story John Hancock Center (1969), with its tapering wedge-shape and X-shaped support braces; and the 110-story, 1,451-foot tall Sears Tower (1974) (now the Willis Tower), still the tallest building in the United States. The key designers at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill whose architecture helped to define the Second Chicago School included the legendary Bangladeshi Fazlur Khan (1929-82) inventor of the tubular frame, Myron Goldsmith (1918-1996), the Colombian architect Bruce Graham (1925-2010), and the brutalist designer Walter Netsch (1920-2008).

Fazlur Khan's innovations in particular had (and continue to have) a huge impact on skyscraper design in Chicago and elsewhere. His revolutionary structural system of framed tubes, first appeared in the DeWitt-Chestnut Apartment Building (1963), Chicago, and afterwards in his John Hancock Center and Sears Tower, as well as in today's Trump International Hotel and Tower, the Petronas Towers, the Jin Mao Building, and other supertall skyscrapers.

C. F. Murphy & Associates

Another firm associated with the Second Chicago School was C. F. Murphy Associates (now Murphy/Jahn), who designed McCormick Place East (1971) (now called the Lakeside Center), a convention hall famous for its huge trussed roof and recessed glass walls, was designed principally by Gene Summers, a former student of Mies van der Rohe, who based it largely on Mies's National Gallery (1967) in Berlin. In addition, the firm's Jacques Brownson (1923-2011), who was the chief designer for the Richard J. Daley Civic Center (Daley Plaza) (1965) - constructed in collaboration with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett - was another former Mies student at IIT. Until the John Hancock Center (1969) it was tallest building in Chicago. The majority of the buildings at O'Hare International Airport were designed in the 1960s and 1970s by C. F. Murphy Associates, most in accordance with Second School principles.

Works by Other Mies-Trained Architects

Other important architects trained and influenced by Mies van der Rohe's ideas include: Bertrand Goldberg (1913-97) and Harry Mohr Weese (1915-98). Bertrand Goldberg, who was taught by Mies at the Bauhaus in 1932, is best known for his 65-story twin-tower corncob-shaped Marina City. The tallest residential concrete building in the world, when it was built in 1964, it is emphatically structural. And while Weese was more noted for his residential than commercial architecture, his 30-story Cor-Ten steel-clad skyscraper known as the Time-Life Building (1970) has a classic Second Chicago school facade.

The critical role Mies played in the Second Chicago School is apparent in the design of Lake Point Tower (1968), completed by George Schipporeit and John Heinrich, former students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who based their design on Mies's unbuilt design (1921) for a glass skyscraper on a site near Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. On completion, Lake Point Tower was the world's tallest reinforced concrete structure.

Second Chicago School Building Designs by Mies van der Rohe

In addition to his influential role as a teacher, Mies had a thriving professional practice and contributed numerous works that belong clearly to the Second Chicago School. As well as the IIT campus and the apartment towers at Lake Shore Drive (1948-51), both of which were paradigms of the new style, he designed the Federal Plaza complex (1964-71), consisting of today's Dirksen Federal Building, the U.S. Post Office (Loop Station) and the Kluczynski Federal Building. The loftiest Chicago building he designed was the 695-foot-tall IBM Building (1971) - today called 330 North Wabash - which makes the most of its prominent location on the north bank of the Chicago River. A small sculpture of the architect by sculptor Marino Marini stands in the lobby.

In addition to his modernist Chicago designs, Mies van der Rohe produced several other iconic buildings in his unique "International Style", which cannot be separated from his Chicago work. They include the Seagram Building and the Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower.

Seagram Building (1958)

The 38-story, 516-foot-tall Seagram Building skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan was designed by Mies van der Rohe, in collaboration with Philip Johnson (1906-2005), who handled the interior design, and Severud Associates who managed the structural engineering. Universally acknowledged to be one of the finest examples of the functionalist "International Style" and the definitive template of corporate modernism, it was designed as the headquarters for the Canadian distillers Joseph E. Seagram's & Sons. Their boss Samuel Bronfman provided a staggering $45 million to ensure that the structure wanted for nothing. And indeed, of all the high-rise towers that came after, none have exceeded its megalithic elegance.

Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower (1967-91)

The tallest structure ever designed by Mies, the bank tower forms part of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, or T-D Centre - a group of buildings in downtown Toronto, consisting of six towers and a pavilion - for which Mies served as design consultant to the architects, John B. Parkin & Associates, and Bregman & Hamann. Mies was permitted the widest possible latitude in designing the complex, and the result is a classic example of his International style modernism. It represents a fitting end to the evolution of Mies' North American career.


During the mid-1970s, following the death of Mies in 1969, the Second Chicago School suffered a rapid decline, although a number of later buildings display the structural simplicity associated with it. The main example is the Morton International Building (1990), designed by Perkins & Will, with Ralph Johnson acting as architectural consultant.

Reaction: "The Chicago Four"

In 1976, in protest against the exhibition "One Hundred Years of Architecture in Chicago" hosted by the city's Museum of Contemporary Art, which supposedly over-emphasized the importance of the role played by Mies and his followers, a group of postmodernist architects staged a counter-show in the Time-Life Building, which attracted significant attention. Known as "The Chicago Four" (later "The Chicago Seven"), they included Stanley Tigerman, Stuart Cohen, Larry Booth, and Ben Weese. Postmodernist art has significantly enriched architectural design, but in this case the complaint was misdirected: Mies wasn't the enemy. Indeed, thirty years later, in 2005, one of the Four's supporters, James Nagle described the issue as follows: "It wasn't Mies that got boring. It was the copiers that got boring... You got off an airplane in the 1970s, and you didn't know where you were." For more about postmodernist building design, see Frank O. Gehry (b.1929) the pioneer of Deconstructivism in America and Europe.

Nineteenth Century American Architects

For biographies of earlier designers, active in 19th century architecture, or as far back as the late Colonial era, please use these resources:

Greek Revival Style
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820)

Neoclassicist Style
William Thornton (1759-1828)
Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)

Gothic Revival Style
Richard Upjohn (1802-78)
James Renwick (1818-95)

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86)

Beaux-Arts Architecture
Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

Skyscraper Design
William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907)

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