A couple of years before I moved to Chicago I visited its cinematic alter ego, Toronto, and like many another visitor rode a ferry from downtown to the Toronto Islands a few hundred yards offshore. The view of the city from the islands is much like the one of Chicago from the tip of Navy Pier, except that between myself and Toronto’s skyline there was nothing but open water. Two tall buildings unlike any others that rose from the city's center quickly held my gaze—they were slender ebony towers that reminded me of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey
. I hadn’t seen buildings quite like this before, and I was stirred.
In Chicago I would find many more such buildings and learn the identity of their designer, Mies van der Rohe. I didn’t have to read up on Mies to be persuaded of his greatness—and I've never been tempted by a contrarian view of his architecture. My regard for Mies had been set in stone before I ever heard his name.
Mies's last building was supposed to be a tower of modest height erected in London’s Mansion House Square by the developer Peter Palumbo—someone who admired Mies so fiercely that for three decades he owned Mies’s Farnsworth House
in Plano, Illinois. But the London project was kiboshed
by Prince Charles—the prince called the proposed building a “glass stump better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London.” He might not have said that if he’d spent more time in Chicago.
This city might have inspired the prince to think a little harder about context. Nothing is flattered by an echo chamber. A Mies building is diminished even when it stands among too many other Mies buildings, let alone among Miesian buildings, or in a landscape of modernist buildings unimaginable without him. Then the sterility Mies is sometimes accused of becomes palpable. The Mies buildings in Chicago's Illinois Center are lost in a jumble of imitation Mies heaped over an ant colony of buried walkways and roadways. But Mies’s nearby IBM Building stands nobly among stunning towers from other eras.
No artist creates in order to be exhibited with inferiors. Picasso wanted to be mentioned in the same breath with Goya, not Dali.
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Read Deanna Isaacs's cover story, "Tigerman on the Loose"
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