No less than Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin quickly dismissed the ensemble as "utterly dispensable." In the imperial words of his headline writer, "One Mies building on the IIT campus can go."
I was initially persuaded by Kamin's arguments - it was "a clunky brick box", "mediocre." Kamin buttressed his case by quoting Anne Haaker, the Illinois preservation officer who signed the building's death warrant, who based her decision on the fact that the structure was not built precisely to Mies' original specifications and had been altered over time.
All true. All completely beside the point. The third judgement of Haaker, that the building and wall "didn't contribute to the National Register district" is shockingly obtuse. I actually took the time to go down and look at the Test Cell, and here's what I saw:
Now erase what's on the Test Cell corner and replace it with this:
The view down Federal Street is the only one that puts the industrial aesthetic of Mies's IIT buildings, not in a park-like landscape to help the medicine go down, but directly within the industrial context of a gritty city street running parallel to a set of railroad tracks. If you don't care much for Mies, you probably don't see much beyond ugly. But if you appreciate what he accomplished, you can't miss the incredible, rough beauty.
The abject Test Cell, a far more accomplished conception than the critics would lead you to believe, is indispensable to that view, a variant of the Miesian corner in the way it mediates the turn from 35th street into the classic assembly of steel, glass and brick industrial buildings on Federal. In the Metra design, it's replaced with a generically prettified plaza, an empty, characterless void that has absolutely no relationship to the IIT complex, and that thoughtlessly trashes any idea of context.
That view down Federal isn't just another generic city street. It's modernism alley, the place where Chicago architecture was reborn. And that homely sentry station on the corner is its perfect pivot point.
There are certainly good arguments for a Metra station at 35th, now made possible by a $6.8 million infusion of stimulus money towards its nearly $12 million cost. You can, without strain, argue the merits of the Test Cell as built and modified. You can even, as did Blair, buy hook, line and sinker into the bureaucrat's injunction that public discussion must be quickly silenced lest it risk a delay in the completion of a station we've somehow done without for over 50 years. You can sit back with a mournful sigh and acquiesce to the idea that this is way power works in Chicago (the station is a pet project of district Congressman Bobby Rush), and it's a trifle compared to the loss to the Walter Gropius buildings on the Michael Reese campus.
But to idly declare that it won't inflict irreparable violence on one of the most seminal streetviews in Chicago architecture is a willful act of blindness.