Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mies Goes Soft: At the IBM Building, The Langham Chicago Pushes Against the Envelope

click images for larger view
Can Mies be bent without breaking?  “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” he said, and in his buildings he sought to capture the truth of his time, with God him(her)self lurking in the details.  Is there an expiration date to that kind of truth?  How well can Mies's vision endure nearly half a century after his death?  We're about to find out. 
Rendering courtesy Langham Hotels
Wednesday, July 10th, is the big day, the opening of The Langham Chicago in the 52-story IBM Building, at Wabash, State and the river, the last skyscraper designed by Mies. As we've related in the previous two parts of this series, Apotheosis of the Skyscraper, and How Do You Get to AMA Plaza?, it's been a long road from the 1972 dedication of a state-of-the-art skyscraper for IBM, a state-of-the-art tenant, to a very different, stripped-down kind of economy that saw IBM abandon its namesake tower and the building largely empty out.

In 2006, the IBM was set to go residential, first with condos, and then, two years later, with a hotel.  After the 2008 crash, after pouring in millions, the developer decided the Chicago market couldn't support another 300 rooms of hospitality.  Work stopped until 2010, when the property was bought out by Langham Hotels, who had apparently decided there might be room for another big hotel, after all. 

Chicago will be the latest outpost of a burgeoning global chain that began with the acquisition of what was then the Langham Hilton in London's Portland Place.  The Langham was one of the first ultra-luxury hotels.  Constructed in 1866 for the astronomical sum of £300,000 sterling, it was declared open by no less than the Prince of Wales, with a guest roster down through the decades including everyone from Mark Twain to Princess Diana (regrettably, not together.)
Langham Hotel, London - image courtesy Langham Hotels
During World War II, the hotel became offices for the military and, later, for the BBC, which hatched a plan in 1980's to raze the historic structure for an office block designed by Norman Foster.  Instead, it underwent a £80,000,000 renovation and re-opened as the Langham Hilton in 1991.  In 1997, the hotel was acquired by the hospitality division of Hong Kong's Great Eagle Holdings Limited, the real estate powerhouse run by legendary developer Victor Lo.

In 1980, Lo persuaded his brother Dr. Lo Ka Shui to give up a career as a cardiologist to join the Great Eagle board, and since 2003 he's been the Executive Chairman of the Langham Hospitality Group, heading up an ambitious expansion plan to open 50 hotels in the next 5 years, predominantly in Asia.  In the U.S. the chain bought up existing properties and set up outposts in Boston, Pasadena and, in May of this year, New York.

Now it's the Chicago's turn, with 316 upscale rooms - the smallest over 500 square feet- and over 15,000 square feet of event facilities at The Langham Chicago.
When Langham acquired the property, some of the heavy lifting - including carving out multi-story public spaces - had already been done by the previous developer before they put their project on ice.  [Or maybe not - see the comments below.](Goettsch Partners has remained the local architect of record.) “It's amazing,” said architect Dirk Lohan, ”they managed to take beams out and make two story [spaces].  They ripped everything out, the steel beams, and then reinforced when necessary.  I remember we did that years ago in the Dirksen Building, to make more federal courtrooms.”
Rendering Courtesy Langham Hotels
“Of course we never thought it would become a hotel one day, but it is interesting that, because of the modularity of the building and it's five foot module, the rooms all are based on the 15 foot width - the minimum room is three windows, which is wider than almost all other hotels." Ceiling height is a generous nine-and-a-half feet.
John Rutledge of Oxford Capital, which retained a minority interest in the hotel after the floors were resold to Langham, told Crain's Chicago Business that the cost of building out the former office space was half the cost of new construction.   In addition, the previous developers got the IBM designated an official Chicago Landmark - the newest building to be so listed.  The Trib's Karoun Demirjian reported that nearly 75% of the estimated $139 million cost of the renovation will qualify for ‘Class L’ incentives that will reduce property taxes over the next 12 years.
First floor lobby, Rendering Courtesy Langham Hotels
With designation comes oversight.  The landmarking ordinance for the IBM includes protection for the ground floor lobby, so the Langham brought in  Lohan, Mie's grandson, to work on the design, and he strikes a balance that respects Mies's original even as it changes it.  The uninterrupted sweep of the lobby is gone, but an inferred permeability remains. “There are actually two walls,” says Lohan.  “Where you come in, there is a vestibule first, which has a glass wall to the office lobby and another glass wall to the inner lobby, with glass doors.”  
In the vestibule, there's a big clunky wooden cabinet for storing guests' luggage.
In the Lohan-designed lobby, itself, the bronze beaded curtain along the east wall seems much more insistent installed than it appeared in the renderings, but the lightly framed glass of the separator wall passes the ‘almost nothing’ test.
Images Courtesy Langham Hotels
The lobby's art, selected by Lohan and Catherine Lo, include a head by Jaime Plensa (left), the artist behind Millennium Park's Crown Fountain, and a large painting by Enoc Perez (right).  Eventually, a work by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming is slated to be the first permanent artwork ever placed on the building's south plaza.
The Landmarks Commission allowed one change to the building's protected exterior, and it's an unfortunate one.  A sub-canopy has been added beneath the wider one of the original design.  The stated reasoning was to provide better protection  for guests waiting for cabs, but since the arcade that wraps the lobby already affords that, it's much more likely the actual objective was for a visual marker for the hotel's entrance.  Polished bronze, it's very, very bright and shiny.  With fussy scoring on the sides and a phalanx of light bulbs beneath,  it looks a bit like a flattened game token in an overpriced Monopoly set.
“The design of the upper floors,” said Lohan, “is very soft, very non-Miesian . . . probably based on the understanding of the British firm Richmond.  Very much a continuation of the Langham brand identity and feeling.  And that's what people who go from one of their hotels to another expect, a certain level of design.”
And this is crux of the matter, the tension that comes from inserting a 21st Century luxury hotel into a 20th Century Mies van der Rohe box. The glory of Mies is in his mastery of form.  While few would emulate his love of luxurious materials, his concept of universal space found favor in innumerable cheapened knock-offs, not for its poetics, but for the way it dovetailed with the demands of a supply chain economy to transform everything possible into an interchangeable commodity.   In the hands of others, Mies's elegant towers became the massive floorplates of buildings like Sears Tower, where workers are buried deep in the bowels of the building, far away from any window.

The IBM Building worked because, whether you were talking about open floors of cubicles,  extruded workbenches, or perimeters of executive offices, the standardized spaces flowed unobtrusively behind the perfect Miesian curtain wall. For a high-end hotel, such reticence is not practicable.  A grand hotel like The Langham is theater.  “I don't want realism” Blanche Dubois once famously remarked, “I want magic.’
Image Courtesy Langham Hotels
Enter Richmond London, “Over 45 years ago, we set the benchmark for international hospitality design and have been at the forefront ever since.”  Unlike Lohan's lobby, Richmond's design of the hotel floors was unencumbered by Landmarks Commision oversight.
The one great carry-over from Mies is how the hotel's floor-to-ceiling windows open up the guest rooms to dramatic views, especially those overlooking the river across the south plaza.   The trick of a grand hotel, however, is transforming what is, in reality, a prolific extrusion of largely standardized guest rooms into an illusion of individualized, high-end domesticity, complete with 55" flat-panels.  And so all the useless things Mies stripped away - the mouldings and closets and bathrooms with more marble than a royal tomb - become essential symbols of the luxury experience.
I asked Lohan what his grandfather would have made of it all.  “I think he maybe would have chuckled a little bit, but I also feel that we would have accepted it because it is not visible to the outside . . . Despite of all of this the outside of the building remains as is, because the windows are tinted.  You can't see that there is a real change inside.  The only visible part that's different is the ground floor lobby that I'm doing.  The rest you don't see.”
With all due respect, I would have to suggest that Lohan may have miscalculated a bit here.  To me, the changes brought by the Langham have changed the IBM's appearance from the outside, without disturbing so much as a single I-beam mullion.
Even the guest room floors read differently from the office floors they replaced.  Instead of the continuous strips of lit windows, emphasizing the flowing space, the guest rooms appear to light up on the facade as isolated pixels, breaking up the visual sweep. And then when you come to public amenity floors just above the entrance lobby,  the visual difference, most especially at night, spills past the curtain wall to upset the subtle balance of Mies's original conception.
In that design, Mies followed Louis Sullivan's concept of the parts of a skyscraper corresponding to the components of a classical column.  In the case of the IBM, the base of the column is the recessed lobby. Just above it is the tall shaft, one identical office floor after the other, rising continuously to the top the building, where the visually distinct mechanical floors comprise the capital.  Three parts, all in one unifying 695-foot-high wrapper.

Now all those often double-height spaces a hotel requires - the check-in lobby, the ballrooms, Chicago's first Chuan spa, the 67-foot swimming pool, the open-kitchen restaurant designed by David Rockwell - have changed how the outside of the building reads. One of the basic conceits of a Mies skyscraper - the dark tower resting atop a pillow of light - is subverted.
Now the the glow of the tall lobby floor must compete with floors of double-height spaces with ornate chandeliers and pink accent lights.
According to Langham Managing Director Bob Schofield, a continuous 30-foot-long, 18-inch-high video screen is designed to be “a beacon, if you like, in our second floor where our restaurant is located and the lounge is located.  It's on Wabash.  So if you're coming over on the bridge, you're going to see that light up on the second floor and it's hopefully going to track people in.”
Treatment Room, Chuan Spa - Image Courtesy Langham Hotels
The irony is that, with the AMA and other banner tenants moving in, if the developer had just held on, it might well have filled up floors 2 through 14 (actually 13, but you know the superstitions) without any recourse to a hotel.  But what's done is done.  It's not unsubtle, and it's not a crime.  It's reversible.  But for the forseeable future, the Langham is stretching Mies's aesthetic in ways that will be debated for a long time to come.

Lohan, for one, thinks Mies would have been accepting.  “I asked him,” said Lohan, “what he felt should be done with his buildings as time goes on.  Because even then there were people who were so enamored that, if you touch a Mies building, they go to the barricades.  I don't feel that way, because he said, ‘this is not for me to decide, whether you and the future generations feel these buildings are worthy of preservation.  Some of them are and others are not.’  And I think he's absolutely right.  I feel that same way.”

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Anonymous said...

It's weirdly tacky in a '70's kind of a way. What's with all the gold?

chicago real estate said...

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Luis S. said...

We all must be open to accepting the evolution of our historically important buildings. Especially if we want to continue to inhabit and enjoy them, or else they just become museums. There will be many more people walking through the halls and spaces of this great structure. Just because the "style" or aesthetics of the new are different from what was before does not make them bad.

Anonymous said...

It is a beautiful transformation of a classic Mies structure, which remains consistent with the original design while allowing for a transformative use. We need to celebrate the courage and style which the developers embraced to accomplish this transformation.

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Anonymous said...

As someone who was involved in the project from the building owner's side, I can tell you that the two story spaces were not carved out prior to Langham's involvement.

That work occured in the late fall of 2011 after the Hotel had received it's building permit.

Overall, I think the spaces and rooms in the tower are fine - and in some instances - quite nice. I agree that the canopy is both over the top and un-needed.

My biggest criticism though, is the fact that the point supported glass walls in the lobby are both poorly designed and not very well executed.

For someone who supposedly has an interest in his grandfather's architectural legacy, Lohan did a terrible job of aligning the glass fins and joints within the 5'-0" module, or meeting any of the horizontal joints in the travertine wall panels or the storefront glass. I have a feeling that Mies would not be chuckling about the mess that Dirk has made of his lobby.

Great article though - thanks for all the insight.

Lynn Becker said...


Thanks for the info and evaluation.

I was actually told by two different sources about the two-story spaces being pre-Langham, and each time after I heard it, I asked again to reconfirm. Since I made the mistake, I'm leaving it in the article, but I appreciate your update.

Which raises the question - if they aren't the ones who did the two-story carve-outs, how did Modern Magic blew through an extra $20 million before they sold out to Langham? Anyone have some info?

Anonymous said...

It's kinda funny watching people doing this load of shitty modifications to an architecture masterpiece. It's very clear his grandson knows as much architecture as Mies' pet, if he had one. Poor IBM building.

They could have given the project to an architect which really understands what this architecture means. It's kinda silly to state that it was a risk worth taking, and they are happy with the result. Obviously everyone gets happy when does whatever wants.

Stupid project, an awful day for architecture.

Anonymous said...


You are mistaken in placing Dirk Lohan responsible for the ill-planned spacing of the glass wall. As someone who worked on the design side, I can tell you to blame the Architect of Record, Goettsch Partners, for the misalignment.

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