Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.
The design school at Chicago’s IIT is a direct descendant of the Bauhaus. Its slick new building is, in some ways, everything the Bauhaus was not.
The Institute of Design at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) may be the most direct offspring of the Bauhaus, which was the most influential design school in the world. Founded by former Bauhaus faculty member László Moholy-Nagy in 1937, and later absorbed into IIT (whose architecture school was then led by Mies van der Rohe, himself a former Bauhaus director), the graduate school has had seven-plus decades to marinate in the context of early 20th-century experiments that forged art with industry.
And architecturally, it’s been an exceedingly steady simmer—until now. Mies designed IIT’s campus, including the famous steel-and-glass Crown Hall. The Institute of Design’s new home, the 70,000-square-foot Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, is the campus’s first new academic building—by Mies or anyone else—in 40 years. It represents one of the most pervasive and influential types of architectural space today. The building looks, and functions, like a tech office, with break-out spaces, a communal kitchen, acoustically swaddled furniture, and staircase seating. The Institute of Design shares the $37 million facility with IIT’s entrepreneurship and maker hub.
Walk into the Kaplan Institute, and the first thing you’ll notice is how bright and pristine it is. The white walls, floors, and ceiling are a counterpoint to the dour brick and black steel of Mies’ ultra-minimalist campus. The original Bauhaus was obsessed with materiality, delving into how each material expresses its fundamental nature, whether ceramic, fabric, metal, or paper. But the materials at hand today are much different. “We define material to be data,” said Denis Weil, the institute’s dean.
The old Bauhaus was as obsessed with new technology as these designers are today, but in the 1920s, that meant welding glass with steel. Today, it means virtual, digital products. Much of the school’s output, then, is not tea kettles or chairs, but apps and other feats of computer programming.
After graduation, Weil says, most students will work in innovation consulting with large consultancies, as front-end designers with tech firms, or in traditional UX design. And this transition from corporeal to digital drives the formal expression of the building.
On a tour, Weil showed off past and current projects at the school, and their wild diversity would have delighted the Bauhaus founders, given their own push to break down barriers between industrial production, artisanal craftsmanship, and experimental art. One project he pointed to used audio greeting cards to help police explain Miranda Rights in Spanish. Another was an attempt to elicit more energy-efficient behavior by apartment tenants. This is design that’s about making strategic interventions to change human behavior, rather than offering up widgets to make problems disappear.
Germany’s Bauhaus was run on a more cloistered studio-based model, where masters would create alongside apprentices, away from the distractions of the world. The infrastructure required for those studios (looms for textiles, kilns for pottery) encouraged more physical separation, as opposed to the institute’s current digital-heavy scrum.
“The studio comes from a time where we felt that designers need to withdraw, and that the power comes out of the vision of the designer,” said Weil. “That’s not at all how design happens today ... if the designer’s role is [that] of the integrator and facilitator, it makes sense to have a studio as a place where you interact—hence the open-office concept.”
The Kaplan building is not a temple of holy creation, but a conference room for sorting and crowd-sourcing the best ideas. There’s a public-to-private spectrum of spaces, from shielded chairs for solitary work to grand forums. Most space is in-between, with moveable walls and bump-outs for conversation among a handful of people. The building is filled with colorful furniture and writeable dry-erase walls. Its architect, John Ronan, wanted it to be friendlier than the typical Miesian architecture on campus.
“I wanted to use materials that were not available to Mies,” said Ronan, who teaches at IIT’s architecture school. That meant an ETFE façade system. ETFE (or ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) is an ultra-strong and lightweight polymer, and Ronan used it to cover the center’s second floor. Three balloon-like sections make up the semi-opaque walls. A pneumatic system automatically inflates and deflates chambers of the ETFE to block excess light on sunny days or let more light in when it’s overcast.
As the second floor cantilevers out over the glass-walled first floor, comparison to a cloud is unavoidable. The design products of the school migrate to the cloud and the building turns into one—albeit a cloud that’s been poured into rectilinear, factory-stamped mold. But the first-floor machine shop, filled with 3D printers, routers, and laser cutters, is a clue that physical objects do still have a place here.
The halls of the early Bauhaus were wilder than these quiet corridors, with avant-garde dances and parties. For a metal-themed Bauhaus party, for instance, “Invitations suggested that gentlemen come as an egg-whisk, a pepper-mill or a can-opener, while ideas for the women included a diving bell, a bolt or wing-nut, or a radioactive substance.” One of the Bauhaus’s earliest sages was the robed mystic Johannes Itten, a devotee of an obscure neo-Zoroastrian, racist religious sect called Mazdaznan, who began each class with controlled breathing exercises. And then there’s the photo of dark-haired female Bauhaus students messily coiffed in the style of the Cure’s Robert Smith, which offers something timeless about outsider self-expression.
”The mystical-robe stuff is completely gone,” said Jeffrey Mau, an instructor at the Institute of Design who focuses on the history of the Bauhaus. Today, “You won’t find too many art-school kids with blue hair and tattoos. Everybody looks like they’re in business school.” Which makes sense, because some are (the Institute of Design offers a dual MBA degree).
But the tidiness isn’t totally antithetical to the Bauhaus in its prime. The Bauhaus’s second director, Hannes Meyer, nurtured the school to profitability through commercial partnerships, according to the New York Times. Its most profitable product was wallpaper, as Architect magazine pointed out.
At the Institute of Design post-Mies, Jay Doblin, who became director in 1955, sought professionalization, adding theory and critique to what had been a largely experiential field of master-and-apprentice craft. Under Doblin, faculty put more emphasis on business-friendly new product development and less on open-ended experimentation.
That legacy is reflected in the spotless, tidy condition of the Kaplan Institute. “There’s still a janitor walking around cleaning scuff marks off the floor with a tennis ball on a stick,” said Mau. “It sets a tone of, ‘Where can I spread my work out and leave it?’”
This is partly due to how new the building is—things could change. The building is made from tough and resilient materials (polished concrete, exposed fireproofing) that should be able to absorb some creatively channeled destruction. “I imagine it’ll look quite different in a year or two,” said Ronan. “It’s not a precious thing. It’s meant to be a working space that can get messy. It’s a canvas for the students to finish with their work.”
The Bauhaus was never a purist organization, but through most of its brief history there was room for art. At the Kaplan building, this space seems to have largely been filled by “innovation.” It’s in the building’s name and serves as an implicit mission statement. By moving its emphasis from experimentation to innovation, the school narrows its scope from holistically using design as a tool of self-expression to using it as a tool for technocratic managers. That, too, is a measure of the Bauhaus’s influence, which has been absorbed and re-interpreted through the day’s economic value system.
The best art and design schools are those that can take the bumps and scratches that come with an endless parade of young minds carrying bizarre and messy ideas, and it remains to be seen if the precise and tidy Kaplan Institute will be called into action this way, and if so, how it will bear the smudges. Its writeable walls are so far mostly filled with lecture talking points and assignment due dates. It doesn’t feel like a place to scribble yet.