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STATE STREET VILLAGE (2003)
3301 South State Street
God is in the details. It’s one of the three or four rules passed down by Mies. And in his time, Helmut Jahn, possibly Chicago’s most important architect, has done a lot to change architecture by focusing on the details.
It doesn’t mean that Jahn’s innovations are small. Witness these dormitories, a design that needed to solve enormous problems. The biggest challenge was to bridge a campus divided into two by an el train line that clamored deafeningly overhead. The second challenge was to harmonize the iconic-unto-sacred boxes of glass and steel that Mies van der Rohe put at IIT in the 1940s and ’50s.
When a university committee chose the Jahn scheme over a number of others, they had to be convinced that Mies would have approved. This commission followed the contentious construction of Rem Koolhaas’s Student Center next door, a fascinating building that directly attacked Mies’s sobriety (and the school’s purse). After that, IIT began gravitating to something quieter, more functional, more Chicago.
What visitors now encounter when they arrive on State Street is a long strip of a building wrapped in corrugated stainless steel, a look just this side of industrial. On closer inspection, see five courtyards spaced evenly along the street front. Inside they’re cool and shady places, landscaped with perennials and birch trees. Look through the courtyards and observe the el’s interesting steel truss work. But don’t expect to be rattled by the noise; it’s now muffled behind the serious insulation of laminated glass.
Jahn and principal architect John Durbrow accomplished their design with assiduous attention to details. Sections of the corrugated steel were perforated to let air and light into the courtyards. Raw concrete walls inside were so carefully poured that they have an aesthetic touch, not an unfinished one. “The attitude that Helmut has,” said Durbrow, “is that if you do a building very well, using appropriate materials, with no applied decoration, it will end up being beautiful.”