Doubling Mies

Retrofitting Modernist Facades



Photo of Timothy Brown AIA NCARB CSI

Timothy Brown AIA NCARB CSI

Associate Professor

Clemson University



Mies van der Rohe’s concurrently designed projects for Commonwealth Promenade Apartments (1953-1956) and the Esplanade Apartments (1953-1957), saw the development of a new unitized, pre-fabricated, aluminum and glass curtain wall facade. Mies, notably, shifted the curtain wall system approximately ten inches outward from the exterior face of the concrete structural columns and utilized this conceptually new layer of space to insert the hydronic heating and cooling system risers serving the perimeter convector units via horizontal chases. The glazing in both projects’ curtain walls is a tinted single-pane plate glass, and the aluminum framing is without thermal breaks. Any desire to retrofit the buildings with a more energy efficient building enclosure system is in immediate confrontation with the extraordinary demands of Mies’ architecture. This paper is a close reading of Mies’ design of these aluminum curtain walls with the objective of developing a conceptual base for thinking about the introduction of new system components within the existing skinny glazing system. In essence, how do we think of a thicker version of Mies after coming to understand a skeletal, hyper-minimal Mies over the past sixty years? In the development of these towers Mies filled the space between the structure and aluminum curtain wall skin with a building system - that the space within a prospective IGU would be filled with an inert gas seems somehow oddly insufficient.


Managing the legacy of art and architecture from the twentieth century modern movement has proven especially challenging for conservators, restorers, preservationists, and curators. Architects, like artists, enthusiastically embraced new materials

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In 1953 Mies van der Rohe began work on a pair of twenty-eight story rental apartment towers that would eventually be constructed, with only minor modifications, on two different Chicago

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Tower Design

Although the siting of the pair of towers differs at the two locations, the development of the towers was a single design project and many of the sketches and studies

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Mies’ explorations of structure, materiality, and enclosure systems saw a remarkable advancement in the designs for the Commonwealth Promenade and Esplanade Apartments. The structural design utilizes a twenty-one foot square

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It is, therefore, not surprising that the idea of retrofitting the enclosure systems at both Commonwealth and 900-910 Lake Shore Drive has been discussed and studied on several occasions. From

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Possible Strategies for a Retrofit

Retrofitting the enclosure system at Commonwealth Plaza presents the classic wicked problem (Rittel, Webber, 1973). The technical issues of weight, strength, support, stiffness, attachment intersect with the architectural issues of

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Reading from the Outside

The buildings’ curtain wall wraps both towers on all four sides with no differentiation between the four facades’ orientation, the north facing glass is tinted the same gray as the

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Reading from the Inside

At the time of construction, the buildings offered striking views eastward over the lake, to the north and west over the city and especially south over Lincoln Park. Although other

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Reading from within the Enclosure

As described above, Mies’ shift of the curtain wall ten inches outboard of the structural system is intriguing but even more interesting in that he then fills the conceptual and

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Reading Use

Spending significant time in either office or residential spaces suggests that there is a strong cognitive disconnect between architect’s obsession with transparency and users’ obsession with tempering the flood of

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Reading from the Lyric and Poetic

Various readings and impressions of Modern Architecture, of Mies’ work in particular, often decry cold, sterile, inhuman qualities. A more careful analysis of Mies’ buildings, especially those insights gained in-situ

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Some of our significant architecture will simply be exempted from the calls for rehabilitation, renovation, updating, and upgrading. The importance of accessibility to their singular original situation will render discussions

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Future Work

As the work of maintaining an important pair of buildings in Mies’ oeuvre continues, evaluation of the cost and benefits of a more intensive intervention with the curtain wall at

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My deepest thanks to Prof. Kevin Harrington for provoking this hard look at Mies’ work so long ago. And to Isabelle David for demonstrating the art of close reading.

Rights and Permissions

Banham, Reyner, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, University of Chicago Press, 1984

Cohen, Jean-Louis, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, second edition, Birkhauser, 2007.

Fujikawa, Joseph, “Mies and His American Colleagues Oral History Project”, Canadian Center for Architecture, 1996.

Krohn, Carsten, Mies van der Rohe: The Built Work, Birkhauser, 2014.

Mertens, Detlef, MIES, Phaidon Press, 2014.

Mertens, Detlef, ed., The Presence of Mies, Princeton Architectural Press, 1994.

Schulze, Franz, Windhorst, Edward, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Stach, Edward, Mies van der Rohe: Space-Material-Detail, Birkhauser, 2018.

Windhorst, Edward, George Schipporeit: Architect, Educator, Urbanist, IIT, 2014.