The Centre of Chicago blew up enterprises, and its economy was in trouble by the end of the 1950s. The U.S. government planned to repair and replace governmental facilities countrywide was taken by Mayor Richard J. Daley. In 1959, Mies completed an urban renovation plan that involved the demolition of the 1905 federal building by the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA). Mies’ complex would be located in the heart of the loop, rejoining it as a focal point for redevelopment.
The Federal Centre Complex of Chicago, one of the final designs of Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, used beautiful proportions and consistency to create an energetic outdoor room with beautifully designed structures on the south end of the densely packed loop of Chicago.
The complex consists of three buildings, ranging from a vast open square, interrupted with ballet Flamingo by Alexander Calder. It conveys in scale and quality its government mission, not by traditional style or restoration. It is one of the first internationally established government commissions. Five years after Mies’ death, the entire structure was completed in 1974. His New York City Seagram Building epitomizes concepts that he has repeated throughout his career, including the post office building with its wide-open spaces similar to the neighbouring SR Crown Hall, which also echoes those elements.
In his design, Mies devised three different plans for the site and worked with different configurations: government offices, a court hemisphere, and a post office. He divided them into three unique structures, all on the open plaza, in his final design. Today, the square holds festivals, fairs and protests for farmers, which show the vital connections between residents, companies and governments.
To comply with GSA regulations, the Cobb building’s courtroom remained operational until the completion of the third building. This influenced much of the master plan for the project, in which half a block is cleared east of the Cobb building to make way for the new courthouse.
Three master plans were developed by Mies’s office for the project, each using the vocabulary of rectilinear masses and black details, similar to the Toronto-Dominion Center. He ended up with a design that was remarkably similar to his second proposal, a tall courthouse and a taller post office on the east block followed by a taller building on the Cobb block. For visual consistency in plan and elevation, a four-foot, eight-inch structures and spaces module were deployed.
The thirty-story West and east facades of the Everett McKinley Dirksen Courthouse, completed in 1964, are formed by thirteen 28-foot-wide bays (six modules) and also the four bays on the north and south sides, with a curtain wall of black steel supporting bronze-tinted glazing in a thin aluminum frame. Steel spandrel panels break the windows horizontally, and steel mullions emphasize the structure’s verticality. Luminous glass panels line the ground floor of this 30-story building, while steel columns define the perimeter, while glazed panels extend 9 feet, 4 inches across the east and west facades (two modules), and 28 feet across the north and south.
The exterior plaza is covered with granite pavers (1 module square) that carry through to the lobby. Granite clads the elevator banks and can light grace the lobby ceiling. Double-height, walnut-panelled courtrooms are on the upper floors alongside the judge’s chambers, offices, holding cells, and other support services for the court.
An exterior curtain wall encloses the square building, which measures nearly 30 feet square and three bays wide in each direction. Almost to grade, an upper level of double-height glazing extends one storey above the base. In the beginning, the building was designed as one wide, universal space without an inner support column, but soil conditions made this impractical. Despite the column’s prominence, the post office counters and the central sorting area divided by wood-panelled walls rose several feet below the ceiling while simultaneously allowing visitors to experience the building’s full size. The ship loading levels are accessed via a ramp to the south of the building.
There is a vibrant contrast between the solemnity of this complex and the Flamingo stabile, designed by Alexander Calder. In contrast to the complex’s sober palette and restrained forms, the sculpture’s red arching curves illustrate the formality by providing a stark contrast.
As IIT’s head of architecture during Mies’ 20-year tenure, he developed tools such as rigorous rectilinear geometry, minimalism, double-height ground floors, and open spaces that blur boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Black paint and bronze curtain glass serve as key expressive elements, together with the vertical I-beam mullions, a technique made famous by Mies on the Seagram Building.
Mies’s Chicago Federal Center, widely acclaimed, is his final architectural masterpiece, embodying the dignity of its federal purpose through scale, material, and proportion, rather than by referring to historical styles, and fulfilling the architect’s vision mission to create universal spaces.