A Tour of the Mies-designed IIT Campus

The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) is the place for Modernist architecture enthusiasts and more specifically, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe enthusiasts to be. Not to mention that the school is where Optima’s own David Hovey Sr. and David Hovey Jr. further honed their architectural education.

The campus, a place with a special place in our own heart and history, is home to the largest group of buildings designed by renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, arguably the most influential figure in American Modernism. As such, there is no better way to get an understanding of where our work began and where Modernism expanded, and to experience Mies’ philosophy than to explore the very campus that he designed and led. 

Perlstein Hall designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Perlstein Hall designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Credit: Joe Ravi on Wikimedia Commons under the license CC-BY-SA 3.0

An Overview of the Campus

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe chaired the IIT School of Architecture from 1938 to 1958. During this time, he created a new master plan for the campus, the most ambitious he ever came up with, including twenty of his own works. This collection is the greatest concentration of Mies buildings in the world. Among the twenty are famous structures such as Wishnick Hall, Perlstein Hall, Carr Memorial Chapel and S.R. Crown Hall. Perhaps Mies’ most iconic piece of work, S.R. Crown Hall is the campus gem, a modern icon and National Historic Landmark, and even heralded by Time magazine as “one of the world’s most influential, inspiring and astonishing structures.” 

Overall, the campus is a bold expression of the Modernist discipline, utilizing steel, concrete and glass minimalist frames as a radical departure from traditional college quadrangles and limestone buildings. 

An Official Architectural Tour

A tour of the campus, offered by the Chicago Architecture Center, places special emphasis on Mies’ time as head of the IIT School of Architecture. The tour covers iconic Mies structures alongside newer additions such as State Street Village, designed by Helmut Jahn. 

During the warmer season, tickets for the tour are available for purchase here. Though not required, advance reservations are recommended, and private bookings are available. Truly enhancing the reach of the experience, the ticket price also gives entrance to the Chicago Architecture Center within seven days of your tour. 

As a piece of our own history at Optima, and as a grander piece of Modernist architecture’s history in America, the IIT campus is something that must be seen to be truly understood. Whether it’s on your own or with a tour, witnessing this iconic collection of designs is a necessity. 

The Inception of IIT

Where we come from is a large part of who we are today, and Optima founder David Hovey Sr., FAIA is no exception. His long career as an architect is grounded in the education and mentorship that he found during his time at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Optima’s ties to the school run deep; David Hovey Jr. followed his father’s footsteps in passion and education, also attending IIT. To better understand our founder and our own story, we’re diving deep into the history and inception of the school that helped shape him.

Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus, the minister that gave the Million Dollar Sermon.
Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus, the minister that gave the Million Dollar Sermon. Photo in the Public Domain.

A Million Dollar Sermon

In 1890, Chicago minister Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus delivered the “Million Dollar Sermon.” In a church on the South Side, near the current site of IIT, Gunsaulus declared that with a million dollars, he could build a school where students from all backgrounds could prepare for meaningful roles in a changing industrial society. He believed that the students could learn in practice, not in theory taught at a school to “learn by doing.” 

In response to his vision, Philip Danforth Armour Sr. gave that million dollars. Armour’s money founded the Armour Institute, opened in 1893, a school that offered engineering, chemistry, architecture and library science courses. Two years after that in 1895, another school on Chicago’s south side opened; Lewis Institute offered liberal arts, science and engineering courses for co-ed classes.

47 years later, the Illinois Institute of Technology was created when Armour Institute and Lewis Institute agreed to merge together to form a stronger, singular school.

Mies and IIT

Two years before the merger and the inception of IIT, German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe joined the Armour Institute of Technology to head their architecture program and bring a new, rationalized curriculum. Once the new school was created by the two colleges joining, Mies was tasked with designing an entirely new campus for IIT, set apart by his distinct Modernist style in the surrounding urban environs. 

Coming from the Bauhaus, Mies brought with him a new way of thinking about architecture, design, form and function. Because his arrival came at a time of transition, he was able to share his belief system and help shape the curriculum that now makes IIT markedly unique. 

It is this distinctive series of events that led to the creation of this program, passed down from the Bauhaus, to Mies, to IIT, to David Hovey Sr. and David Hovey Jr., eventually shaping the way we think at Optima today. 

The Legacy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Our story is influenced and molded by those that came before us. The vision for Optima was seeded during David Hovey Sr.’s time at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where he studied under the program built by modern architectural legend, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. To understand where modern design is today, it’s insightful to look back on the legacy of Mies van der Rohe.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, designed and constructed between 1945 and 1951. Credit: Victor Grigas on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Mies van der Rohe

Mies was a German-born architect and educator, born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, with Chicago becoming his adoptive hometown later in life. One of the 20th century’s greatest architects, he designed with an emphasis on open space and revealing materials. His steel-and-glass aesthetic defined modern architecture; he himself referred to it as “skin-and-bones architecture.” Mies didn’t design with style in mind, but rather, considered the philosophy of design within the frame of functionalist and industrial concerns at the time. “Less is more,” the legendary aphorism, was first said by Mies in reference to his architectural work. 

The Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe
The Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich – the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. Credit: Christian Gänshirt on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Early Years in Europe

Destined for greatness, Mies’ first commissioned project (Riehl House) came to him at the age of 21 while he was working for Bruno Paul. What really set his design aesthetic apart, however, was the Barcelona Pavilion. Designed for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain, the temporary structure was the most powerfully pared-down building imaginable. Consisting of horizontal and vertical slab elements, it fulfilled the minimum requirements to define space — nothing has ever personified “less is more” in quite the same way. As Mies garnered attention, he became the director of the Bauhaus school of design in Germany in 1930. He remained there until the school closed in 1933 under the mounting pressure of the Nazi regime, and it was at this point in time that Mies took his leave from Europe.

An Educator and Architect in America

Mies arrived in the US in 1938, heralding in a new era for his life and the life of architecture in Chicago. He was head of the architecture department of IIT from 1938-1958, and when Mies’ position was announced, he was introduced by the one and only Frank Lloyd Wright himself. It was virtually unheard of for Wright to admire the work of another architect — and vocalize his admiration no less — but in his introductory speech, Wright said of Mies: “I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. Armour Institute, I give you my Mies van der Rohe. You treat him well and love him as I do. He will reward you.” 

Wright knew what an influence Mies would have on IIT and on architecture. The period of transition allowed Mies to entirely redesign the school’s program and campus both — he “rationalized” the curriculum by returning to the basics. At IIT, students focused first on learning to envision and draw their creations, then master the features, functions and materials involved in building, in order to finally evolve as architects whose discipline was enmeshed with the fundamental principles of design and construction. 

A Lasting Legacy

Mies has left his mark in many places — along the Chicago skyline, across the IIT campus and on our work here at Optima.The fundamental principles behind Modernist design influence how we create and think here, and the innovative and groundbreaking thinking of Mies is something that we seek to embody in our everyday operations. To this legend, we say thank you for paving the way and inspiring us all. 


The Optima Story: Over 40 Years of Passion

As a family-owned and operated business, we’re proud of our roots and our history. Since 1978, we’ve produced internationally-recognized, award-winning residential mixed-use developments and single-family homes. To understand our growth and progress, we fondly look back on our years in business and the Optima story. 



A Modernist Beginning

Optima’s began when David Hovey Sr., our Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, was a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His mentor and teacher, Arthur Takeuchi, suggested the idea of forming his own business to bypass the red tape of traditional development. David Sr. wanted a process in which architecture was the center, while still retaining control over the ownership and development aspects of the process. And so, Optima was born. 



Family Ties

As David Sr. began executing his early vision for Optima, Eileen Hovey, fellow Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, took her entrepreneurial spirit and charged ahead with marketing and sales. The two forged a unique path of architecture and development working in unison, which would eventually lead to the Optima Business Model. Over time, they were joined by David Hovey Jr. and Tara Hovey, who shared their passion for real estate, architecture and innovating for the future. David Hovey Jr. also introduced Optima DCHGlobal, a patented architectural system that further pushed Optima’s work in prefabricated housing towards the forefront of the industry. 



Optima’s Future

At Optima, our past is critical to our future, keeping us grounded while inspiring us to move and progress forward. Even decades after our start, our values haven’t changed; we still believe in being bold, perfecting our process, learning from each experience, and creating spaces that improve the quality of life within our communities. From a two-person team to our dynamic, talented staff today, Optima continues to grow and thrive. 

For a more in-depth perspective on the Optima history from the Hovey family, check out Our Story.

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