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Women in Architecture: Lilly Reich

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting an often overlooked contributor to the Modernist Movement, Lilly Reich. Popularly known for being a close confidant and collaborator of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Reich was a spearhead of the times in her own right, contributing many acclaimed designs that are still prominent today. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below:

The Life of Lilly Reich

Lilly Reich was born on June 16, 1885, in Berlin, Germany. Throughout her childhood and early adult life, many of her interests belonged to the arts and crafts, specifically embroidery. At 23 years old, Reich traveled from Germany to Vienna, Italy, where she found work at Josef Hoffman’s visual arts production company. Reich continued to explore her passion for embroidery in Vienna, and thanks to the many other artists and designers who worked with her, she eventually discovered new mediums, including textile, clothing, and even designing store windows. 

In 1911, Reich returned to her home in Berlin, where she was determined to find a career. Less than a year after moving back, she became a member of the Deutscher Werkbund, or German Work Federation. After shifting her design focus from textile and clothing to other forms of design like furniture and interiors, Reich’s professional reputation quickly blew up. And, in 1920, after eight years in the Deutscher Werkbund, she became the first woman elected to its governing board. 

A tubular steel footed daybed designed by Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe
A tubular steel footed daybed designed by Reich and Mies for a client, 1930, Courtesy of MOMA

Reich was working at Frankfurt’s Trade Fair Office in 1924 when she first met Mies. They immediately formed a connection that sparked a decades-long period of collaboration between the two. Continuing her dominance in design at the time, Reich became the creative director for Germany’s contribution to the Barcelona World Expo in 1929. The Expo’s most notorious contribution included the Barcelona Chair, which was designed by Mies and Riech respectively. Reich and Mies continued collaborating until his emigration to the United States in 1938. 

The Work of Lilly Reich

Reich’s ambition and adaptability also carried over into her career. While working with Mies, Reich designed several furniture series of tubular steel – one of the only women doing so at the time besides Charlotte Perriand. Inspired by the modern technology and materials of the time, she contrasted the coolness of steel with warm materials such as wood and leather – a staple of her creations. The furniture designs included everything from chairs and tables to bed frames and day beds. 

A design sketch of a cooking cabinet that takes the appearance of a closet.
Designs for Apartment for a Single Person, Lilly Reich, 1931, Courtesy of MOMA

Reich’s contribution to interior design expanded beyond furniture. In 1931, for the German Building Expo in Berlin, she embraced the ideals of domestic reformers of the time and designed Apartment for a Single Person. A radical idea for the time period, the design featured a cooking cabinet that took the appearance of a closet. However when opened, it revealed a sink, shelves, drawers and plenty of counter space. 

As a woman in her field during the early 20th century, Lilly Reich found a way to break traditional barriers and establish herself as a leader of the Modernist Movement. Whether collaborating with other visionaries like Mies or contributing her own ambitious designs, Reich always found a way to leave her mark on society, securing a legacy few can achieve.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and His Role in the Chicago Skyline

Mid-Century Modernism defines the Chicago skyline. Organic forms rise from Chicago’s foundation and cast shadows across the Lake while innovative use of glass reflects waves of light onto the city streets. The Willis Tower, Marina City, the Aon Center are all notable examples of the mid-century modern masterpieces towering over the city.

Chicago’s mid-century modern skyline would not be complete without the exceptional contributions of architecture titan Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Born 1886 in Germany, Mies emigrated to Chicago in the 1930s due to the rise of Nazism in Europe. Already an esteemed architect, in Chicago Mies accepted the position as head of the architecture school at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). At IIT, Mies was commissioned to design buildings for the campus which still stand today. These buildings include Alumni Hall, the Carr Memorial Chapel, and S.R. Crown Hall, some of Mies’ many masterpieces. 

860-880 Lake Shore Drive
860-880 Lake Shore Drive

Mies aspired to create architecture that represented modernity with clarity and simplicity. In 1951, Mies completed the two residential buildings of 860-880 Lakeshore Drive which are considered Chicago Landmarks and are listed as National Historic Places. Initially, the towers were viewed critically. However, with time the buildings became the prototype for steel and glass skyscrapers around the world.

Mies also designed Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza which is composed of three buildings; the Everett McKinley Dirksen courthouse building, the John C. Kulczynski building, and the Post Office building. The three buildings situate themselves around a plaza with Calder’s red Flamingo sculpture at the center. The plaza serves as one of the main gathering points in the Loop, Chicago’s commercial center. 

Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza
Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza

Not too far away at 330 North Wabash sits the former IBM Plaza and Building, one of the last American projects designed by Mies. Built in 1973, the building was designed with advanced technology in mind and became well-known for the several atypical features it included as an office space at the time. Today, the Chicago Landmark is known as the AMA Plaza and includes the Langham Hotel, often regarded as one of the best hotels in the nation.

The Promontory, situated at 5530 S Shore Dr, stands 22 stories over Chicago’s Promontory Point and extensive shoreline in the Burnham neighborhood. Mies built the structure with a “Double T” design in which horizontal cross-bars join and the stems of the T’s form wings to the rear. Mies would employ this design in many of his future buildings. 

The Farnsworth House
The Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House, designed as a vacation retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, is located just outside of Chicago in Plano, Illinois. Though the Farnsworth House is not a grand skyscraper, it has left a lasting impact on the Chicago architectural landscape. The house was an exploration for Mies in the convergence of humans, shelter, and nature. Consisting of a glass pavilion raised six feet above a floodplain beside the Fox River, the house has been described as “sublime” an “a poem” and is now a public museum.

Today, Chicago’s skyline has completely transformed from what it was more than 50 years ago when Mies passed. However, even as it continues to evolve with every new development, Mies iconic buildings still stand out as striking, inspiring architectural masterpieces.

The New York Times Style Magazine’s Modernist Beauties

The New York Times Style Magazine released an article in early August compiling a curated list of twenty-five of the most significant works of postwar architecture. Of the buildings selected, three hold deep connections to Chicago and the city’s architectural legacy; The Farnsworth House, Amanda Williams’ “Color(ed) Theory,” and the Johnson Publishing Company Building.

A black and white photo illuminates the interior of a modern mid-century style home.
Farnsworth House interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1945-1951

Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House, considered one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterpieces, sits on the isolated floodplains facing the Fox River in Plano, Illinois. Designed in 1945, the house was used as a retreat from the urban world for Edith Farnsworth, a native Chicagoan. The Farnsworth House was brought up repeatedly by the New York Times Style Magazine jury as many of its members admired the discipline displayed by the house’s design.

A vibrant blue house is surrounded by leafless trees and a blanket of white snow.
Color(ed) Theory: Ultrasheen, Amanda Williams, 2014-2015

“Colored(ed) Theory”

Chicago based artist, Amanda Williams’, “Color(ed) Theory” series was also selected as one of the most significant postwar pieces of architecture.

Williams spent two years on the South Side of Chicago painting abandoned and condemned houses based on colors she found in products targeted towards Black communities. The series provokes observers to think about the many complex forces that shape cities and their relationship to color. Using vibrant violets, teals, and turquoise, Williams metamorphosed the almost destroyed houses into works of art. The eight illuminating houses continue to encourage future discussions on the complexities of race, place, and value in Chicago today.

Bright sunlight illuminates the front of a modern designed building.
Johnson Publishing Company Building, John W. Moutoussamy, 1971

Johnson Publishing Company Building

John W. Moutoussamy’s 1971 Johnson Publishing Company Building located in downtown Chicago also made the New York Times Style Magazine list. The eleven-story building housed the offices of iconic magazines including Jet and Ebony, which represented the culture and style of America’s black community in the late nineties. The interior of the Johnson Publishing Building is filled with an art collection as well as opulent colors and textures reflecting the decorating styles of the 70s. Even today, the Johnson Publishing Company Building is one of the few urban skyrises designed by a black architect.

The entirety of the article can be read here.

Modernism in Chicago

According to the Tate Modern Museum, Modernism “refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life.” Within a broader cultural narrative, modernism emerged as a criticism of nineteenth-century societal order, and trickled down into everything from political activism, urban planning, psychoanalysis, art, and of course, architecture. As we’ve previously explored, Modernist architecture has an important place in America’s history. But how does it factor into Chicago’s past?

After the great Chicago fire in 1871, the city was a blank slate, re-planned over an entirely new grid. With the world’s first skyscraper completed by 1884 (at only ten stories), Chicago was positioned to be a groundbreaking city for architectural innovation. Our triumphant World’s Fair of 1893 solidified the city’s confidence and paved the way for Daniel Burnham to create his comprehensive city plan. Chicago’s architects banded together to decide how to best develop ever-evolving skyscrapers within the city. One such architect was Louis Sullivan, who helped found the Chicago School of architects around his belief that “form forever follows function.” 

If Sullivan’s creed sounds familiar, it’s because function over form is a cornerstone belief embedded in the Modernist tradition. In the mid-1900s, architects from the growing practices in Europe came to the United States to avoid World War I, and subsequently, World War II. Iconic architects, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, came to Chicago to set up shop. Striking buildings of steel and glass defined an entire generation of skyscrapers, and still add to Chicago’s diverse range of architecture. 

Chicago was a city that pioneered the world’s forte into stretching and sweeping skylines. Beginning with sleek and simple Modernist structures, Chicago’s architecture is now made all the more standout by the dynamic mix of styles it holds. From Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Chicago School to International Style, Modern to Postmodern, each style is made more its own when juxtaposed with its counterparts.

Through our own addition to Modernism in Chicago, we are proud to create buildings that contribute to the movement’s and the city’s larger legacy. To learn more about Chicago’s Modernist history, the Chicago Architecture Center offers tours specifically dedicated to the style and craft. 

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.

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.

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. 

A Transparency on Glass

Whale Bay House, Optima DCHGlobal, Inc., New Zealand.
Whale Bay House, Optima DCHGlobal, Inc., New Zealand.

For decades, glass has been a stylistic signature of Modernist architecture. From the first Modernist structure ever built to the steel-and-glass aesthetic of Modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the material has provided a timeless transparency that is crucial to minimalist design. But glass hasn’t always been as functional as it is aesthetic. 

A History of Glass

Glass is one of the oldest man-made materials, with use dating back to 7000 B.C. It was first utilized for decorative purposes in 3000 B.C. by Egyptians mainly in pottery and other decorative trinkets and first used as windows by the Romans around 500 B.C.

However, at that time, the masonry required to create glass also didn’t allow for larger, stronger pieces to be created, so its use was therefore sequestered to windows and detailing, such as stained glass murals.

In the 19th century, the manufacturing renaissance introduced iron, steel and other materials that provided the strength and durability necessary to support larger glass constructions. The support of these materials, combined with the capability to produce glass in larger sheets, allowed architects to experiment with creating structures utilizing glass in more creative ways.

The Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton.
The Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton.

The Crystal Palace

This new design potential allowed for greenhouses, large railway stations and other public structures to be made of glass. Such new usages inspired Joseph Paxton, an architect in London, to design the Crystal Palace in 1851 using 300,000 sheets of glass. The Crystal Palace was the first architectural creation to utilize an all-glass exterior, and is also considered the first Modernist structure ever created.  

To overcome the harsh effects of a glass exterior, Paxton utilized translucent screens of calico hung externally between the ridge beams of the structure’s roof glazing, covering the entire exposed rooftop and protecting against the transparent building’s vulnerability to heat. This functional feature eventually transitioned into a cornerstone piece of Modernist design. 

7120 Optima Kierland in the Kierland neighborhood of Scottsdale, AZ.
7120 Optima Kierland in the Kierland neighborhood of Scottsdale, AZ.

Glass at Optima

The idea of transparency, open space and functional materials are still relevant and desirable today. At Optima, we use floor-to-ceiling glass to create an indoor-outdoor relationship, allowing for sweeping views and connecting our indoor living spaces with the natural spaces just outside.

At 7120 Optima Kierland, we use a combination of low-e, UV-treated glass, perforated sunscreens and horizontal louvers, to create texture and rich variation of shades and shadows, while allowing for breathtaking views.

Optima Signature in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, IL
Optima Signature in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, IL

At Optima Signature, glass preserves the sweeping lake views to the east and dynamic city views in all other directions. Glass also unifies Optima Signature with its sister tower to the west, Optima Chicago Center. While the glass curtainwalls of each building are different — silver-toned in the case Optima Chicago Center, and transparent green for Optima Signature — the podiums share a unifying black ceramic frit glass with dot pattern. Optima Signature expands the palette with areas of red glass that wrap the podium as it extends south to define the east edge of the plaza.

As we reflect on the history of glass and how it has become a viable aesthetic and functional choice when designing today, we return to the material time and again to design and build the stunning Modernist steel-and-glass structures in our portfolio.

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.

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.

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. 

 

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