Mies' God Box

Mies' God Box

Too often we think about architecture in terms of the spectacular. There is nothing spectacular about this chapel; it was not meant to be spectacular. It was meant to be simple; and in fact, it is simple. But in its simplicity it is not primitive, but noble, and in its smallness it is great, in fact, monumental.
— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

When we think of the architect Mies van der Rohe, we usually think of the International Style—sharp rectangular structures constructed with steel and glass that push skyward. In Chicago, the IBM building situated just north of the Chicago River on Wabash serves as the perfect example..

Many are surprised to learn that Mies lived out the later years of his life as a Chicago resident. Like many Germans, Mies left his native Germany as the Thirties grew dark and the Nazis forced the closure of the Bauhaus, which they denounced as a center of communist intellectualism. He headed to the U.S. in 1937, taking a position at the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) as the director of the School of Architecture in 1938. As part of his charge, Mies was asked to design a master plan for the campus. He designed two symmetrical strips lining State Street, with steel, glass, and concrete dorms, labs, and classrooms. Most are low to the ground, in the style of the Prairie School of Architecture.

On the northeast side of the campus sits a rather nondescript one-story box constructed with blonde brick. On the east side, there is a glass and steel opening that comprises windows and a doorway. Look through the dark glass and you will see a thin stainless steel cross centered on a wall made of a single block of blonde wood. In front of the wall, there is a simple altar made of travertine marble. Aside from chairs stacked against the wall on the left, two lamps, two radiators, and (disgustingly) a box of garbage sitting on a folding table, the interior space is a void. The chapel’s only sources of heat are those two radiators and a floor equipped with radiant heating.

Welcome to the Carr Chapel of St. Savior, or what the school’s student body has dubbed the “God Box.” It stands in contrast to Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago’s campus some twenty blocks to the south in Hyde Park. When John D. Rockefeller endowed the U of C with $600,000 ($25 million in today’s dollars), he wanted English Oxford Gothic. As Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin has written about the Mies chapel, “the absence of decoration all but forces you to contemplate and turn inward.”

In the late 1940s, Bishop Wallace E. Conkling of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago proposed the chapel, viewing it as a “great educational project [for] the atomic age.” People saw the need for spiritual reflection following the first detonation of an atomic bomb. Who knew what this school of technology might unleash next on an unsuspecting world?

Meis designed the simple box in 1952 using load bearing walls rather than a supporting steel frame. The building is noteworthy as the only one Mies created for religious purposes.

From 2008 to 2015, IIT spend $1 million renovating the chapel. The architect, Gunny Harbor, replaced some of the brick with bricks taken from Bailey Hall, a campus dorm that was built three years after the Carr Chapel, so the replacement brick seamlessly matched the original. The renovation also removed water stains, refinished the terrazzo floor, and added a bathroom.

Some other Chicago-area houses of worship and the IBM building are pictured below.

[Click on an image to Enlarge It]

Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago Campus

The Sculpture of Learning on the Side of the Rockefeller Chapel

Rockefeller Chapel’s Main Entrance on a Fall Afternoon

The Bahá'í Temple in Willamette

St. Paul’s in Chicago’s Loop

The Main Alter in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple (Oak Park)

St. Adalbert’s in Pilsen (closing)

Madonna Della Strada Chapel on Chicago Loyola University’s Main Campus I

Madonna Della Strada Chapel on Chicago Loyola University’s Main Campus II

The IBM Building in a Snowstorm

Photographer’s Note: The image of the Carr Chapel does not do it justice, but the site logistics made obtaining a great image next to impossible. Off to the left is an ugly picnic table randomly positioned, so it is not possible to move further back to eliminate the acute angle where the front and side walls come together. I could have stepped further back, but then I would be in a surface parking lot with two handicapped parking signs in front of me. If I were to photograph the building straight on, my reflection would be visible in the black-mirrored windows. If I moved to the other side of the building, the parking lot and its ugly cars would have been reflected in the windows.

I came back a week later for a second attempt, but there was a folding table abutting the window, with a box of garbage sitting on it. The doors were locked, so I could not move the table.

I am thinking about a return trip this fall on a cloudy day, or maybe in winter after a snowfall.



Paul Butterfield

Paul Butterfield