Author: Roberto Albores Gleason

Program of Study: Master of Public Policy (MPP), Harris School of Public Policy (HAR)

Photo title: Mies van der Rohe looking at the model of the Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago. November 21, 1956. Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images. (Source:

Description: In today’s podcast, I will talk about a fantastic story that has influenced Chicago architecture. Mies van der Rohe: a Star of the German Diaspora. How can a middle-aged immigrant become a breakthrough in Chicago’s history? 

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Transcript (provided by author): 

Intro audio with music: And now from the University of Chicago – English Language Institute the Diaspora Files with your host Roberto Albores

Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2020. I’m your host, Roberto Albores, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s – Harris School of Public Policy. And today’s episode is ​Mies van der Rohe: aStar of the German Diaspora in Chicago Architecture. L​ et’s get started!

Music stops

  • The word “immigration” has increasingly come to be politically charged. And unfortunately, many times with negative connotations. Not going so far in the last US presidential election, anti-immigrant rhetoric paid great dividends.

Insert audio of Trump candidate: ​​ (time second 12 to 34)

  •  Nonetheless, the strength and greatness of a nation, state, or city can not be understood without peoples’ permanent movement and their sense of community and heritage.
  •  In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists” end quote.
  •  So by that, I prefer to use the word “diaspora” that means “dispersion” in Greek, when considering migrant populations because it is crucial for everyone to acknowledge that diasporas bring benefits rather than burdens.
  •  It is the nature of this podcast series to talk about the greatness of immigration. Since the rise of the first cities, migrants have been an invaluable asset not only to their new country but also to their country of origin. We will talk specifically about this phenomenon in the Windy City: our Chicago.
  •  Without a doubt, the accruals of the diaspora outweigh the cost. The enhancement of a richer and more diverse culture, the brain gains of highly qualified people, the expansion of economic opportunities, the spur of entrepreneurship, and the transfer of knowledge and skills are examples of these benefits.
  •  Our city of Chicago is a remarkable exemplification of the diaspora and its incredible effects in different ways. Just look at the Albany Park neighborhood, described as “Chicago’s gateway to the world” with over 40 languages spoken in its schools. Or look at the 14 magnificent buildings created by german Architect Mies van der Rohe to perceive this phenomenon’s magnitude.
  •  In short, migration stories define Chicago history, filling it with tales of hope, endurance, and destiny.
  •  I will talk about a fantastic story that has influenced Chicago architecture in today’s podcast. ​Mies Van der Rohe: a star of the German diaspora in Chicago architecture.​
  •  The question that arises is organic: How can a middle-aged immigrant become a breakthrough in Chicago’s history?
  •  “Less is more” that Mies van der Rohe’s quote has long been modernism’s tagline. And this couldn’t be another way because, along with Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of modernist architecture.
  •  After Nazism’s rise to power, with its strong opposition to modernism, the master Mies came to live in the United States. He was 52 and spoke no English. It was 1937, and he had already reached high flights in his career in Europe and nothing to prove. Mies was the last director of the Bauhaus, a seminal school in architecture that, according to the Tate, was characterized as a combination of the Arts and Crafts movement with modernism, emphasizing function and “aim to bring art back into contact with everyday life.”
  •  Truth be told, one can imagine that both the city of Chicago and the architect Mies generate a perfect symbiotic relationship, or both were two ends of the same pendulum.
  •  On one extreme, Mies van der Rohe came to live in the American mecca of architecture and the city that by itself makes for one of the greatest museums of architecture in the world. Definitely, this atmosphere complimented his work. After all, it was in Chicago where Mies built more.
  •  Also, it is no coincidence that two of the world’s great modernist architects lived in Chicago: Wright and Mies. By the way, and just as a curious fact, according to the biographer Frank Schulze, they never got along.
  •  On the other extreme, Mies came to establish a new dialogue and style within Chicago’s city. By the 1960s, Mies had clearly broken from the traditional Chicago aesthetic and developed a modern style. As William Rice points well: Mies usher “-a new age of architecture- with his glass-and-steel high-rise apartments at N. Lake Shore Drive. Completed in 1952, they were the first to be built without mortar and were free of exterior decoration. Their influence can be seen in countless steel-and-glass towers that sprang up in cities around the world”. After all, Chicago can not be understood without Mies van der Rohe’s work.
  •  Other hallmark designs that continue to grace Chicago are the campus that would become the new Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and it’s very famous Crown Hall where it is reflected the Less is More philosophy, or also the St. Savior Chapel, the only church built by Mies and known as God Box.
  •  Precisely in the own words of Mies about this chapel, we can elucidate with clarity his philosophy. I quote: “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.”
  •  Continuing with Mies’s work in Chicago, we will notice other famous constructions such as the IBM Plaza, the Chicago Federal Center, the One Illinois Center, and the school of Social Service and Administration within the University of Chicago. And outside the city, in Plano, Illinois, the Farnsworth House, that according to the Chicago Tribune: “there is nothing which can be taken away from it, making it as perfect as a building can be.” Or as Philip Johnson said, “The Farnsworth house with its continuous glass walls is an even simpler interpretation of an idea” achieving Mies’ concept of a strong relationship between the house and nature.
  •  To summarize this symbiotic relationship between Mies and Chicago, I quote the University of Chicago website: “The Loop is celebrated for pioneering the skyscraper in the late nineteenth century and reinventing it in the mid 20th century under the leadership of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe”.
  •  Taking all into consideration, not only Mies’s legacy in Chicago and the US stays in his constructions. He played a significant role as an educator and developed the Second Chicago School that has consistently produced leading architects who have shaped the Chicago skyline throughout this time.
  •  According to Franz Schulze, “He spent the next 20 years training a generation of architects and influencing countless others with the buildings and homes he designed in the austere International Style he brought with him from the Bauhaus.
  •  So to close today’s podcast, undoubtedly, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe has been one of the most significant influences in American architecture. Mies lived and worked in Chicago until his death in 1969, and I am sure this giant of architecture became a Chicagoan, so Chicago became an essential part of him.
  •  Mies is a remarkable example of the magnitude of immigrants’ ideas that foster cultures. He represents the extraordinary brain gains that creative and entrepreneurial people give to society. And he describes a kind of diaspora of talented people from all around the world that has helped make the United States a great country. A diaspora that our university, the University of Chicago, always has encouraged.
  •  In short, Mies is a diaspora star that came to America to enrich its culture fully.
  •  Thank you, everyone, for hearing me. Have a great week. It has been an honor to be with you. See you in the next episode.

Close audio with music: Thank you for listening to the Diaspora Files brought to you by the University of Chicago – English Language Institute. Special thanks to Cristine Fiorite that without her help, this podcast wouldn’t have been possible. For more programming, visit