Armour Institute, one of Illinois Tech’s predecessor entities, was founded just as Chicago was emerging as a center for progressive architectural thought. In 1936, when Earl Reed resigned as director of the Institute’s Department of Architecture, the school engaged Chicago's architectural leaders in the search for a new director. The search committee, headed by John Holabird, recruited Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with a mandate to "rationalize" the architecture curriculum.
Mies came to Illinois Institute of Technology to head the university's Department of Architecture soon after the closing of Bauhaus, the renowned design school that flourished in Germany from 1919 until the rise of Nazism in 1933. During his 20 years as director of the department (1938-58), he established a curriculum based on the Bauhaus philosophy of synthesizing aesthetics and technology. His emphasis on a strong grounding in the fundamentals of architecture and on a disciplined method of problem solving is reflected in Illinois Tech’s curriculum today.
When Mies arrived in 1938, he championed a back-to-basics approach to education. For him, architecture students had to first learn to draw, then gain thorough knowledge of the features and use of the builder's materials, and finally master the fundamental principles of design and construction.
Mies was also tasked with designing the university’s main campus. When Armour Institute and Lewis Institute merged in 1940 to form Illinois Institute of Technology, Armour Institute's original seven acres could not accommodate the combined schools' needs, and Mies was encouraged to develop plans for an expanded campus.
Not since Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia (1819) had an American campus been the work of a single architect. Mies' original proposal called for a more traditional layout of several large buildings grouped around an open space but in his final Master Plan, he embraced Chicago's rectilinear street grid and designed two symmetrically balanced groups of buildings.
Mies' academic buildings stood in sharp contrast to the patrician campuses of the past. His buildings embodied 20th century methods and materials—steel and concrete frames with curtain walls of brick and glass.
His buildings were both magisterial and harmonious, and they set a new aesthetic standard for modern architecture. The sleek urbanism of Illinois Tech’s campus became a reflection of the school’s technological focus; it also evoked the openness of the Midwestern prairie—an oasis in the midst of a major city.
The master plan of the Illinois Tech Main Campus was one of the largest projects Mies ever conceived and the only one to come so close to achieving complete realization. The campus encompasses 20 of his buildings, the greatest concentration of Mies-designed buildings in the world.
The McCormick Tribune Campus Center (MTCC) at 33rd and State Streets opened in September 2003. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, he was chosen for the project as a result of winning the international design competition in 1997-98. Among his completed buildings are the Lille Grand Palais and the Maison a Bordeaux in France, the Netherlands Dance Center in The Hague, and the Educatorium at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. Koolhaas' design for the campus center arranges various areas around diagonal pathways, resembling interior streets, that are extensions of the paths students use to cross the campus. The design includes a concrete and stainless steel tube that encloses a 530-foot stretch of the Green Line elevated commuter rail ("L") tracks, passing directly over the one-story campus center building. The tube dampens the sound of trains overhead as students enjoy food courts, student organization offices, retail shops, a recreational facility and campus events.
A new student residence hall designed by Murphy/Jahn architects on the southeast corner of 33rd and State Streets just south of the campus center, was completed in August 2003. The first new residence hall built for Illinois Tech students in almost 40 years, the building is composed of three separate five-story buildings, joined by exterior glass walls that muffle noise from passing trains on the adjacent "L" tracks. The entire structure houses 367 students in apartment-style and suite-style units. Helmut Jahn is responsible for the innovative design of the building. Jahn studied architecture at IIT under Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s. His designs include the State of Illinois' Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., and the United Airlines Terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Jahn was voted one of the Ten Most Influential Living American Architects by the American Institute of Architects in 1991.