Smash Bash and the Renovation of S. R. Crown Hall

By Mark Sexton (ARCH ’80)
Krueck and Sexton Architects

In 1997, Krueck and Sexton Architects first became professionally involved with President Lew Collens and IIT by doing a feasibility study for the renovation of S. R. Crown Hall. I can say that Lew has been literally a mover and a shaker who has taken as his own Daniel Burnham’s rallying cry, “Make no little plans.”

In 1955, Mies van der Rohe designed for the IIT campus a landmark building for the College of Architecture. This exceptional structure, Crown Hall, completed in 1956, has been universally praised as an icon of modern architecture, and is known and studied by nearly every architect in the world. Remarkably, 50 years after the doors of the building first opened, it is still being used as a school of architecture.

Over time, Crown Hall fell into serious disrepair. There was some refurbishment and glass replacement completed in the 1970s, but 30 years later the structure was seriously deteriorating. Rather than perfection of materials and proportion, rust and cracked glass unfortunately became the strongest character of the building.

Under the leadership of Lew, the daunting project of restoring Crown Hall was born. The first step in the renovation was to remove the glass. To kick off the ambitious project and to make it a public event, IIT came up with the striking idea to auction off the opportunity to smash the building’s windows. This was not quite the iconoclastic idea that it may seem: these windows were, after all, from the 1970s restoration. So the window smashing became a celebration of Crown Hall and the beginning of restoring it to its former beauty.

Smash Bash was a memorable ceremony, at which Lew confidently announced that in a mere 14 weeks Crown Hall would be resurrected. He invited all present to come back and celebrate the restored building.

As the architect leading the team of historic preservationists, engineers, and contractors, I almost choked. I knew that doing a kitchen in 14 weeks is a challenge, so what did we get ourselves into by pledging that one of the most important buildings in the country would be completely transformed? But, due in large part to Lew’s spirit and his faith in our entire team, Crown Hall was indeed reborn at the end of that summer, in just under 14 weeks. There was never a time when IIT said, “That’s too expensive, let’s make it cheaper.” It was always, “Let’s find the best way to make this work because it is an investment in our future.”

The renovation has given new life to the IIT campus and particularly to the College of Architecture. One of the features of Mies’ architecture is that it is precise, minimal, and completely thought-out. To see Crown Hall in a shabby state was dispiriting. Now, in its glory, it signifies again its iconic stature. Architecture students, who will spend up to five years in Crown Hall, will have their vision of space, detail, and light forever influenced by the building. When one “lives” in Crown Hall, one experiences how the dawn turns to noon turns to dusk turns to darkness. One understands that communication and sharing knowledge can be open and unobstructed by partitions and walls. One sees the way sun and light and nature and sky interact.

What was taught in Crown Hall in the last 50 years has transformed the world. The thousands of students who have come out of the College of Architecture have changed the face of every major city on earth. Mies would surely be pleased that one of his masterworks is still being used, and is secure for the next 50 years. Today it is more vibrant and beautiful than ever, through the leadership of Lew Collens, who had the vision, and then the will to make this vision a reality.