The Newness of Nowness

By Marcia Faye
The Newness of Nowness
Wiel Arets
Photo: John R. Boehm

With the spring semester just ended, S. R. Crown Hall is uncharacteristically quiet as Wiel Arets—architect, urbanist, and the new Rowe Family College of Architecture Dean Endowed Chair—suggests we pull up two whimsical yet sturdy chairs that his students exhibited at the college’s spring Open House. Wearing a tailored sports jacket and an expression that alters between intense and contemplative, Arets discusses a term some may consider to be as curious as the chairs: nowness.

“Nowness is our approach at the college because I believe we have to start again every single day,” says Arets. “Nowness is the moment we are living in, but our eyes constantly see new things. Every day the city of Chicago and IIT starts anew.”

The timeless concept of nowness is the bedrock for “Rethinking Metropolis,” Arets’s strategy behind the college’s new curriculum. He says this metropolis encompasses more than the big city and can represent at times suburbia, the world as a whole, or even a new city type; students learn to examine daily life in all its aspects and the role of the architect in shaping the metropolis of tomorrow. Arets believes the word “metropolis” will eventually need to be redefined as society changes its perception of the city.

“Wiel Arets will bring to IIT College of Architecture the necessity of widening discourse,” says Phyllis Lambert (M.S. ARCH ’63), founding director and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. “A man of conviction, he will establish a very much needed direction, not of form but that of an open society honed by research, debate, confrontation, innovation, scale, imagination, and a commitment to doing well by this.” Lambert is uniquely qualified to assess Arets’s qualifications. In 1954 she tapped Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design New York’s Seagram Building, in collaboration with Philip Johnson.

The innovative “horizontal studio” concept of the new curriculum emphasizes history, theory, and research as related to understanding and planning for the metropolis, in addition to giving first-year through graduate-level students the chance to collaborate on design projects using Chicago as a project test ground. Arets says that Lake Michigan and the Loop’s glass office-building corridors provide inspiration to think sustainably, while all of Chicago can be viewed as a living, flexible, and intelligent organism helping students to explore broader issues while focusing on their community. Acknowledging Mies’ legacy at IIT, Arets says the university will continue to make innovative strides.

“Technology, for which this university is known, will always be the most important factor for progress in architecture,” he explains. “Through my deanship, I hope I can contribute to how technology will develop in the next 10 years and how we could incorporate that into student projects and research.”

“Wiel Arets’s high level of energy to implement far-reaching modifications to the architectural education at IIT is impressive,” says Dirk Lohan, principal of Lohan Anderson and grandson of Mies. “It seems to me that it is quite appropriate, 50 years after Mies left and the world changed, to reassess the methodology and focus on the college’s education.”

Space technology—the first manned lunar landing in 1969—inspired the Netherlands-born Arets to study physics, but he changed his major to architecture after reading an influential book his grandfather gave him on the history of the Dutch house. Shortly after completing his architecture education at Eindhoven University of Technology, Arets founded Wiel Arets Architects with studios in Amsterdam, Berlin, Maastricht (The Netherlands), and Zürich. Early in his career, Arets was honored with the Mies van der Rohe Award for Emerging Architect and most recently, his firm received the 2013 AIT Innovation Award for Architecture and Technology for Allianz Headquarters, an office building in Zürich.

Former dean of the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam and president of the jury of the 2012 Venice Bienniale of Architecture, an international contemporary exhibition held every two years in Italy, Arets is excited by IIT’s diversity. He says that while many architecture graduates will remain in Chicago, others will return to their native countries to begin their careers. Arets is hopeful they will take with them a simple image—a dot—representing the metropolis and the many contributions they can make to society from one moment to the next.