The year 1986 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Mïes van der Rohe. Mr. Mïes (the plumage “van der Rohe” was invented by him well into his career) is considered by many to be the most influential architect of this century. Schooled in Germany before the First World War, he worked his way up in the 1920’s through architectural circles to become head of the Bauhaus. With the accession of Hitler, he abandoned Germany (and his family, it seems, but that’s another story) and moved to Chicago, where he was named head of the architecture department at Armour Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology. From his base at IIT, Mr. Mïes and his followers set out to extend the influence of the Weimar Weltanschauung throughout the United States. No carping critic can deny that he was spectacularly successful; thanks to Mr. Mïes and his followers, the ill-proportioned, overly decorated buildings of Louis Sullivan, Daniel H. Burnham, and John W. Root, to name a few, were replaced with clean, aesthetic structures of steel and glass.
Consider, for example, the classic Lake Point Tower. It was built in Chicago in the 1960’s, from a design by George Schipporeit, a devoted follower of Mïes who inherited his post as head of the department of architecture at IIT. It is built on a small peninsula that projects into Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River. Dozens of stories high, it consists of three residential wings that flow out of a central core, in a “cloverleaf” Its seamless bronze-colored exterior of steel and glass give it a flawless appearance; that, and its location, make it one of the most desirable addresses in Chicago.
Mïes’s declared purpose in his career was to build buildings that expressed the Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the time,” using the materials of the age with firm rationality. It must be said, however, that in a way the times are unworthy of Mïes and his followers: that despite their best efforts, the Geist of the Zeit seems inclined more toward chaos than toward the triumph of reason for which they have labored. For this reason, the creed of Modernism, of which Mïes was the firmest advocate, has been challenged by many young architects.
It is still possible, however, for the advocates of Modernism to recover the lead they have let slip, by a bold gesture that shows how their architecture is truly the architecture of our time. In a bold move to support modern architecture, the state of Illinois could purchase Lake Point Tower and convert it into a prison.
The building meets every requirement for the ideal penitentiary. A prison, first of all, must be large enough to house several hundred inmates in relative comfort, yet be designed so that guards can watch them at all times. The exits must be isolated and secured in such a way that no prisoner can gain access to them. Sections of the prison must be isolated from each other, so that it is impossible for prisoners to seize more than one part of the facility at a time. The building should be physically isolated, such as on an island or a peninsula, yet it should be close enough to the homes of most prisoners to allow visitors to travel to it easily. Finally, the prison should be as comfortable as possible, and provide inmates with surroundings that are secure yet do not exacerbate tendencies toward despair and violence.
Lake Point Tower fulfills all of these criteria better than any other building to date. For one thing. Lake Point Tower is on the proper scale. At the time of its construction, it was the world’s tallest apartment building. Each of its floors encompasses approximately 17,200 square feet of living space. If converted into two-man cells of 100 square feet (which is, by present standards, generous), each floor could therefore house 344 inmates. Multiply that by even 40 stories and you have the world’s largest prison.
The location is also ideal. Courts have increasingly insisted that inmates not be relocated in areas excessively removed from their families’ homes, and Lake Point Tower is certainly located near to the homes of most of its inmates-to-be; yet, it is physically isolated on its peninsula. Fencing off the area presently encompassing the swimming pool and the putting green would provide excellent security, yet would still allow easy access to family members, attorneys, and other visitors.
Third, and most important. Lake Point Tower is wellsuited to serve as a prison by reason of its design. The building is a three-winged cloverleaf, with the elevators and stairwells located at the central core. With the interior walls removed, an observer standing by the elevator banks could keep close watch on the inhabitants without needing to patrol the corridors. This bears an astonishingly close resemblance to Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” design for prisons, with the exception that the interior of Lake Point Tower is handled more efficiently and that the texture of its exterior, it must be admitted, is considerably more aesthetic than those of, say, Alcatraz or Attica.
With the present design, guards stationed around the central area could control access to the cell area, yet easily patrol each wing of tiers or monitor the prisoners using remote television cameras, as demonstrated by the prototype system currently installed in the building’s lobby. The building’s vertical structure makes it impossible for an inmate to tunnel his way out—digging through the floor of a cell, after all, would lead only to another cell. Likewise, the fact that the building’s exterior is a featureless skin means that any prisoner who attempted to scale down the outside of the building would have nothing to hold onto and would be exposed to observers on the ground. The conclusion is inescapable: By design, Lake Point Tower is almost perfectly suited to serve as a prison.
Physically converting Lake Point Tower to a prison would entail minimal difficulties. The interior walls of the building are not load-bearing, and their construction is such that they present no serious obstacle to removal. Replacing them with bars would mean that air ducts would be needed only in the corridors; removing any suspended ceilings in the habitation areas themselves would increase both security and the amount of cubic footage available to each inmate. Guard stations would then be installed around each elevator area, supplemented by automated monitoring devices in each corridor. The elevators themselves would have to be modified so that they could be key operated only by a guard located on the ground floor of the building.
The elevators point out the main problem with the design of a vertical prison: that in such a design, it is difficult to move large numbers of inmates easily. Administration will need to plan each day carefully, to ensure that inmates move smoothly from floor to floor within the building. Evacuation in case of fire might prove to be a problem; however, it will be no greater a problem in the future than it is now.
The main cost in this project would be acquiring the building: The building would have to be condemned and purchased for fair market value. However, if the acquisition is handled in the manner usual for Chicago, the price should not present an insurmountable obstacle; the cost should prove less than that of building an entirely new facility, yet would provide an excellent facility located in a most suitable area of the state. Inmates would be wellhoused in a sunny, pleasant facility and might well have their rehabilitation eased thanks to the advantage of living in the aesthetic surroundings of one of the world’s masterpieces of architecture. Moreover,’ this transformation could well serve to improve the living quarters of both new and old tenants alike.
In conclusion, it should be noted that a key to contemporary architecture lies in the phrase “Form follows function”; the truth of that assertion is undeniable, if one adds the caveat that sometimes the function is not apparent until the form has been completed. Governor Thompson and the state of Illinois should give this proposal serious consideration, for it not only will provide the state with a useful prison facility but will also finally give to Lake Point Tower the function to which it is—by scale, by location, and by design—best suited.