It was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who said, “God is in the details.” While all Mies buildings (IIT campus, 860 Lake Shore Drive, IBM building) look “simple,” the simplicity – or purity – is the result of endless labor to refine details. One detail that seems so natural that it should not be a problem is the corner of a building.
The Annual Award program of the Chicago Chapter of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) acknowledges Mies’ pronouncement in giving a special award to the “Divine Detail,” in recognition of the refinement and uniqueness of a detail rather than the building itself.
Until the arrival of modern architecture, important details were copies of Greek, Roman, Gothic or later styles. The great Chicago architect John Wellborn Root stated, “The object of this study of architectural styles must be to acquire from former times the spirit in which our predecessors worked, not to copy what they did.”
But copy they did. Some copied in good taste; some copied indiscriminately.
Hardly any building exists that does not have an attempt to copy or to create a significant detail at the entrance, where it is best seen. And it does not need to be historical. Modernism occasionally also called for elegant detailing in the curtain wall, the balcony rails or the entrance canopy. Sadly, in many buildings significant detail disappears entirely either from neglect or lack of funds.
Since our current economy allows fewer and fewer new buildings, in upcoming articles I plan to concentrate on the divine details of existing structures, predominantly housing, multi-story or single-family. I will start where I live.
1501 Hinman – 425 Grove is an apartment structure approximately 80 years old, designed by Hall Lawrence & Redcliffe, a not particularly well-known architectural firm. It is a simple red-brick volume with double-hung windows and scattered idiosyncratic, romantic details such as stone or metal inserts. The detail that makes this building unique is concentrated at both entrances, giving them a decidedly Gothic flavor. It is richly done, probably the last affordable architectural luxury in housing built prior to the crash and depression of the 1930s.