Dirk Lohan, grandson of Mies van der Rohe, makes his own mark in architecture with grace.

by daven wu

TO be both an architect and the grandson of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is a tricky balancing act to pull off. Yet, Dirk Lohan wears the mantle of his famous pedigree with grace and a great deal of internal resilience.

To this day, even in an age of starchitects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, Mies - a man so famous that only his partial surname is necessary - remains revered for the purity and simplicity of the form for which his name has become synonymous.

Lohan recognises all this and when he says, somewhat offhandedly: "It's somewhat my responsibility to make sure Mies' legacy is not mistreated," you get the sense that he made his peace with his unusual familial and professional responsibility a long time ago. The son of Mies' daughter Marianne, Lohan was living in Munich when his grandfather returned to Europe in 1953 for a visit for the first time since he left for America in the Second World War. Though only 15 at the time, Lohan was already a keen student of his grandfather's, so much so that in 1962, after graduating from the Technische Hochschule in Munich, he moved to Chicago and joined Mies' firm.

"He was already world famous by then," Lohan remembers, his soft spoken voice still coloured with a melodic German accent. "I admired him a great deal. He was my mentor. He was a thoughtful, philosophical person about life and architecture, in particular. And when he died, we continued his firm for another five years during which time we completed projects he had started, and after that, we became Lohan Associates and then, finally, Lohan Anderson."

From his spacious office in Chicago in a tower designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill that's very much a Miesian homage, Lohan runs a tight ship of around 35-plus staff. Many of the city's landmarks including the Adler Planetarium, the City of Chicago Police Department HQ and Soldier Field were spearheaded by the firm.

A recent project was the redesign of the ground floor lobby of the IBM Tower for the newly minted Langham hotel. Which sounds innocuous enough until you realise that the skyscraper was one of the last projects Mies was working on with Lohan when he died in August 1969.

It was the largest of Mies' buildings in Chicago and it remains the sole example of his commercial work in which the structural steel frame is enclosed in an anodized aluminum curtain wall. To add to the building's perfect storm of design, pedigree and archival importance, it was listed as a landmark in 2008.

By the time Lohan came onboard the Langham project, some preliminary concepts had already been proposed for the hotel's entrance, but none of them transitioned seamlessly from the street into what is a typical Mies lobby - an austere triple-volume space framed by travertine marble, a grid of structural steel and enormous panes of glass.

Lohan's solution was to hang shimmering bronze beaded curtains that cocoon the light filled hall with an intimacy appropriate for a hotel lobby. Low-slung sofas and tables designed by himself and Mies anchored a tableau of teak and holly lamps, and original artwork and furnishings by local contemporary artists Enoc Perez, Virgionio Ferrari and David Klamen.

The result is an inviting entrance that never detracts from the drama of Mies' original, very rational design while it adds uncharacteristic warmth and colour.

In a way, the dichotomy of the Langham lobby perfectly captures Lohan's juggling act of familial legacy and personal aesthetic. His practice is much in demand even as he finds himself increasingly feted by deep pocket clients in China and India.

That said, Lohan remains especially conscious of the magnetic hold that Mies still exerts on today's architects.

"There is more interest in him than ever before," Lohan says. "There are books, retrospectives and films. The new skyscrapers in London all owe something to Mies. He was a giant of the 20th century. That does not mean you have to do buildings that are similar to his, but it is important, especially if you are a student of architecture, to know about him the way you know about other historical figures like Brunelleschi, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright."


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