Major League

A gymnasium reveals Myron Goldsmith’s architectural brawn

Although Myron Goldsmith is closely tied to Mies van der Rohe, the architect was not interested in merely copycatting his elder. The design of Arthur Keating Hall for the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) represents the most overt assertion of Goldsmith’s personalized philosophy of architecture and handling of form. Nicholas Adams’s assessment of the gymnasium was originally published in SOM Journal 5, the ongoing book series that highlights the thinking of the namesake design, engineering, and planning firm. This essay has been edited and abbreviated.

Though he designed buildings that depend thoroughly on modern engineering techniques, Myron Goldsmith (1918–1996) was in many respects a traditional architect. As he wrote in 1987, he was “part of the long historical tradition…in which architecture, engineering, and aesthetics interact to make structure the central expressive element of design.” Among Marcus Vitruvius’s firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, Goldsmith gave priority to firmitas because he believed that “structure, once determined, contains within itself the promise of commodity and delight.” With unusual rigor, Goldsmith’s work supports only one big idea: structural architecture, refined and purified, redefined and reconsidered in the light of each new architectural challenge.

Myron Goldsmith with Mies van der Rohe circa 1950. Photo courtesy Robin Goldsmith © Morley Baer | Morley Baer Photography Trust, Santa Fe

Born and raised in Chicago, Goldsmith studied at the IIT and worked in the office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1953, he received a Fulbright grant to study with Pier Luigi Nervi in Italy for two years. Afterward, he joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), first in San Francisco, where he lamented the risks of “being a structural engineer in a high seismic risk zone.” He returned to SOM’s Chicago office in 1958, and became a design partner there in 1967.

Goldsmith’s name is often linked to Mies van der Rohe. He was an undergraduate when Mies arrived at IIT in 1938 and worked on the Farnsworth House while employed by the master. At SOM, Goldsmith used many formal and structural devices that recall Mies’s oeuvre. The steel supports of multiple Goldsmith projects, such as The Republic Newspaper Plant & Offices or Inland Steel Research Laboratories, are clearly inspired by Mies. And when IIT called on Goldsmith to design additional buildings for its Mies-designed campus, results including the Engineering 1 Building and Life Sciences Building are all but indistinguishable from their predecessors.

Mies was among the 20th century’s most prominent practitioners of structural architecture, and he effectively inducted Goldsmith into its fellowship. Yet in Goldsmith’s narrative account of the history of structural architecture, Mies was but one link in a chain that began with Gothic and traditional Japanese architecture and included 19th-century iron and steel architecture and engineering, Robert Maillart, and Pier Luigi Nervi. In turn, Goldsmith pursued his own philosophy in which structure is a central ordering principle, and subtle qualities of light and surface achieve expression as part of the architectonic language. That pursuit reached an overt conclusion with the commission for Arthur Keating Hall.

The Republic Newspaper Plant & Offices. Photo © Eza Stoller | Esto

Goldsmith lived along the boundary of engineering and architecture. Although he took the licensing exam to become a professional engineer in 1943, he considered himself an architect.

His master’s thesis, The Tall Building: The Effects of Scale, presented a tall concrete skyscraper with an exoskeleton, posing a new model for thinking about change in structural engineering. Using sources from Galileo to Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Goldsmith specified (against practices of the day) that as the scale of structure increased, structural systems must change. If Mies had identified steel and concrete as the structural materials of the epoch, then Goldsmith claimed that structural grammar would have to change to meet new requirements. The thesis was an optimistic and open-ended reflection of postwar architecture, yet also a pragmatic stance.

Goldsmith’s two years with Pier Luigi Nervi provide further evidence of interest in maintaining design control without the status of designer. So did his ultimate move to SOM’s Chicago office in 1958, where he joined the architectural design department and never practiced exclusively as an engineer. Chicago’s own structural tradition and the environment of SOM provided sufficient opportunity in which to practice structural architecture as an architect.

Oakland Coliseum. Photo © Eza Stoller | Esto

Although Goldsmith worked on buildings ranging from tall towers to Transit Authority structures, over time at SOM he developed specializations that included newspaper plants and telescope stations. Sports facilities formed another expertise. During his San Francisco tenure with SOM, Goldsmith prepared a thin-shelled clear-span skating facility for the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley. Following on the heels of thin concrete structures like Minoru Yamasaki’s Lambert Field Airport, yet predating Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, this project would have represented a significant manifestation of Nervi’s influence in the United States had it been realized. Thereafter Goldsmith built two major sports facilities on the West Coast: the Portland Coliseum and the Oakland Coliseum. He also directed two masters’ theses dealing with sports facilities in the 1960s.

Commencing construction in 1965, Arthur Keating Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology was built in that slightly awkward period after SOM had replaced Mies van der Rohe as the campus architect at IIT. Walter Netsch had already built the Paul V. Galvin Library and the Grover M. Hermann Hall, in 1962 — both of which aroused a great deal of ire for responding so independently to the original campus. Arthur Keating Hall came at a critical time, then, both for the campus and for Goldsmith, and the architect sought to erase the impression of indifference to Mies’s plans left by Netsch.

Keating Hall. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

In siting Keating Hall, alternative plans show that the original idea was to empty the entire block bounded by 30th and 29th Streets, South Wabash Avenue, and South State Street, and to build a gymnasium, apartment-style dormitories, and playing fields in its stead. Community opposition, notably from neighboring Mount Carmel Baptist Church, considerably reduced the land available, and IIT narrowed the scope of the program to the gymnasium. Sports fields occupied the remainder of the available lot.

The program for the gymnasium required facilities for basketball, tennis, swimming, and squash, as well as a training room. Moveable grandstands allowed spectators to enjoy both tennis and basketball; public viewing stands for swimming were also available. Between 1964 and 1965, design work proceeded on different functional options: stacked within an expressive box or stacked under a single universal space. By March 1965 Goldsmith’s senior designer Michael Pado noted, “all design efforts will be directed toward the ‘compact scheme’ for the gym.” In addition to eliminating breaks in the surface plane, the design team tried perfecting the internal support system.

Keating Hall, interior. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

As this “compact scheme” came together, Goldsmith and Pado established the size of the building at 72,800 square feet (ultimately reduced to 68,300), divided into three levels. The basic grid was 6 feet square with windows 6 feet long and 3 feet 8 inches high. The roof consisted of exposed steel plate girders 110 feet long, spaced at 30-foot intervals, with roughly 30 visible feet from floor to ceiling. Piers supporting these beams on the east and west side of the gymnasium building also serve to carry heating and water pipes, which are exposed at the ceiling line as they wiggle up past the beams.

The greatest controversy concerned the proposal to use floor-to-ceiling glass. “There was,” wrote R.J. Spaeth, IIT’s vice president and treasurer, “no agreement on the part of the institute that the walls of this building should be of glass…In my own thinking at this point, glass is not a satisfactory wall, and until we have a solution to the problem glass presents we can make no decision as to these exterior walls.” To answer the client’s concerns, SOM worked with Pittsburgh Plate Glass to create a wall prototype that sandwiched 15-gauge polyvinyl butryal interlayer with 64 percent light transmission between two sheets of glass. To test the glass, the architects then set up a mockup panel in Crown Hall and threw baseballs and basketballs at it.

Exterior wall section. Image © SOM

Keating Hall has something in common with Crown Hall. Set over a half-floor basement, the building is a simple glass-and-steel box, though Crown Hall’s articulation of the framing piers and the floor level have been replaced here by a low-relief gridded box accented by the entrance and monumental stair. And whereas at Crown Hall only the lower level of the main floor is translucent, at Keating Hall gray translucent glass runs consistently from floor to ceiling.

Keating Hall, gymnasium. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

Warm gray translucent glass thus became Keating Hall’s defining characteristic, muting the exterior light and creating a calm, ordered interior contained by the gray walls — providing both public open space for the athletes and shielding them from the campus. The north and south ends of the gymnasium, which lack the support piers, evoke the delicate shoji screen, the walls like light scrims. Fixed elements like a right-angled water fountain stand out against the glass; athletes seem like ballet dancers on the polished floor. The building sustains an astonishing ambivalence: a rigidly modernist box with a slightly blurred luminescence recalling the effects rendered by Giorgio Morandi, one of Goldsmith’s favorite painters.

Although Keating Hall draws on Mies van der Rohe’s formal arsenal — the stair railings leading down to the lower level basement are identical to those in Crown Hall and elsewhere on the IIT campus — the project could have tapped precedents designed by SOM. At the Great Lakes Naval Station, in 1954 Bruce Graham and William Priestley had designed and built a completely glazed trussed roof box to house the Gunner’s Mate School. A gymnasium with glazed walls could also have been modeled after Sanza Architects’ trussed-beam gymnasium in Osaka, a 1957 building that also derives from the long-beam spaces of Mies.

Keating Hall, stairs to basement level. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

The relation with Mies and the comparison with the Osaka gymnasium also underline Goldsmith’s ability to modulate the stricter virtues of a structural architecture. In the Oakland Coliseum, the ceiling ribs form an iconic pattern, creating a great concrete tent over the heads of spectators recalling Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport; at The Republic newspaper plant, the pavilion is detailed with authoritative clarity but scaled (and colored) to have a humane and surprisingly warm presence on the street. Thus Keating Hall’s differences from Crown Hall — its floor-to-ceiling gray glass, the logical variation from side to end in the handling of the beams, the sleek exterior skin, even the elevation over a half basement — all represent refinements to ideas that had been developed in other circumstances to different solutions.

Though the program was entirely different, Crown Hall of course also offered guidance. Here, indeed, was the strength of the structural architect for whom no problem is unique, for whom each new solution truly belongs to a linked series of former solutions. Here too are Goldsmith’s strengths. Having determined the appropriate form of structure, he maintained a delicate touch with color, materials, and texture. Keating may have its problems as a gymnasium, as some recent renovations reveal, but the building confirms the principles of structural architecture in the right hands. And Keating found enthusiasts. “I expressed my feeling about the new gym,” John Hejduk wrote to Goldsmith. “It is nice to see a friend produce what I consider a master work. I think it extremely important that our students here at Cooper [Union] see a complete set of working drawings on that particular building.”

Turning the transparent modernist box into a translucent container that combines liberating openness and privacy, Arthur Keating Hall is an imaginative structural and aesthetic solution for a gymnasium in an educational institution. Warm in tone without sacrificing studious rationalism, it also responds sympathetically to Mies van der Rohe’s campus plan and structural patterns. Anticipating the character of much later works like Steven Holl’s Nelson Atkins Museum addition or the experimental glass screens of James Carpenter, Goldsmith demonstrated with Keating Hall that modernism could occupy a range of emotional territories. In Aesthetics and Technology of Building, Pier Luigi Nervi uses words that might have been spoken of Goldsmith’s magnum opus: “One can say that despite an abundance of impersonal technical solutions, correct building entails that warmth of human intuition and sensibility which characterized the structural architecture of the past.”

Keating Hall, view from west under elevated train line. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto
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