It’s December in Illinois.  Fat snowflakes fall from the sky.  There is a queue of SUV’s snaking along the interstate, waiting their turn to nose into the Engine Sheriff’s garage for a set of winter tyres.  Mr Wolf isn’t particularly warm, because the architect who designed this particular building was in thrall to Mies van der Rohe.

As a result, three walls are fully glazed, floor to ceiling, with 1960’s double glazing units.  The glass is uncoated, although it has a grey solar film on the inside.  A draught whistles in around the profiles, the seals around the units have shrunk, and there are gaps between the frame and the soffit which should have been siliconed.

A zipped-up metal roof sits above the suspended ceiling, with only a meagre amount of Timber Roll to provide insulation.  The heating consists of a hot air blower, which struggles to warm the air around it, far less put heat into the fabric of a building which has negligible thermal mass.  Mr Wolf is grateful for his fur collar, but he recalls once more that the glass box wasn’t conceived for northerly latitudes.

Mr Wolf flew into O’Hare yesterday to meet the Shale Barons.  He convinced them that a giant Scottish box fabricated from crinkly Rigidal was exactly what they needed.  They found his accent quaint, but sat up when he showed them his teeth.  The meeting was a success.  Moses, Senior VP of Production, took him to a fancy restaurant on Lake Shore Drive afterwards.  Despite his fur collar, Mr Wolf felt the biting wind coming off Lake Michigan when he left the cab and crossed the sidewalk.

When Mr Wolf was younger, he heard all about the John Hancock centre and Sears Tower from his father, who was out here in the 1960’s trying to sell Scottish machine tools to the Yankees.  These are the ingenious devices that, in war or peace, automatically drill the bores in rifles, stamp the fenders for Cadillacs, and cut the turbine blades for jet engines. They range from small machines, such as workshop lathes that sell for a few hundred dollars, to giant complexities that automatically cut and shape a section of an aircraft’s wing.

Back then, Scotland sold as many of its own brainchildren as it imported other peoples’.  Wolf senior was on an equal footing with the industrialists he sold machines to – they recognised that original ideas would always be in demand.  You can afford to be magnanimous, even a little humble, when folk beat a path to your door.  He wasn’t here looking for business: it had come looking for him.

A decade ago, by contrast, his offspring’s attitude was a curious mixture of sentimentality and hubris.  The former he felt for the place where he was educated, a school of architecture named after The World’s Most Famous Scotsman.  That was the making of him, he had decided.  The latter stemmed from where he was going.  He was convinced he would lead a world-famous practice within ten years’ time, “or I’ll eat my Calvins.”  Eyebrows were raised in amused scepticism, but his fan club on the internet cheered him on. 

Nine years have passed since he boasted that prediction; he no longer believes he is on a Mission from God.  He has almost convinced himself that he can make architecture from anything, by transmuting base materials like Kingspan and Alucobond.  Others were less than convinced.  Nonetheless, the junior wolf had always fancied seeing the windy city for himself.  Now here he was, standing in The Loop with an hour to kill before dusk, when he would return to his hotel. 

He’s surrounded by structural glazing and curtain walling – not far from Alcoa’s and Pittsburgh Corning’s factories which helped to develop this stuff in the first place.  Yet something has changed.  This isn’t the “New World” any longer, not the place which Bellow and Updike wrote about in their youth – it was the place Bellow wrote about in his dotage, of failed marriages and academic sinecures.  Tin sheds and glass boxes were a vision of the future from the 1960’s.  The companies his old man sold machine tools to, were sold in turn to the Chinese and Koreans years ago.  It was all about salesmanship.

Mr Wolf realised that he had sold the Americans their own game: a refraction of what they already knew.  But why was he still sold on the idea of High Modernism, that canon of failed experiments which looked like a million bucks, but were poorly resolved?  Things fell off them.  They cost a fortune to heat.  Their leaky roofs kept Shanghai bucket manufacturers in business.  His father’s “future” couldn’t be his.  The world had changed.

He had a lot on his mind as he gained the hotel foyer, nodded to the bellhop and took an elevator upstairs.

As Mr Wolf drifted off to sleep, the lucid part of his brain recalled re-runs of American cartoons from the 1960’s.  There was a cat called Mr Jinx who had two friend-enemies in the mice, Pixie and Dixie.   The cat had an ambivalent attitude to those two mice: he hated them, yet he was defined by them.   Their relationship was a good example of symbiosis – just like the critique of Mies van der Rohe’s aesthetic inevitably leads to discussion of detailing failures.

“There are giant glass pavillions in Chicago,” said one mouse, “which rocked the world.”

–”What’s aa this nonsense?” asked the cat, who across fifty years and a broad ocean had developed a Dundonian accent.  Mysteries of life.

“They have subtle detailing that makes you think that the structure is less material than it actually is.”

–”Pish!  Not so,” replied the cat, “That trickery with planted-on steel beams is a cheat.  The lack of materiality is all lies.  It’s lies, I tell you – lies!”

“Mies was the grandmaster of infinite space and light,” crowed the other mouse.

–”Haivers,” replied the irritated cat, “Crown Hall was badly-detailed, the roof leaked, the walls were riddled with cold bridges, it used energy like naebody’s business.   Who in their right mind would build a glass box in a cold climate?”

“But glass pavilions are abstractions of pure form…” said the first mouse.

–”Come aff it, why would ye ever put a flat roof on a building somewhere that gets both heavy rain and deep snow?”

“But you forget his enormous influence on other architects,” said the other mouse.

–”Architects?  More like degenerate copyists,” sniffed the cat.  “The Miesians are vermin, just like you.  That’s why I hate those Miesians to pieces.”  What was that, Mr Jinx?

“I hate those Miesians to pieces,” growled Mr Wolf in his sleep.

Merry Christmas, Mr Wolf.  Sleep tight.  You might just experience an epiphany on Boxing Day…

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