Justine Jentes is Associate Campaign Director at Illinois Institute of Technology and the Director of IIT’s Mies Van Der Rohe Society. Before launching the Mies Society, Justine ran a two-part business called insideART, a contemporary art gallery in Wicker Park, and art tours that took people off the beaten path to explore Chicago’s creative community. Jentes served as public tour coordinator for Around the Coyote arts festival and the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Chicago Artists’ Month, and coordinated itineraries for groups of art collectors visiting Art Chicago at Navy Pier.
Building support—noun or fundraising activity? Both descriptions apply to the soft spoken Jentes who patiently and passionately gets the job done on behalf of several Mies van der Rohe buildings on the IIT campus. This Mies cheerleader has been instrumental in the preservation of landmark gem Crown Hall, Wishnick Hall, and Carr Chapel, the only religious Mies structure in existence. Mies’ influence is visible in skylines around the world, and IIT is fortunate to have so many of his structures on a campus designed by him. After all, cell phone technology, the process for creating the Twinkie, and Silly Putty were all invented under a Mies roof. Who knew?
With a childhood connection to Mies and his buildings, Jentes went on to study urban planning. After college she launched insideART, which was ahead of its time and preceded the flurry of pop-up apartment gallery spaces in the 2000’s; in addition, she led tours of unique Chicago art venues. While in public relations, she brought art lectures to Loop offices at lunchtime.
Her innovative, creative entrepreneurial background facilitates her ability to continually stage exciting and educational events that celebrate Mies and encourage patrons of fine buildings to share in the passion of landmark preservation. Mies’ favorite martini is served at his annual birthday party. Crown Hall has been filled with Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, 1,000 mylar pillow puffs that float in the air, sit in a corner, or create their own interactive performance. A Marimekko exhibition focused on mid-century textiles and products of the less-is-more Finnish designer, and a Van Der Vogue exhibition featured fashion inspired by signature buildings.
Jentes has organized lectures, film series, and photography exhibitions. She has arranged many tours of significant Chicago buildings and radically renovated private homes. Recently on facebook, the first person to ‘like’ the Mies Society page at 2 pm that day won an autographed copy of a newly released Mies bio by Franz Schulze and co-author Edward Windhorst.
Unfortunately I was away from my computer at the time.
Can you briefly describe the Mies Van Der Rohe Society?
The Mies Society was launched in November 2002 for a threefold purpose: to preserve Mies’ legacy, particularly at IIT; restore the Mies masterpieces on the historic IIT campus; and reinforce Chicago’s international reputation for architectural distinction. It was formed at the time IIT was about to open two new buildings on campus by Rem Koolhaas and Helmut Jahn. There was a recognition that those two architects wanted to do projects at IIT to work in dialogue with Mies. Also this was a campus that had been studied, visited, and celebrated by people from around the world since Mies first designed it.
Never a wealthy university, IIT hadn’t been able to give all of the attention that it should or could have to the buildings. Since there was going to be a spotlight on the campus because of these two very celebrated architects opening buildings here, we wanted to seize that opportunity and call attention to the Mies campus, both to promote it but also to start raising money to do restoration beyond the traditional IIT donor community.
What is your position with the Mies Society?
I started in 2003, soon after it was founded, working part-time as the Director of Marketing. A few years later when my son was older, I came back full time as Director of the Society. There hadn’t been a Director when they started; they just had various staffing of people. As part of my responsibilities, I create the Mies Society programming and dynamic website content. Also I promote the IIT campus as a ‘must see’ destination for its bold campus buildings by Rem Koolhaas and Helmut Jahn, and the increasingly vibrant Bronzeville neighborhood where Mies and his followers pioneered design solutions that transformed the skylines of the world.
What are your Chicago roots and has Mies played a role in them?
I’m from Chicago. I went to Bryn Mawr College and had a major called Growth and Structure of Cities; you’ll see a theme here. I grew up in Old Town and my parents are very city people. A number of my friends lived in Mies buildings, particularly the ones up in Lakeview and at Diversey. I’m not sure that I was wholly conscious of Mies in a front and center kind of way, but I was very aware of those buildings and how they functioned, and of the spaces; I had sleepovers with my friends there. Some very close family friends were the Goldsmiths; Myron Goldsmith had been Mies’ protégé, taught here at IIT for many years, and was a beloved faculty member. That’s probably where my more specific awareness of Mies really came from, and of IIT. I’m not sure this really would have been much on my radar otherwise. Myron’s daughter now teaches here part time in Landscape Architecture, she is on the Mies Society Board, and we have been close friends for many, many years.
What are some highlights for you in your affiliation with the Mies Society?
I’m really proud of the restoration work. We’ve received a number of awards for the work and it’s been great to get outside recognition. It was satisfying when we unveiled Crown Hall and Wishnick Hall and to give tours where people would say, ‘that is really beautiful.’ Before restoration they wouldn’t have said that; the Halls looked shabby. A lot of buildings have charm when they are down and out; you grow ivy on the side and you let things slide. That is not Mies; Mies’ buildings are almost nothing and if anything is wrong with them everyone is going to look at the glass and steel and ask ‘why are there cobwebs?’
Or, ‘could someone come and hose that off?’
Having once thought this was an ugly campus I found it thrilling to have people visit. We used to be in guidebooks as one of the ‘ugliest campuses in the United States.’ Last year we were named to Forbes list of 10 Most Beautiful Campuses. That kind of transformation, even though we haven’t accomplished all of the restoration work we want to, and whether you loved Mies or not, is a real highlight.
I’ve been given a lot of leeway from the Mies Society, the board, and IIT administration. It is important to pay great respect to Mies and to celebrate what he was about, but not always to take him so seriously, but to try and include a mixture of fun. I don’t hink he would have been against that. He has a real rap for being cold and austere, but people that knew him would say that wasn’t true. It was important to liven up and use these flexible spaces; the Marimekko exhibit…that was terrific, that was just a joy.
Frankly, it is extremely challenging to raise money to restore these buildings. Because we have to attend to every detail, what seems very simple has to be done perfectly; it’s very expensive, and there aren’t a lot of people that are as passionate. It’s an ongoing big challenge, and not just here. This is true of anyone who’s doing architectural restoration. It’s a tough road.
What would you still like to achieve in this position?
Two things: we are bound and determined to finish Carr Chapel in the next twelve months. That has taken much longer because the economy came crashing down just as we began. The other thing is that I continue to run into Chicagoans every day that have not been here. We have so much work to do just to introduce our locals to IIT.
You have an innovative art background, how did you transition to this position?
The thread here is that I’m not an expert in any of this. I think what I have a talent for is being a little bit of the ‘every person’ and looking for content in a way to share it and engage people with it. Sometimes in our Mies programming we’ve done some very academic and serious things, and then we’ve done some really whacky fun things without being disrespectful. I think I’m good at pulling together people to be Mies experts: to act as ambassadors or curators.
Did those skills prepare you for your current career path?
They did. I’ve also done a lot of volunteer board work, and have worked with the board at Mies Society as well; I am a huge fan of collaboration. There’s nothing that thrills me more than being able to do a project that wraps in a couple of different organizations or teams where you get the best of everybody.
How many MVDRS’s are there?
There’s Fundacio Mies van der Rohe at the Barcelona Pavilion. Also, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, there’s a very active community at Lafayette Park in Detroit that is actually the largest collection of Mies buildings. It’s wonderful; I finally went there this summer and was thrilled. There’s also Farnsworth House, we collaborate and they’re trying to do some interesting things as well. However, there is not a universal group.
Does MVDRS partner with landmark preservationists to restore other Mies structures?
We haven’t partnered in restoration; we’ve partnered more in promoting Mies’ legacy. Without trying to be unfriendly, each of us has our own restoration issues. With that said, we have certainly shared information. Crown Hall was a leading edge in restoration. The team that did Crown Hall then went on to do the Mies building down at the University of Chicago and the Lake Shore Drive Apartments; in turn, they have been consulted for the new National Gallery in Berlin and for the Martin Luther King Library in DC. A lot was learned and explored here and we’ve been able to share that information.
What spurred restoration of Mies’ only religious structure, the Carr Chapel, at IIT?
When you think about fundraising and how to tell that story, Crown Hall was an easy story—national historic landmark and home to the College of Architecture. It is an extraordinary building in every regard, and celebrated around the world. That was a ‘no brainer’ in terms of what is the first building we are going to fix. Then you get into ‘what next?’ and it gets more complicated. We also restored Wishnick Hall: since it opened, it has been a building that every single IIT student takes at least one class in. It is a classic IIT Mies 1947 brick building and was a priority for the university from an academic programming point of view.
Although Wishnick was an extremely complicated and expensive project, we were looking for another building that had some urgency and uniqueness to it. Since Carr Chapel was the only religious building that Mies had ever done, it had that quality from a storytelling point of view that we could get a bit of excitement around. Also around that time, IIT hired a director of spiritual life because more and more students are coming to IIT with an active interest in maintaining their spiritual life here on campus. We saw an opportunity with the chapel, because of its uniqueness from an architectural standpoint, but also from a spirituality standpoint, to be able to play a role on the campus.
What is involved in maintaining landmarks?
Some of the places that are house museums could be treated much more as—and this doesn’t make it any easier for the administrators—works of art. The wear and tear is very real; these buildings get hard use. In trying to do what the top priority is here—getting a terrific education—people are not constantly thinking about the wear and tear; it’s not a criticism but they’re moving fast on a daily basis through these spaces. As soon as you’ve finished a restoration you could be starting it again tomorrow because already things have worn down.
Do you think they would ever isolate Crown Hall?
No, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a huge testament to Mies that we are using this, and essentially in the same way; all these years, and hundreds and hundreds of students more than he had hoped for. For the ability of the building to expand and embrace all of that is great.
Where does Chicago rank in world architecture?
I haven’t traveled to a lot of the ‘new’ cities—Shanghai, Dubai—so I can’t comment in that sense. Still, from architects and visitors, you hear that Chicago has great fundamentals and you can see very large-scale and small-scale projects here. You can go elsewhere and see heart-stopping, attention grabbing, high rises; but they’re not the whole range of residential and community that is here. Chicago remains a very premiere city and I don’t see that going away; the Chicago Architecture Foundation has done an outstanding job of promoting it as such. Lynn Osmond is the director; she does international travel and works on that kind of stage.
Have you seen an increase in female enrollment in IIT’s School of Architecture?
I have. One of the goals of building those two new buildings on campus, adding the landscaping, and all of the master plan work that Dirk Lohan did in the mid 90’s, was to create a sense of campus and community here; to increase the desirability of living here, not having it be such a commuter school which it had been traditionally, but to have a real residential life. All of that has been a success, and also it’s been successful in attracting more women to IIT. It is still obviously heavily skewed, and particularly architecture compared to other programs has managed to have more men than women. It’s not where everybody would like it to be, but, particularly in architecture, it’s taken a lot of strides; it’s a 40/60 ratio. The young women I know in architecture, who have been tour guides for me or who head up the AIAS, are no shrinking violets. They’re right out there. They’re leaders and very confident.
Do you see a recovery in the architecture industry in the near future?
It will come around as there still is a lot of interest in architecture, design, sustainability. Think of how many museum shows feature that, and magazine articles. There’s a lot of cultural attention on those things; it’s hard for me to imagine that we’re not going to circle back around.
What are you currently reading?
I went back and reread a book by Tony Schwartz that he wrote in the 90’s, called What Really Matters. He goes on a big quest for several years to understand the human potential movement; to see if anyone has been able to nail down how to live the most fulfilling and productive life. He looks at it from a left brain right brain exploration; he looks at it from the history of Esalen, meditation, and gurus. It’s that mindfulness thing; that everything’s moving so fast all the time and how do you slow down and look. I have been trying to walk more.
(Kathleen Waterloo had an 18-year career in interior architecture in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1996 and is currently an artist in Chicago.)