Beyond Buildings


In Praise of Structural Expressionism: Revisiting Dirk Lohan's Hyatt Lodge

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Photo: Aaron Betsky


I am a sucker for structural expressionism. I grew up with it in the Netherlands, grew to love the most refined version of it in the work of Louis Kahn when I came to college, and have always wonder whatever happened to its promise. Now that everything is becoming ephemeral, it seems to me that we need the clear assertiveness of structural beams holding up the house while brick or glass panels define space within their reality even more than in the bravura days of the 1950s and 1960s. Though that kind of clarity survives in the wood architecture perpetuated by the likes of Patkau Architects, you rarely see it in the world of orthogonality where most of us work, live, and play.


Photo: Aaron Betsky


Imagine my pleasant surprise when I checked into the Hyatt Lodge in Oak Brook, Illinois last weekend. The pleasure at finding myself in a web of concrete posts and beams filled in with brick panels and wood trim was even stronger because I was expecting the worst. We had chosen the worst weekend to go to Chicago: the Lollapalooza Festival had scarfed up every hotel room downtown (and I couldn’t even get a ticket), so we had found ourselves in Suburbian exile, on the campus, no less, of the McDonald’s Corporation. All we knew of our hotel was that it served the adjacent Hamburger University.


Photo: Aaron Betsky


If I had looked it up, I would have known that the campus, including the headquarters, the hotel, and the training center, all set on 80 acres of recaptured riparian wilderness, had been designed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Dirk Lohan. That, however, would not have told me much. I know Mr. Lohan only as Mies van der Rohe’s grandson and the designer of a slew of office buildings that I can only describe as so forgettable that I had to look up what they looked like.

The McDonald’s work, however, is of another order–as are one or two private homes I found that Lohan designed during the period. Though you might be able to find some Miesian characteristics in the L-shaped wing of hotel rooms he laid around a 200-year old tree, the main lodge building, as well as the office structures, seem more indebted in their design to British New Brutalism and the work of Louis Kahn.


Photo: Aaron Betsky


Nestled into a hillock next to a human-made lake, the 224-room hotel reveals itself only as a deep grid facing the water. As you drive up into the forecourt, you find yourself surrounded by frames that continue as you enter under a low canopy that extends out toward the water, while the space drops away past the reception desk to the bar and restaurant. A staircase pins the public spaces down, while rooms pivot around under the rhythm of the concrete beams.


It is evident that burgers pay for a lot of detailing, as the expressionism here depends on detailing the windows so that the beams do actually extend out onto the terrace, decreeing double layers of Roman brick as infill, accenting the meeting points with blond oak, and using stone slabs thicker than a Big Mac for balustrade and pavers. Subsequent renovations have added unnecessary details, but at least the bare bones are still there, and a scrumptious skeleton it is.




The disadvantage of this strategy is that most of the clarity disappears in the actual hotel rooms, but at least the public spaces are a clear and even didactic. What they teach, however, is not so much anything about the nature of the program, or the client, or even the nature of architecture. They display the beauty of architectural elements coming together, no more and no less. That is, perhaps, why structural expressionism never went anywhere. It is not about anything, it is self-indulgent, and it works only when you have the chance to examine and enjoy it. Most of us most of the time want our architecture to be more flexible, more part of our culture industry and, above all else, cheaper. I doubt that McDonald’s shareholders would stand for such extravagances today. And don’t even think about the energy bills, not to mention the waste that the campus’s suburban, drive-only location implies.


There is no way to justify the Hyatt Lodge at McDonald’s. All you can do is enjoy this moment of clarity and beauty in an unlikely place, as I did in exile from the city that invented the idea that architecture should be “every inch a proud and soaring thing.”




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.