by Michael R. Allen
Every time I give a tour of the concentration of mid-century modern buildings along Lindell Boulevard between Grand and Kingshighway, I always stop at the former IBM Building at 3800 Lindell Boulevard. Built in 1959, the three-story building may have been a rather boring business box, but the designers at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum liberated the form.
What makes this building architecturally interesting as well as very practical is the cantilevered concrete block screens over the upper floors. The sectional screen reveals in each gap that the windows are nearly continuous behind — thus what seems like a very heavy building actually is light and airy inside, and screened from the sun out!
The screen is another demonstration that architects understood basic ideas about deflecting harsh sunlight and increasing energy efficiency long before they could win LEED points. The IBM Building isn’t “green” in today’s sense, of course, but it sure makes a smart move with the screens. This feature is sensitive rather than forceful, too: the screen’s overhang neatly matches the perimeter line of the battered, stone-faced pedestal on the Lindell Boulevard side. The rubble stone contrasts smartly with the modern, regulated masonry and concrete above.
Alas, today St. Louis University started removing the screen from the building. Now called Adorjan Hall, the building houses various humanities departments. Most of the upper floors is office space, occupied by professors and support staff who will now work against huge, unshielded clear glass windows. An energy-efficiency feature from 1959 is being removed in 2011, when we supposedly know better how to “green” our buildings.
If I could explain this one away, I would.