Architect Peter Roesch dies, was among last living students of Mies van der Rohe
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Peter Roesch was one of the last living links to design giant Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
He studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology and went on to create admired buildings in his own right, passing along lessons taught by the master of “less is more.”
Mr. Roesch, 89, died Sept. 24 in Lincoln Park “in our apartment in a Mies building, looking out over the lake,” said Biba Roesch, his wife of 54 years.
Mies was once director of Germany’s Bauhaus school. “One of the ideals of the Bauhaus was to make good design available to all people,” said architect John Ronan, a finalist for the Obama Presidential Center. “That philosophy lives on in Peter’s work and life. Good design should be for everybody, not just rich people.”
His style, crisp, clean and modern, is evident in “a jewel of a building” he created at 65 E. Huron while at the firm of Hammond and Roesch, according to architect Cynthia Weese. It houses the offices of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
“It’s a lovely little building, just the right scale and just the right size,” said Weese, dean emerita of the School of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and a founding partner of the firm of Weese Langley Weese.
“That juxtaposition of the 19th Century cathedral with the mid-century modern [Roesch building] reflects the energy of Chicago,” said Episcopal Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee.
Mr. Roesch “learned from the master, without copying,” said architecture critic and writer Lee Bey.
On a WBEZ blog in 2012, Bey described another of Mr. Roesch’s works — a BMO Harris Bank in Villa Park — as “a spectacular piece of modernism.”
Mr. Roesch told Bey the bank, at Villa Avenue and St. Charles Road, was inspired by an unbuilt Mies design for an Indianapolis drive-in. Its airy, exposed trusses solved a problem.
“He needed to deal with the soil conditions,” Bey said. “The truss system spread the load out.”
Mr. Roesch said critics questioned the all-glass design.
“I said, ‘It is a safe bank,’” he told Bey. “‘You can see inside.’”
Mr. Roesch also worked for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and taught at UIC, where he became friends with architect Felix Candela, a mentor to Santiago Calatrava.
Mr. Roesch grew up in Leipzig. Believing his future was limited in post-war East Germany, his mother encouraged him to leave. For the journey, “she sold one of her pieces of jewelry to buy him a loaf of bread,” said Biba Roesch.
Young Peter managed to take a series of trains toward West Germany by flashing an official-looking bicycle permit, his wife said.
“It only said ‘Peter Roesch is allowed to use a bicycle,’ and it was stamped by a U.S. commander,” she said. “He had this unbelievable sense this was the only way, and it worked — he came to the West.”
He arrived in the United States as a Fulbright scholar, studying under Mies at IIT. He drank in Mies’ modern designs, according to his wife, who said: “Coming from Germany, with pitched roofs and tiled roofs, then coming to America, it was so amazing, what Mies was teaching. He knew right away: ‘Oh, this is it.’“
In a 2005 interview with the Chicago Reader, Mr. Roesch recalled the power of Mies’ silent scrutiny and how it exposed one’s flaws.
When he showed Mies some of his designs, “he did not say one word for 20 minutes. It forced me to look at my own work, and I found all the mistakes — everything. After 20 minutes of silence, I said, ‘Mies, could you come back tomorrow? I’ll fix it all up.’ And he laughed, and he puffed his cigar, and he left.”
Mr. Roesch “was one of the important links between the Bauhaus of Mies and contemporary Chicago architecture,” Ronan said. “He came to IIT while Mies was here and then built projects in his career that were architecturally significant and then went on, like Mies, to teach at IIT for many years.”
“His teaching at IIT speaks to his creativity and generosity,” Ronan said. “He shared his knowledge with young people for many years.”
At IIT, he also befriended Prairie School landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, whose Lincoln Park Lily Pool was partly visible from Mr. Roesch’s condo.
He is also survived by his daughters Katharina Walker and Michelle, sons Stefan and James and eight grandchildren. A celebration of life is being planned.