Mies' Last Building

By Joel Barkley


The last building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe stands in vibrant downtown Louisville, Kentucky.  The American Life Insurance Building's story echoes that of Mies' Seagram Building a decade earlier in that it also came about by way of a daughter's suggestion.  It is an oft-told story, Phyllis Lambert bringing Mies and Philip Johnson to her father for the design of a headquarters.

The American Life Insurance Building, and the late Dinwiddie Lampton, Jr., a Louisville legend.

I was at a party last weekend and had the honor of speaking with Nana Lampton, who in the 1960s urged her father, Dinwiddie Lampton, Jr., to hire Mies for the headquarters of his insurance company. We were talking about architectural sustainability and she mentioned to me that she'd added a green roof to the Mies building, and I thought how poetic that was. 

I dashed immediately from the party to its granite podium. I couldn’t help but think fellow "master" of modernism Le Corbusier is smiling down with Mies on Ms. Lampton's green roof, as a better-late-than-never embodiment of Le Corbusier's five points of architecture. I took these pictures to prove them! 


1. Pilotis (Legs)

The lightness of its legs upon the granite plinth is like Seagram, even if the weight is less with its truncated massing.  The building is only five visible floors here, resulting in a horizontality more akin to Mies' Post Office in Chicago than one of his towers.

Huge bay span, allowing free plan. 

2. Free Plan

Like all of Mies' structures, the large rectangular steel column bays give maximum plan flexibility. 

3. Free Façade

The cor-ten steel curtain wall allows any arrangement of windows, and Mies picked ribbon windows.

4. Ribbon Windows 

See above.

The security guard wouldn't let me on the roof, so I'll have to do with photos from above, in the daytime. 

5. Roof Garden.

Finally! Thanks to Ms. Lampton, Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision of literally lifting the ground plane, rather than replacing land with a building, is actually happening. It is ecologically and aesthetically responsible for us to plant our surfaces. Le Corbusier told us to from the beginning. Modernism is green.