Alfred Swenson and his late wife, Pao-Chi Chang, were drawn to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) for one reason: Mies van der Rohe. Both studied architecture there under Mies during the 1950s. The Modern master’s influence would inform their work for decades, first while practicing at larger firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where Chang worked, and later when the couple started their own studio together. After all those years designing public buildings, the Chicago-based architects finally had an opportunity to design a home for themselves when they purchased a 10-acre plot in northern Illinois, a few miles from the Wisconsin border.
The design for the 1,500-square-foot weekend retreat—which the architects called Casina after the Latin word for a small cabin—emerged slowly over several years. Once built, the steel-and-glass structure was an unexpected sight among the barns and silos that dot the surrounding corn fields. And while at first glance Casina appears as a temple to Modernism, much stronger influences—both cultural and cosmic—were at play.
Chang, who lived for years in Shanghai before arriving at IIT, brought many Chinese ideas, if not forms, to the design. Following traditional Chinese architecture, the house faces south. Like a Chinese temple, the structure is symmetrical about its north–south axis, and rises from a stepped, earthen terrace. Though it sits within a rolling field, the building purposely does not engage its surroundings, but keeps them at a distance. The architects were inspired to do this by a Yuan Dynasty scroll: In the painting, two scholars contemplate the landscape from an open-fronted pavilion.
Inside, dark, classic Modern furniture—including pieces designed by Mies and Gordon Bunshaft, and inspired by Le Corbusier—contrasts with the stark white interiors, where the only hint of decoration is the ceiling’s scattered arrangement of PAR lamps, meant to resemble a star cluster.
“We were taught that ornament is crime,” Swenson, who is now semiretired, reminisces. The designers did allow themselves some leeway on the exteriors—most noticeably, the helices that wrap around the steel columns at the north and south facades. Like the star cluster inside, the metallic appliqués along the east and west facades, and the spherical wave shape of the raised terrace, these twisting rods are manifestations of the dwelling’s astronomical and mathematical inspirations—which also dictated the proportions of cabinets, the pattern on fascias, and the arrangement of mullions. “My architecture friends joke that the house is very intellectual,” he says. Though he doesn’t disagree, calling the house a “lodging for the mind,” Swenson is also able to joke about it. “I might put up pictures at some point, but like Philip Johnson said about his Glass House, we’ve got very expensive wallpaper.”