The strong impact of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s architecture on his adopted country is obvious from the extent of the American centennial celebration of his birth. Parties are occurring at all the proper places.
The big exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art organized by Arthur Drexler—“Mies van der Rohe Centennial Exhibition”—harkens back to Philip Johnson’s MOMA exhibition of 1947, which introduced Mies to the American public in a comprehensive manner. Together with Johnson’s catalogue, that exhibition provided the first extended survey of the architect’s work anywhere in the world—this when Mies was already sixty. In some way, Mies uniquely belongs to MOMA. Not only did Johnson consider him to be the greatest of all modern architects (Johnson began his architectural career as an avowed disciple), but Alfred Barr also admired his work. So much was this the case that in the mid-1930s Barr attempted (in vain) to convince his trustees to make Mies the architect for the museum. In gratitude, Mies left his formidable collection of drawings and office correspondence to MOMA, making what is officially called the Mies van der Rohe Archive the most important source for scholarship on the architect anywhere in the world. So the exhibition at MOMA is something of a family affair.
But of course Mies belongs to Chicago, too, where he was welcomed as an emigre in 1938 and where he established his office and taught. Two exhibitions are scheduled there. The first, entitled “Mies van der Rohe: Architect as Educator,” takes place at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It will cover three aspects of Mies’s career: his teaching at the Bauhaus and at IIT, his buildings for IIT, and the transmission of his ideas by teachers at IIT. The second Chicago exhibition, entitled “The Unknown Mies van der Rohe and his Disciples of Modernism,” will be on view at the Art Institute. What is “unknown” here are some two hundred and fifty drawings and objects from various sources outside the Archive in New York. The exhibition will also feature the works of some of the best of Mies’s disciples in the Chicago area, where many of the finest Mies-inspired buildings were erected during the last years of his life, and after.
The centennial is being celebrated with the appearance of several books as well, some of them slightly anticipating the event. There has been a comprehensive annotated bibliography and chronology on Mies by David Spaeth; a sensitive and detailed study of Mies’s country houses by Wolf Tegethoff; and two biographies, one by Spaeth, which provides a fine introduction to Mies’s career, the other by Franz Schulze, which will surely be the standard life of Mies for some time to come. All two thousand drawings in the MOMA Archive (which also contains twenty thousand other items) will appear in four volumes, with commentary by Drexler and Schulze. There will be three exhibition catalogues, as well as a volume of essays on Mies by leading scholars, to be published by MOMA. In the offing, too, is an analysis by Richard Pommer and Christian Otto of the Weissenhof Exhibition of 1928 in Stuttgart, which Mies directed. All in all, the extent of the Mies celebration in America is without precedent for any architect.1 Only the re-erection of his famed Barcelona Pavilion on its original site, which is scheduled to be completed this spring, matches in significance the American festivities.
All this enthusiasm is the more astonishing because only yesterday, it seems, Mies was the modernist of greatest stature at the bottom of the postmodernist barrel. Robert Venturi had crystallized growing sentiments in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1966 when he inverted Mies’s austere dictum “less is more” to “less is a bore.” The architectural critic Charles Jencks made Mies the villain, implicitly, where not explicitly, in his series of almost annual reports—from the 1970s onward—on “where architecture is now.” Jencks bemoaned what he termed the “univalent” meaning of a Miesian I-beam from the Seagram Building, which he compared to the inexhaustible “multivalent” imagery of Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp. From the Chapel’s sculptural forms Jencks happily extracted such peekaboo images as praying hands, a nun’s coif, and a boat. An imaginative eye, Jencks clearly implied, could wrench even more images from the Chapel, and the more the merrier.
Even without such critical prompting, however, by the 1970s the public at large had thoroughly tired of the metal-and-glass corporate rectangular blocks which loomed in every American downtown. To this day they continue to appear, in the rearguard of unimaginative office buildings. For these Mies has been held ultimately responsible. Yet along comes his centennial and the occasion is a triumph.
The substantial notice of his achievement does not mark a return to the Mies variants, copies, and dilutions which swept America (and then the world) in the late 1950s and 1960s. Rather, it shows that the time has come—and more quickly than one would have expected a few years ago—when the surface effects of what is termed postmodernism are themselves becoming a “bore.” The postmodernist idea of architecture has begun to wear thin: the nondescript box, fronted by stage-flat allusion to high-style buildings of the past, or to folk and commercial vernacular, or to Shangri-la ornament, or to some mishmash of these, and all treated in a broad, cartoonlike manner. Not that the “decorated shed,” which Venturi and his collaborators extolled in Learning from Las Vegas of 1972, has lost its relevance; nor is all postmodernist architecture mere superficial effect. Yet there is enough of the superficial kind to create a longing for a more serious architecture. And here the gravity of Mies’s mien and message begins to impose itself—this time, happily, it would seem, more for the implications of his buildings than for the superficialities of his manner.
“I don’t want to be interesting,” Mies is often quoted as saying. “I want to be good.”
One expects to sense the immense authority of Mies’s example upon stepping into the MOMA exhibition, and one is not disappointed. The clarity and spare elegance of Arthur Drexler’s exhibition design are especially congenial to Mies’s work; they intensify one’s awareness of an achievement which is the more commanding in that its austerity provides no special effects behind which to hide. “I don’t want to be interesting,” Mies is often quoted as saying. “I want to be good.” No curator is better able than Drexler to place and scale photographs so as to reveal the qualities inherent in buildings, or better able to distribute them rhythmically within an exhibition space so as to suggest the creative flow and punctuation of sequences within an oeuvre. Mies’s career, rooted as it is in a series of basic themes explored with great intensity, is beautifully articulated through such exhibition design.
Yet it must be said that this exhibition has an official aura to it: it confirms cachet rather than offering new ideas. (These, presumably, will be found in Chicago.) The exhibition includes many drawings that should provide insight into Mies’s design process, especially where they are gathered into sheaves at three points in the show: namely, in a group of schemes for the courted houses of the 1930s, a veritable frieze of sketches for the IIT buildings, and (one of the high spots in the exhibition) an array of preliminary variants for Mies’s furniture. But no special effort is made to guide the viewer through these drawings. Luckily, the furniture drawings—because of their easily understood nature, and because of the presence of the furniture itself (as the ultimate resolution to all the variants)—make a striking impact anyway. Above all, they show the tremendous versatility with which Mies could vary a design.
The MOMA exhibition, in fact, seems to be deliberately intended as an extension of what Johnson did almost forty years ago. Many of the photographs are the same—and, of course, for many of the earlier projects which were never built, or for buildings that no longer exist, they must be the same. But even recent work appears in the ideal state of what seem to be the original presentation photographs. These tend toward a middle-toned grayness and slight fuzziness which removes them from any immediate sense of visitation. One wishes for the jolt of fresh visions that might have come from a leading architectural photographer of the present generation. One also wishes for views that might have given a sense of Mies’s buildings holding their own (or perhaps failing to do so) in their settings.
The wall labels do occasionally comment on the practical deficiencies of Mies’s buildings. Thus, we read that the twin blocks for the 860 Lake Shore Drive apartments looked best when they were skeletons, before tenants moved in. They spoiled the homogeneity of Mies’s glass front by individually adjusting the gray drapery and Venetian blinds which he had decreed as an outer layer of uniformity to cloak the even more individualistic window treatments that tenants might choose to hang behind. Another label asserts that the Crown Hall at IIT is best seen in its model, where the ceiling appears as a pristine plane without the mottled texture of acoustical tile and the interruptions of inset panels for fluorescent lights. Yet another confesses that the architectural scale of the Berlin National Gallery overwhelms most of the works installed in it, while light from the all-glass walls, even though deeply recessed under the widely projecting plane of the roof, competes with the light that the curator seeks. And so on.
But in Drexler’s presentation, which is as remorselessly ideal as Mies would have wished it, the deficiencies are mentioned only in passing. And, to be fair, the ideal presentation permits Mies’s idea of architecture to appear without the distraction of what may seem to be peripheral concerns. If, however, “Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space,” as Mies said it was, then one would like to sample a piece of the “epoch.” For surely at this late date, when major buildings by Mies in the United States have been up for thirty and forty years, his ideal order ought to be seen in context. The point of such an exercise would be not to show the flaws in Mies’s work, but to assess the degree to which abstract architectural orders of the power and intensity of Mies’s organize and ennoble, as promised, the environments in which they exist. The mostly black-and-white photographs in the exhibition confirm that nothing here is meant to disturb the gray-flannel decorousness.
Even an exhibition as dedicated to the pursuit of the ideal as this one should have given more attention to the material effects of Mies’s design, on which his idealization depends. Fewer photographs might have permitted more large-scale (even full-scale) models of details. Where such details do occur in the exhibition the effect is electrifying. The gleaming reproductions of columns from the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat House possess the intensity of abstract sculpture. A large wooden model of a detail from the National Gallery in Berlin—Mies used it to study the relationship of the weighty roof slab to its pinned juncture—overwhelms the photographs around it. The physical presence of more such models might have jolted the viewer out of the haze of idealization the photographs help to create. How much more vivid the exhibition could have been with large-scale, comparative models of Mies’s American framed-metal-and-glass buildings, for example, or with a sequence of models illustrating various combinations of framing and infill for the buildings of IIT.
The exhibition begins with a threshold introduction to Mies’s neo-classicism prior to World War I. But soon after one confronts his passion for materials in the famous pair of drawings for glass-tower buildings (1921 and 1922). These are among the most monumental architectural drawings of the modern movement, in both size and concept. They introduce a series of five revolutionary projects done by Mies between 1920 and 1924, for four of which the original perspective drawings are preserved. Although a nostalgia for neo-classicism lingers in some of Mies’s drawings of the mid-1920s, these revolutionary projects really initiated his full commitment to the idea of modern architecture.
The glass towers were designed to fit an irregular, wedge-shaped site—one in prismatic angles, the other in free-form curves. In the drawings, which are over six feet high, they appear as cliffs of glass, and show the evanescent shifts of reflections induced by the angles and curves, respectively, of the two designs. Further along in the exhibition, projects for a spreading country house and a framed office building in reinforced concrete are captured in equally large drawings, these over ten feet long. The surfaces of these buildings possess a sandiness of texture on which, one feels, a match could be struck; the matte granularity of the wall surfaces is magnified by contrast with the fragile glint transparency of the glass openings. Mies presents all four projects with head-on directness: he shows no more than the buildings in generalized settings and emphasizes the materials from which they directly emerge.
The same direct involvement with materials is recorded in photographs of the industrial exhibitions which Mies did with Lilly Reich in the late Twenties. A glass exhibition features a phalanx of tall, broad, glass cylinders. A silk exhibition uses only chrome-plated tubing, on which the material is draped to create an undulating, freestanding wall of shimmering fabric, reminiscent of the curved-glass building, which he would never realize. A materials exhibition features a foreground of logs of rare woods as they come rough-hewn from the jungle; polished planks hang on the wall behind. In works like these, where the physical presence speaks for itself, Mies appears as a spiritual forebear to the materialist Minimalists of the 1960s.
The elemental nature of Mies’s creativity, so purely focused on architecture and what it could mean for the modern epoch, has been alternately a source of inspiration and exasperation.
Had Drexler made more of the physical aspects of Mies’s buildings, his show could have found a happy conjunction with the exhibition of Richard Serra’s sculpture upstairs at MOMA. Both architect and sculptor stare into the very guts of materials and force a comparable intensity of confrontation on viewers of their works through the spare assertion of physical proportion and structural possibilities. The architect idealizes what the sculptor approaches realistically. In a world of unlimited funds, imagine the impact of Serra’s metal plates in a gallery upstairs, with a reconstruction of Mies’s monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg below—the burnt clinker brick stacked up to symbolize the wall before which these German Communists met their political martyrdom, the long, narrow, Cubist-like play of its rectangular blocks calling up coffins.
The elemental nature of Mies’s creativity, so purely focused on architecture and what it could mean for the modern epoch, has been alternately a source of inspiration and exasperation. The imperious austerity, resolve, and refinement which he expended on ARCHITECTURE—one tends mentally to capitalize the word in his connection—bespeak something of the manner of the grand seigneur, as well as something of a Michelangelesque terribilità. Thanks to Franz Schulze’s new biography, and to the current fashion for a franker approach to architects’ private lives, we know that Mies abandoned his wife and children, and that he escaped all his life from a full commitment to women—in order to preserve his personal freedom for the pure realm of architecture. He could be charming, jovial with close friends despite his natural reserve, and even caring—but only insofar as these activities did not impinge on the core of his concern.
Mies’s self-absorption also accounted for his passivity with respect to politics. As Schulze remarks, between 1928 and 1933 Mies built a monument for the Communists, briefly headed a socialist-oriented school (the Bauhaus), and competed as a finalist for the design of the Nazis’ Reichsbank. In most men such actions would indicate rank opportunism; but Mies was far from opportunistic when it came to what mattered to him. Rather, he was indifferent to politics. Of course, the consequences of all action, personal and professional, cannot be ignored; but, if the integrity of a life lies in one field of endeavor, then that is where the ultimate reckoning must be made.2 Mies’s private life only shows how intense and single-minded, and somewhat frightening, his commitment to architecture was. Because it was so intensely focused, it was even fiercer than the heedlessness of Wright and Le Corbusier to extra-professional concerns.
If Mies now seems to be re-emerging from temporary eclipse as a major inspiration in architecture, it is not because his essentialist approach to architecture is single-minded or narrowly focused, but because it is comprehensive. He repeatedly calls on the “truth” of architecture, but the location of this truth depends on its fix in relation to three coordinates. If what Mies finds possesses massive authority, it is because his three tests for truth are integrated and mutually reinforcing.
First, of course, there is truth to technology. Mies’s convictions about technology may have been innate, considering his patrimony in the building trades. Even though the family specialty was in decorative marble work for monuments and architecture—hardly the cutting edge of technology—at the very least it instilled in Mies his impeccable sense of craft and workmanship. When he came to work as an assistant to Peter Behrens in 1908, he became immersed in technology. Behrens was the first large-scale corporate designer of the twentieth century. From 1908 to 1914, he directed the design of factories, workers' housing projects, products, advertising, and corporate image for Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft in Berlin (the equivalent to America’s General Electric). Behrens’s larger aim was to provide Germany with a national image of industrial order and might. Through the harmonious design of consumer products, the ideal of technological enlightenment would spread to the German people; and by export these spare, well-proportioned, conveniently organized products would carry the image of German technological excellence throughout the world. Mies’s experience at AEG confirmed his conviction that architecture was a heroic endeavor, capable of exemplifying through the truth of technology the “will of the epoch.”
Truth to architecture, Mies’s second coordinate, came to Mies, and a number of other German architects of the same time, most particularly from the early nineteenth-century neo-classicism of Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Schinkel’s longing for the classical past, like neo-classicism generally in the early nineteenth century, was essentially romantic. (Indeed, in his later work he made increasing forays into medieval style, which did not of course interest Mies.) Schinkel brought Renaissance forms and order to Greek “primitivism” and “purification,” relieving the severity with ornamental profiling and embellishment (which he chose with a collector’s instinct for the precious and sumptuous). All of this he organized with allusions to picturesque qualities in the massing, silhouettes, and light effects that characterize the architecture of this period.
Schinkel’s country retreats around Potsdam especially inspired Mies. In Mies’s work, clusters of linked, templelike blocks and towers, as in Poussin’s arcadian paintings, are fitted out with arcades, loggias, arbors, pools, and steps. The multiple steps accommodate the many changes of level by which Schinkel’s spread of symmetrical building blocks and courted gardens—arranged in an asymmetrical composition—interact with the parklike informality of the surrounding landscape.
Although Mies was attracted to the work of Schinkel before coming to AEG, his enthusiasm for Schinkel’s work was enormously reinforced by Behrens’s devotion to Schinkelesque neo-classicism. Behrens occasionally took his assistants to visit Schinkel’s work in Berlin and Potsdam. For Behrens, the technological and the neo-classical intersected. The severity and harmony of Hellenic classicism—as filtered through early neo-classicism—defined the goals to which modern technological design should aspire. Behrens despised the purely functional as “banal.” Although technology must provide the basis for form in a technological age, a narrow, functionalist approach to technology could not produce “the moment of beauty.” For this, the simple forms appropriate to technology must be ennobled by reference to the geometry, proportion, and rhythms of Hellenic classicism. To Behrens—and his words could be Mies’s—“the realm of art begins at the point where an object that has been simplified into a sovereign form becomes the universal symbol for all similar objects.” Analogously, for Mies the tradition that had been classical architecture should inform the technology now decreeing what architecture must be. Eventually, however, Mies was disaffected with what he saw as Behrens’s tendency to use Hellenic forms too literally, especially in architecture, where they often appeared as stripped-down versions of what they had been. Mies considered such design to be extrinsic to what modern architectural form should be.
“Sovereign form,” “will of the epoch,” such phrases indicate the profound influence on both Behrens and Mies of various theories of cultural determinism pervasive in nineteenth- and twentieth-century German culture. Among them there was the material determinism of the architectural theorist Gottfried Semper, although Behrens explicitly and Mies implicitly deplored Semper’s positivism. There was the Kunstwollen of the art historian Alois Riegl, who posited an “artistic will” moving in the cultural substratum to pre-ordain certain formal predilections at particular times, which obviously appealed to both architects. In the early 1920s, when Mies’s reading seemed to have been most intense, he also came upon Oswald Spengler’s deterministic view of historical cycles, with its admonition that only by acknowledging and working within the situation of the inevitable modern decline of Western culture could creative artists prevail. Mies’s fatality of outlook, rooted in historical process, is ponderously at odds with Le Corbusier’s sprightly and expansive recommendation that “eyes that do not see” need only open to ocean liners, automobiles, and airplanes in order to grasp parallels to the forms on the Acropolis, which are all around us in these emanations of l’esprit nouveau.
Mies aphorized St. Thomas, using the language of the modern philosopher Max Scheler: “Truth is the significance of facts.”
To Mies’s coordinates of technology and architecture can be added a third: truth to essence. Mies came to this third truth in the early 1920s, after leaving Behrens. It was then that he discovered his lifelong affinity to Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Aquinian judgment of things by their “essentiality,” wherein the knowledge of the “form proper to [the] nature” of particular things can be known through sympathetic “intelligence.” Mies aphorized St. Thomas, using the language of the modern philosopher Max Scheler: “Truth is the significance of facts.” As Franz Schulze points out, this is not quite what St. Thomas said; it is rather a creative misreading by a nonphilosopher with certain practical as well as spiritual ends in mind.3
These ways of locating “truth”—from technology, Hellenic architecture, and Aquinian philosophy—provided the reinforcing modes of inquiry by which Mies attempted to penetrate to the essence of architectural form in a pragmatic, aesthetic, and spiritual sense. But then, his understanding of architecture was also essential in character. He focused on the prototypes in which architecture most revealed itself: namely, primal types, primal components, and primal material. For Mies the probing for essentials consisted in making the essential even more vividly itself. It is this mesh of essentiality in his work which makes his influence so prodigious and, it might be added, almost inescapable, whether one is consciously influenced by him or not.
The architectural types Mies turned to were not functional or institutional, nor were they stylistic. They were fundamental. Above all, he came to concentrate on two orthogonal building types—the skeletal framed building and the pavilion. It is no exaggeration to assert that he defined these types more purely and vividly than they had ever been defined before in Western culture. The pavilion especially he made his own. In other cultures (in Asian cultures, for example) the pavilion is a major architectural type. In Western culture it always had a minor status. It calls up what is porchlike and in general agreeably playful. In Western culture, temples perhaps mark the most monumental approach to the pavilion; but, in their developed form, they are essentially closed by columns and the wails of the cells inside. Alternatively, “pavilion” is sometimes used to designate a many-windowed, decisively roofed, porchlike wing to a building, as notably in many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early prairie houses, which in fact made a great impression on Mies from their pre-World War I publication in Germany. (Where “pavilion” is used for any wing, however—as in the by now old-fashioned designation for hospital wings—the architectural meaning of the term virtually disappears.)
Mies seems to have been especially attracted to the pavilion because it is inherently “almost nothing.” It is a roof on widely spaced supports which, if partitioned at all, is done so lightly with screens. The classic example is the Japanese house, where screens (as paper panels) can be wholly removed to make a porch—a roofed platform from which to contemplate the walled garden. Mies not only devoted much of his architectural career to this minimal type, but he gave it great variety of expression—and great monumentality, too.
There is another reason for us to focus on Mies’s pavilions. The multi-storied framed building in his American work represents the most objective (or most technological) aspect of his work, the pavilion the most subjective (i.e., the most aesthetic and spiritual). Even though the expressive range of his framed buildings extends from the Paestum austerity of 860 Lake Shore Drive to the Erechtheum luxuriousness of the Seagram Building, his framed-building design generally drifted toward developers. The excellence of what resulted proved that Mies could stand up to the “will of the epoch” in its most pragmatic sense. His pavilions do include some spectacular technological demonstrations, notably his project for the Chicago Convention Hall—a vast space roofed in a deep plane of tightly latticed trusses and completely supported at the perimeter on V-shaped trussing that rests on low cylindrical columns of reinforced concrete. But generally these pavilions tended toward the subjective side of his design. It was the Aquinian sense of essence, after all, that led Mies to insist (unreasonably) that the space of the Convention Hall be absolutely clear of interior supports and that such a vast space be covered by a flat plane requiring deep and complex truss work. (Some kind of shell construction would probably have been the “sensible” choice for the enclosure of such a gigantic, uncolumned space.)
The most lyrical of Mies’s works are to be found in his residential pavilions. In them what is rational most evidently becomes intuitive. Had it been built, the Hubbe House might have been a masterpiece. An arcadian escape from the remorseless technological aspects of the “will of the epoch,” it was one of a series of court houses which Mies did in the 1930s. In these courted pavilions, the perimeter of the site is wholly, or (as here), very nearly, closed off from the outside world by its enframement within a continuous wall. Roof planes on slender supports combine with floor planes, wall planes, and transparent plate-glass planes, sliding over, beneath, and beyond one another. The remaining, unroofed spaces within the enframing perimeter wall become garden courts, where lawns, pools, and sky are transformed into planes as well. In the Hubbe House, a void occurs on one elevation of the enframing wall, providing a narrow vista beyond the property. In this slot of space Mies’s pencil economically captures the glint of the river, with a distant sailboat tilted into the breeze. In this magic of transparent, solid, verdant, and spatial planes, a darker scribble makes an armchair materialize in the space, and then a fireplace and a piece of sculpture. Mies is a master of the scribble. What is atmosphere suddenly becomes an object in space, in a manner which suggests objects making an appearance from fog, or the materialization of objects in a Giacometti drawing.
Mies’s courted houses have become the universal property of modernism, like everything else he did; hence, it is difficult now to capture their originality. There was no real precedent for them, despite the substantial cues Mies took from Wright and de Stijl. What the Hubbe House really does is to invoke, in a new way, Schinkel’s country villas in Potsdam. It provides a wonderful play between classical equilibrium and asymmetrical layout, between a continuous sense of architectural movement (as of a light breeze moving through the house) and restful balance, between building and nature. This is pure Schinkel. Previous to Schinkel there was only the Roman villa, with its garden courts and painted landscape allusions on the walls. One feels that an idyll like the Hubbe House was fated to remain unbuilt—destined to be an Embarcation for Cythera as Germany prepared for war.
Mies continually explores fresh possibilities in his pavilions. They begin with the brick project for a country house of 1924, the most Wrightian of the pavilions, with its long walls stretching out in a cross-shape from a relatively dense core. Simultaneously, it is the pavilion most indebted to de Stijl, with its excessive asymmetry and the continuation of the walls right off the page into theoretical infinity. Mies pulls in this expansiveness in the Barcelona Pavilion of 1929. The flat plane of infinity becomes a temple platform; walls that are straight or folded planes stand close to the edge of the platform, containing the space as a kind of open-ended cella. Most important, whereas wall planes in the 1924 project completely compose the brick country house (the roof slabs being laid directly on the walls), in the Barcelona Pavilion the wall planes are placed as baffles in open space, and these are supplemented by the rational regularity of eight slender, cross-shaped, chrome-plated columns, which support the principal roof slab. Supporting columns are thereby vividly expressed against the supported roof, lines against planes, a fixed order against an intuitive order. The combination of columns with roof gives conscious expression to the prototypical pavilion and temple which the wall planes complete—either as simple planes which baffle the open space, typical of the pavilion, or as folded planes which tend toward the enclosure of a cell, typical of the temple. Thus, Mies gives these traditional precedents a renewed visibility and embodiment.
In contrast to the flat site of the earlier, 1924 project—homage to Wright’s prairie? homage to de Stijl’s Netherlands?—the Barcelona Pavilion compels one to rise to the temple platform, just as one changes levels in moving about a Schinkel villa. And the forced turns in the Barcelona Pavilion, the changes in the character of the spaces, and the pools en route—these are reminiscent of Schinkel, too. After Barcelona came Mies’s projects for the courted pavilions of the 1930s, which culminated in the Hubbe House. Here too the site is flat, but now framed and held in. The emphasis on architecture in the Barcelona Pavilion is, in the courted pavilion houses, more intimately equilibrated with nature—Schinkel’s legacy again.
It was a pavilion that brought Mies to America in the late 1930s: the unrealized project that was to have been built on piers over a mountain stream near Jackson, Wyoming, for the advertising executive Stanley Resor. Here—and again with the famous Farnsworth House some years later—it is American space which conditions the design. Mies sets aside the sequestered quality of the immediate European precedents, so that the pavilion takes in a distant view. In the Resor project of 1938 the pavilion is a box as a bridge, with wooden walls closing either end. At the center, floor-to-ceiling glass opens to the cascading stream in one direction, and out to a distant mountain peak in the other. In the Farnsworth pavilion, over which Mies dawdled from 1946 to 1951, the Resor-box design becomes wholly transparent, and its rusticity (wooden walls and fieldstone fireplace) becomes elegant. For the Farnsworth House, a slab for the floor is lifted to float as a platform above the flood plain of the riverbank on which it is sited, about fifty miles southwest of Chicago. Four I-beams are set well in from the corners and welded to the edges, so that the two planar and eight linear elements come together to make the house, as if by magnetism. As Wolf Tegethoff observes in his new book on Mies’s country houses, the subjective adjustment of elements in the Barcelona Pavilion gives way to the greater objectivity of the Farnsworth House, as Mies turns from a pavilion made essentially of interior baffles to one made at the perimeter by the frame.
The country house as a box on an elevated platform reached by broad stairs—this is as Palladian as Mies would get in his residential pavilions.
The importance of steel-framed construction in the United States, and perhaps the pragmatic feel of the place, especially in Chicago (the most pragmatic of cities), encouraged Mies to investigate the architectural possibilities of the metal frame upon his arrival there. But no sooner did he establish a steel-framed factory aesthetic for the Illinois Institute of Technology than he idealized it for the Farnsworth House. Here he sandblasts the imperfections of the steel surfaces away and etherealizes the result with a coat of white paint, to accord with the floating sensation created by the planes hovering within their park environment. This floating sensation is experienced especially in the approach to the Farnsworth House, up four broad steps to a terraced platform then up five more to the platform of the house—and all this on concealed supports so that the planes appear to be levitated in space. The country house as a box on an elevated platform reached by broad stairs—this is as Palladian as Mies would get in his residential pavilions. But Schinkel is evident as well: in the symmetries snatched from asymmetry, the sequence of levels, the sharp turns of path as one moves into the house, the arcadian mix of building and landscape. Even as Mies worked on the Farnsworth House, he pushed the concept of the house as a glass box to its ultimate reduction: a square, steel-edged roof plane is supported by four steel I-beams, one at the center of each elevation. Effectively, each elevation has been reduced to a line. “Housing units,” Mies called them—but housing units for an Aquinian perfectionist who had left his family behind.
As Mies’s residential pavilions peter out, his monumental pavilions come on strong. Crown Hall (1950-1956), built for the architectural school at IIT, is the Farnsworth House writ large, with exposed trusses supporting a hung roof slab between bulkier I-beam supports. The asymmetry of the earlier project has become symmetrical, and the sandblasted ethereality is now black and industrial. Crown Hall, in turn, expands to the pavilion for the Mannheim theaters (1952-53). As a diagram at MOMA shows, this pavilion was to have been nearly as long as the Chicago Convention Hall, if narrower. Inside a glass box, two theaters are placed back to back, with a fly loft rising between them. The smaller theater is enclosed as a box on the floor; the larger rises out of the basement as a free-standing grandstand. The glass box itself serves as the lobby for these buildings within a building—one tightly contained, the other expansively looming. This project, which was never built, promised to be one of Mies’s greatest. It is good to know that the original model for it will be coming to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it can be viewed for the first time since the building committee and its immediate public scrutinized it in 1952-53.
The elegant Farnsworth prototype finally explodes into the massive monumentality of the Convention Hall project (1953-54)—terribilità in earnest. But from the Hall’s deep plane—the result of the depth of its latticed trussing—a fresh theme emerges for Mies’s two last monumental pavilions. In these the roof plane appears not as a plane suspended under exposed structure but as a weighty entablature. The entablature is extended well beyond the perimeter of the glass-enclosed cella, and the columns are now cylindrical, tapered and cross-shaped in profile, only two of them to each of the very long elevations, which are set well in from the corners. The technological aura of Mies’s other monumental pavilions melds into the temple aura of these.
The first of them, which was supposed to have been built in Havana for the Bacardi Company (1957-58), is lyrical in quality. It was a pity that Castro’s coming terminated the commission; such an elegant, deeply shaded pavilion—in concrete instead of steel—on a tropical island would have seemed especially appropriate as an expression of the sybaritic luxuriousness which was one of the expressive extremes to which Mies’s pavilions aspired.
The National Gallery (1962-67) in Berlin is another matter. Severe, black, substantially enlarged beyond the Bacardi scheme, it provides an impressive, taut, somewhat daunting finale to Mies’s lifelong investigation of the pavilion form. With the National Gallery, Mies came home again to Berlin. Nearby stands the Altes Museum, one of Schinkel’s masterpieces.
If the “official centennial show” at the Museum of Modern Art offers no substantial fresh insights into Mies’s achievement—and seems, indeed, to have been intimidated by Mies’s reputation—it does compact Mies’s achievement with such elegant clarity that we can see without distraction how varied his explorations of a single, elemental theme could be. Except perhaps in his office buildings for developers, there is little duplication in Mies’s work.
In a sense, the centennial comes a little too early. Another few years would have permitted the digestion of the first group of serious studies of Mies, studies based on the copious archival material just now becoming available. Another few years would also have provided more distance from the recent moment of maximum hostility to his work. But the centennial has forced a revaluation, and this has already made evident how this great architect, by forcing his creative action to occur within the confines of so many and such austere determinants, managed to make his work inescapably important to modern architecture. Mies almost convinces us that “the will of the epoch” brought it about.
- The centennial year got underway with an exhibition of drawings from the collection of the Chicago architect A. James Speyer at the Max Protech Gallery in New York in February. The exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (February 10-April 15) will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (May 1o-August 10) and to Berlin and Barcelona. Arthur Drexler’s catalogue is forthcoming. IIT’s “Mies van der Rohe: Architect as Educator” (June 16-JuIy 12), under the curatorship of George Danforth, will travel to the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin and to the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. The catalogue, published by the University of Chicago Press (176 pages, $39.95), will contain essays by Reyner Banham, George Schipporeit, Fritz Neumeycr, Richard Padovan, Sandra Honey, and Kevin Harrington. “The Unknown Mies van der Rohe and his Disciples of Modernism” at the Art Institute of Chicago (August 20 to October 5) will travel to the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt and probably to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The catalogue will contain essays by David Spaeth, Christian Otto, Peter Eisenman, Francesco dal Co, Kenneth Frampton, and Stanley Tigerman (Rizzoli, 120 pages, $20). Apparently, the only European-originated exhibition for the centennial is “Less is More,” at the Aachen City Hall in Aachen, West Germany (May 17-June 29).Recent books include: David Spaeth’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: An Annotated Bibliography and Chronology (Garland, 1979) and Mies van der Rohe (Rizzoli, 205 pages, $25 paper); Franz Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography (University of Chicago Press, 355 pages $39.95); and Wolf Tegethoff’s Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses (MOMA and MIT Press, 223 pages, $55). This summer Garland will publish The Mies van der Rohe Archive of The Museum of Modern Art in four volumes ($220 each, $800 complete).
- It has been alleged that, along with other German intellectuals and artists, Mies signed a document issued by Paul Schultze-Naumburg in behalf of the volkische Kulturpolitik. But Franz Schulze has been unable to find proof of Mies’s participation. Mies would have had to sign papers guaranteeing his Aryan purity in order to enter the Reichsbank competition. On the other hand, he closed the Bauhaus rather than permit the Nazis to interfere with its program.
- Although Drexler justifiably shies away from the excessively didactic in his exhibition, it would seem that by now what is known about Mies’s cultural and intellectual milieu would have mandated at least schematic presentation, especially when one imagines how much of it could have been shown. As cosmopolitan as Mies was, whatever he learned abroad he strained through his native culture. That German background, which is largely unfamiliar to the American public, explains much about Mies’s architecture—including his staying on so long with the Nazis and leaving Germany so reluctantly.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 9, on page 45
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