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Mies: Behind the Smoke Screen

A major new monograph on Mies by the late Detlef Mertins seeks the enigma behind the cigar

There is a moment in Detlef Mertin’s Mies when the architect’s steel structures appear flooded with water. As architecture critic Janet Abrams, once a resident of the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartment Towers in Chicago, reminisces: ‘water appears … to flow right up to one’s floor level’, along with the objects that float on its surface, ‘dinner-cruise boats’, ‘water-skiers’, ‘white sails’, or ‘dead fish’, whose fleeting images, sounds or smells penetrate the glass surface and suffuse the towers’ interior (p336). While this may predominantly be a phenomenal or metaphorical overflowing, there is also the literal flooding of the Farnsworth House when the water of the nearby lake precipitously rises and engulfs the steel structure, erasing the ground and turning the flat roof into a floating island. These rare instances of flooding suggest an alternative transparency in which the building is not the agent but the object or even victim of transparency. The architectural structure does not assertively limit or attempt to optically control the objects of its natural surroundings but allows itself to be penetrated and ultimately dissolve inside the animate landscape − a form of transparency in which the building stages its own disappearance.

Could this self-reflexive transparency also apply to the figure of the architect, at once covered and exposed by a veritable flood of posthumous criticism attempting to compensate for the scarcity of his own statements? While Corb’s reception is sustained by his prolific writings and the treasury of unpublished material in his archive, Mies’s legacy appears to have been fuelled by the master’s celebrated silence. In this new voluminous study, Mertins does an admirable job in mining all the snippets of Mies’s epigrams from unpublished interviews and lecture notes. But in the end, it is either the absence or the multivalence of these enigmatic aphorisms, such as ‘less is more’, that makes them significant. They could mean everything and nothing, and therefore they mean both less and more.

This continuous oscillation between transparency and obscurity, silence and the proliferation of historiographic and critical discourses might be at the very core of Mertins’ multi-layered analysis of the architect. In empathy with Mies’s structures, this infinitely subtle study alternates between the wet and the dry, theoretical reflection and historical analysis, microscopic detail and macrocosmic argument, as well as clarity and suggestive ambiguity, which, here, is raised into a structural historiographic principle.


The Farnsworth House has flooded several times; this occasion was in 1966

While Mertins’ hefty and lavishly illustrated volume is ambitiously comprehensive in content and is almost eschatological in scope, it might be a mistake to label it the ‘definitive monograph’ on Mies. This is because the book opens up more problems than it closes and illuminates contradictions instead of attempting to resolve them. Against the one-sided diatribes for or against Mies that have proliferated over the past few decades, it decisively refuses to offer a final statement; on the contrary, it challenges us to question all previous assumptions we may have entertained about the architect.

For Mertins, Mies’s clear and unadorned structures become loci of aporias and ambivalences that are idiomatic of the modern condition. The task of the historian is to expose the ambiguities inherent in the Miesian project and display the historical and epistemological contingencies in which they arose. Such ambiguities are reflected in the conflicting historiographic portrayals of the architect. For example, while describing the sense of ‘aporia’ and ‘irresolution’ accompanying the ‘endless wandering in emptiness’ of the Barcelona Pavilion’s visitors, Mertins concludes: ‘Whether this enacts a negation and withdrawal of spirit as Tafuri and Cacciari suggested, or the reaffirmation of eternal spiritual order, as Neumeyer proposed, may be a moot point. For these are ultimately two sides of the same coin. The great achievement of the pavilion is not that it resolved this aporia but that it staged it in a tangible new world-image − one with a strange new beauty, at once uplifting, hopeful and melancholic’ (p166).

Polarity, such as that between hope and melancholy, appears to be the major structural and methodological pattern in Mertins’ portrayal. There are always two sides in Mies and his projects which tend to compensate or balance one another. Just as the Lakeshore Drive Apartments oscillate between the fluidity of water and the rigidity of the steel and glass building frame, so does the ‘monumental in scale and weight yet animate’ wall of Mies’s 1926 Monument to the November Revolution reside precariously, according to Mertins, ‘on the cusp between order and chaos’ (pp183-4). Similarly, Mertins describes the heightened experience of visitors to the Barcelona Pavilion as being ‘suspended between consciousness and sleep, clarity and delirium, liquefaction and crystallization, reality and surreality’ (p166).


Mies’s first house, built in 1907 when he was just 21, was designed for his mentor, the philosopher Alois Riehl

Psychological polarities often retrace analogies and correspondences with states of animate and inanimate matter in the natural world: from liquids to crystals and back. The inorganic surfaces of Mies’s buildings become animate by (re)enacting these polarities. Mertins describes polarity through the philosophical and theological ideas of Romano Guardini (one of Mies’s most revered authors) as ‘the main model of experience but as something to be overcome’ (p147). Which means that, here, polarity does not imply a static binary opposition but a mechanism that sets two contrasting discourses in motion towards balance not cancellation. Considering Mies’s often polarised historiographic reception, suspended between eulogies and philippics, such subtlety and inclusiveness on the side of the historian is an enormously refreshing contribution.

Indeed, one of the greatest virtues of Mertins’ Mies, one which distinguishes this work from the many earlier monographic studies of the architect, is a deeply ingrained historiographic consciousness. This is shown in the author’s thorough knowledge of what has been said or written about the architect, knowledge that he uses not towards recycling the same arguments, but as the foundational material to contribute something new.

This is obviously a book written (long) after the great attack against Mies by Postmodern critics. For Mertins, Mies (like Giedion, the subject of Mertins’ 1996 Princeton dissertation) is not an authoritarian absolutist but a tragic figure wavering between the cosmological presuppositions of his philosophical universe and the political, social and financial contingencies of the real world. In psychoanalytic terms, for Mertins and his generation, Mies is not the domineering father whose death unleashes the oedipal hostility of his epigones. Instead, he is the benevolent grandfather whose memory elicits sympathy or even nostalgia, and whose complex production resonates with a younger generation of architectural historians and building practitioners, who have moved past their Postmodernist predecessors, and eagerly revisit the Modernist project from a more inclusive though still critical perspective.


Lakeshore Drive towers under construction

In this spirit, the book contains both the good or the ‘beautiful’ (in the Augustinian sense) as well as the ugly, including a host of questionable decisions taken by the architect, like his dismissal of communist students and use of police force upon assuming the directorship of the Bauhaus, his submission of designs in building competitions organised by the National Socialists, and the dislocation of low-income African American families caused by his masterplan for the AIT/IIT campus in Chicago. While not entirely absolving Mies for his participation in any of these events, Mertins defends the architect by arguing, for example, that the Bauhaus expulsions were necessary for the survival of the school in an increasingly belligerent political climate and that Mies’s entries to competitions organised by the National Socialists had a deliberately brooding, anti-celebratory character meant to undermine the aesthetic ideology of the fascists (and therefore his designs were never selected to be built, even if he did receive a mention in the 1933 building competition for Berlin’s Reichsbank). As for the lack of sensitivity of Mies’s superblock plan towards the social inequalities of Chicago’s urban landscape, Mertins argues that ‘the social and political problems’ caused by these ‘tabula rasa’ urban practices were recognised ‘well after the fact’ and that ‘[t]here is no evidence that Mies even recognized this blindness’ (p255). Ultimately the book offers enough historical documentation on the complex underlying conditions of each particular controversy to allow readers to form their own opinion. Nevertheless, the portrait of Mies that emerges from Mertins’ account is that of a fallible and contradictory personality − a far cry from the image of the Modernist master as a model of absolute perfection.


One of the buildings on Mies’s campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology: for Mies the grid was a ‘symbol for the cosmos’, embodying both regularity and variation

Such imperfections expand to Mies’s architectural projects. As Mertins states, ‘Mies was not afraid to test something that was lousy; having tested it he would know what he dealt with’ (p250). Via a close reading of preliminary drawings for a series of Mies’s designs, Mertins documents the architect’s experimentation with different proportional and structural models which evidence his propensity for change and variation. Even if after long hours of toying with a model, Mies would ostensibly arrive at a satisfactory solution (signalling his approval by raising ‘his cigar’ [p394]), there was no final answer to any design problem. For Mertins, the value of Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (1968) lies precisely in its acceptance of imperfection, both on a personal and collective, universal level: ‘not a happy utopia devoid of violence, terror and power, but a universe that includes these. […] The New National Gallery takes us beyond ourselves to distinguish between the best we can be and the worst we have been’ (p399).

Experimentation is a major underlying theme of the book, captured in the idea of Gestaltung: a term often translated as ‘design’, yet as Mertins remarks, Gestaltung connotes a much broader process of formation, both on a physical and intellectual level. This formative process applies not only to buildings and artefacts, but also to the architect or designer himself. Mertins’ first chapters examine Mies’s intellectual formation from his childhood in Aachen, his initial apprenticeship as decorator in his family’s workshop and his mentorship by the patron of his first important house commission, the philosopher Alois Riehl. By performing a parallel close reading of Mies’s house design for Riehl, followed by a rigorous analysis of Riehl’s own writings and his philosophy of ‘critical realism’, Mertins demonstrates that the impact of  Gestaltung is mutual: the architect builds a house for the philosopher, and the philosopher, in return, ‘builds’ the architect by furnishing him with a set of philosophical ideas. One of Riehl’s main philosophical tenets was the principle of monism, an idea describing the equanimity and ontological correspondence between subjects and objects. Mies’s Riehl House, as well as several of his later projects, show traces of this monist epistemological framework. The house, for Mies, is a formative envelope that actively influences the lives of its inhabitants. No wonder then that a few decades later, the son of the Tugendhat family, who spent his childhood in the radiant space of the house in Brno that Mies designed for his parents, would grow up to become a philosopher.

The combined impact of Gestaltung on both buildings and people becomes more evident in Mies’s pedagogical work exercised during his brief stint as director of the Bauhaus and later during his directorship of the AIT/IIT Architecture School in Chicago, where he also served as campus architect. Mertins repeats twice Mies’s statement that: ‘the goal of an Architecture School is to train men who can create organic architecture’ (p232). Like the objects of organic architecture, Mies believed that students grow ‘organically’ from the ground, therefore he was hesitant to import to America methods of instruction from Germany. Employing his dual capacity as educator and architect-planner, he used the buildings he designed for the campus to cultivate the type of human Gestaltung he meant to inspire. Characterising the versatile space of Mies’s Crown Hall at ITT, Mertins describes how this ‘infrastructural architecture’ encouraged the student body’s ‘self-fashioning or Selbstbildung (formation, cultivation, and education) and free relationships’ (p454).


The Seagram Building in Manhattan: a philosophical project

Even the large commercial developments designed by Mies in America, like the Lake Shore Drive Apartment Towers in Chicago or the Seagram Tower in New York, are presented by Mertins (and Mies) as essentially philosophical structures − elements of an ongoing Gestaltung that encompass the problems of the real world. Any structure for Mies ‘should be a philosophical idea’, a form of ‘philosophy being built’ (273-4). In this spirit, Herbert Greenwald, the real estate developer behind some of Mies’s projects in Chicago, is characterised as a ‘philosopher developer’ (he had studied philosophy at Chicago), though one may here start questioning the often irreconcilable differences between philosophical and capitalist forms of speculation. The effects of which, Mertins argues, Mies attempted to redeem via the ascetic aesthetics of impoverishment that the architect implemented in his otherwise opulent buildings.

Ultimately, Mies not only refuses to be a ‘definitive monograph’, but it may not be a monograph at all. Mertins’ book asks us to reconsider the very genre of the architectural monograph. While its chapters appear to be conventionally structured following Mies’s major buildings and unrealised projects from Germany to America in a more or less chronological order, Mies is much more than an oeuvre complète. In between the buildings, there are portraits of the people with whom Mies sustained an intellectual correspondence: philosophers like Romano Guardini, scientists like RH Francé, developers like Greenwald, and of course clients like Riehl and the Tugendhats in Europe and the Bronfman family and Mrs Farnsworth in America. And then equally important for Mertins’ portrayal are the books in Mies’s library, hundreds of them, spanning a multitude of subjects, from philosophy and theology to architectural theory, art history and natural science.

Ultimately the figure of Mies sketched in the book resembles one of the architect’s grids − a perforated scaffold around which persons, ideas, buildings and discourses interweave to delineate a composite yet infinitely variegated portrait. As Mertins points out, for Mies the grid was a ‘symbol for the cosmos’, embodying both regularity and variation. The Miesian grid does not delineate a strict universal system, but offers ‘some indication of order in the face of countless arbitrary details of the site’ (p157). Similarly Mertins’ gridded portrayal retraces a life that fluctuated between the regular patterns of a carefully executed plan and the variations instigated by accidents and unpredictable circumstances. Through this perforated frame, Mertins offers a physiognomic study of the architect that resembles an X-ray: a dark transparency in which the face of the architect vacillates between anonymity and prominence, silence and omnipresence, as well as agency and the loss of it. Mies is no longer a name or a noun referring to a person or a building but a verb that signals a recurring condition.

This is finally a book as much about Mies’s life as it is about Mies’s ‘afterlife’ documented in the vigorous but variegated reception of the architect 45 years after his death. This vibrant Nachleben is staged not only by architectural critics and historians, but also by practising architects (like Rem Koolhaas), contemporary photographers (like Thomas Ruff and Hiroshi Sugimoto), cinematographers who used Mies’s towers in their films, and the dozens of artists who have converted the austere emptiness of the Neue Nationalgalerie into a dynamic ‘event space’ (p460-5). In such posthumous re-appropriations, Mies is united with what Mies is not. He appears on both sides of a self-reflexive polarity, yet his architecture has the strength (and authority) to mediate and arbitrate differences between the two poles.

Before closing, let us go back to the water ostensibly flooding Mies’s buildings and the liquefying transparency it provokes. Perhaps the ultimate fulfilment of Mies’s vision of ‘organic architecture’ would be a structure that, like water, would become invisible by dissolving into the ground. If for Wright this ground was the earth of a rural American landscape, for Mies it was the ‘fully technologized yet traceless world’ of the modern metropolis (p82). Like the posthuman protagonist of Scheerbart’s cosmological novel Lesabéndio (invoked by Mertins in relation to Mies’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper project [p73]), the Miesian subject gradually merges with and disappears inside the translucent tower it inhabits to become reunited with the cosmos. This is the object (or subject) of not only a posthuman but also a posthumous Gestaltung that continues to evolve long after the passing of the author(s) that originally brought it into being.


Author: Detlef Mertins

Publisher: Phaidon

Price: $150

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