William J R Curtis, author of the seminal texts Modern Architecture Since 1900 and Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, writes on the ‘lucid quietude’ of Mies van de Rohe
Mies van der Rohe is one of those architects who refuses to go away. In the great wave against Modernism 30 years ago he was blamed for every banal glass box around the world. Everyone can remember the jingles of course: ‘Less is more’ and the retort ‘Less is a bore’. ‘Postmodern classicism’ had its revenge in the form of decorated skyscrapers with clumsy cut-out caricatures of keystones and pilasters, but it became obvious that Mies had more of the truly classical in him at the level of idea, proportion and detail. Just when he seemed buried he re-emerged, seen through the lens of a younger generation interested in minimalism and materiality.
Perhaps it is always like this when founding fathers are re-examined: first one, then another, aspect of their work is focused on by both champions and detractors. Even during the 1920s, it was hard to tie Mies down. On the one side, there were those German architects who espoused a ‘new objectivity’, a cold factuality, which despite Mies’s own rhetoric never accounted for his own work, with its lurking metaphysical dimension.
“Was there any other modern architect with such a sense of restrained luxury as Mies?”
On the other, there were those too preoccupied with form for form’s sake, such as Hitchcock and Johnson, who tried to claim Mies for the International Style, thus missing his work’s ethos and classical resonances, while reducing modern architecture to a shared period uniform. Modern Masterpieces such as Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye or Wright’s Fallingwater avoid being trapped in the discourses of their own period; there is always some level that transcends time.
Then there is the experience of the works themselves. Many have said that Mies knew nothing about context. And yet at Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago you can see how subtly the one oblong tower plays against the other in a dynamic relationship to the diagonal of the site and the view of Lake Michigan. On a fresh spring morning the blue black rolled steel mullions and plates of glass with silver surrounds are a fusion of abstract art and the inherited instrument of the American steel frame. Far from ‘expressing the structure directly’ the sharp I-beam details implied ambiguities of weight and touch off distant memories of pilasters.
Then there is the Seagram building in New York with its honorific stance responding to the Racquet Club by McKim Mead and White opposite. Recalling the understated classicism of the Barcelona Pavilion a quarter of a century earlier, Seagram set the tone for corporate America, and the Barcelona chair that had begun life as a luxury modern throne to receive royalty became an object of prestige in many a board room.
The Mies cult at IIT Chicago in the school he directed made much of brick and steel and one-to-one drawings of corner details. All this risked turning into an affair of dry grammarians. The architectural quality of the originals was precariously reliant upon Mies’s own visual judgment. We all know the photos of the old fellow sitting in an empty apartment, tugging on a cigar, endlessly contemplating a steel mullion detail before moving it less than a millimetre. He was monkish in a way – a bit like Mondrian in his white space with grids – except that there was a penchant for exquisite materials and silk suits.
Was there any other modern architect with such a sense of restrained luxury as Mies? And with such a deep understanding of stone in its different states: cut and rough, milled and smooth, shiny and polished. At the Barcelona Pavilion, one is struck by the ambiguities of onyx melting into semi transparent glass, of chrome clad columns dissolving in light, of veins of marble blending with rippling reflections off water. All the usual things can be said about the influence of abstract painting, about planes extending into space and about a temple on a podium, but in the end the building remains enigmatic despite its apparent ‘clarity’.
But then Mies’s production is full of hidden implications and perhaps that is part of the reason why so many different architects have found something useful in his work. Beyond the designers of elegant glass skyscrapers and glass houses in parks there are the deeper interpretations. Could Mexican architects such as Barragan and del Morale in the late 1940s have reinterpreted the patio house and the local vernacular without the abstraction of Mies, indeed without his own projects for patio dwellings in the early 1930s? Could the Smithsons have achieved their one indisputable masterpiece, the Hunstanton School (1948), without both the direct materiality of Mies and what they called his ‘lucid quietude’? Or de la Sota achieved the enigmatic monumentality of his Gobierno Civil in Tarragona (1957) or the spiritualised minimalism of the Maravillas School Gymnasium in Madrid (1961)?
And then there is a retransmission to later architects in a tradition: among those to have absorbed the principles rather than just the form one would surely include contemporary Spanish architects such as Aranda Pigem Vilalta who respond to Mies’s invocation that building and surrounding nature should be drawn together in a ‘higher unity’.
Mies aspired to a certain universalism. He thought of the steel frame and industrialism as inherently international. He once made the pompous claim that architecture was the spirit of the epoch transposed into space. But he also responded to the hidden continuities of particular cities such as Berlin and Chicago. His arrival in the latter city in the late 1930s could have been engineered by fate.
He was able to return to the precepts of the early North American frame skyscrapers of the late 19th century and give them a new energy inspired by the European avant-garde visions of ‘crystal cathedrals’ of the 1920s. But then the so called Chicago School was itself full of echoes from Mies’s early 19th century master Schinkel. Sullivan’s Wainwright skyscraper recalls the reductivist pilasters of Schinkel’s Bauakademie (1833), whereas Wright’s Unity Temple harks back to the simplified neo-classicism and rectangular piers of the Berlin Schauspielhaus (1820). Such are the longer wave motions of history.
Both Mies’s early and late works in Berlin were also resonant with past memories of the city. The New National Gallery in West Berlin (1965) was surely his answer to the Altes Museum (1825) by Schinkel: a distillation of classical order aspiring towards a type and an idea. But where the predecessor transformed a Pantheon and a Greek stoa, Mies released a 20th century space by means of a vast steel roof held tenuously in mid-air by means of updated industrial ‘columns’: an abstract entablature floating above a podium and a void. Schinkel articulated the whole range of buildings from city to country, from formal urban monuments to asymetrical pastoral villas in the landscape such as the Schloss Charlottenhof (1825) or the Court Gardener’s House (1831) at Potsdam.
In his way Mies picked up on these conventions for dealing with an open relation to landscape in some of his houses in the Berlin suburbs such as the understated Lemke Residence (1933) in Berlin. The L-shaped plan links to an extensive garden carefully calibrated with stone paths and levels that bring the entire precinct alive and link the inner experience to the horizontal of the lake in the distance. In this case space itself is the medium and it is controlled then released. ‘Almost nothing’ said Mies, but as in a Zen garden it is an emptiness full of meaning and inspiration for the future.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 1886-1969
Education Apprentice in the office of Peter Behrens where he met Walter Gropius and possibly Le Corbusier (1908-12)
Educator Director of the Bauhaus School of Design (1930-33) Taught at and redesigned the Illinois Institute of Technology (1938-58)
Big break Barcelona Pavilion, the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain
Key buildings Farnsworth House (1950) Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago (1951) Seagram Building, New York (1958) Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1968) IBM Plaza (1973)
Garlands RIBA Royal Gold Medal (1959) American Institute of Architects Gold Medal (1960) Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963)
Quote ‘Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.’
Matthew Green • See more work on his website