SUMMARY: In this, the centenary of the birth of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the attacks continue on the modernist functionalism that he espoused and the glass-and-steel building designs that expressed his vision. Though times have changed, and along with them the needs of architecture, a current New York exhibition of his drawings offers the chance to see Mies for the great artist he was.
Most great architects are artists first, builders second and good designers last of all, if by good design one means adaptation of a building to its function. No doubt this statement contradicts the ideology of modernism, but it certainly describes Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the most effective exponent of modernist functionalism ever to set foot on American shores. During this, the centenary of his birth, his admirers and detractors are still heatedly debating this central paradox of Mies’s architecture — that he espoused functionalism and rationalism and practiced architecture as an art.
The litany of sins visited at Mies’s door is a familiar one, given resonance by such grand inquisitors as Tom Wolfe and Robert Hughes: His glass buildings are cold, soulless places, hot in summer, freezing in winter, resistant to the introduction of those amenities and eccentricities that make a house a home. His city plazas are windswept and forbidding, his travertine lobbies are impersonal and unwelcoming, his museums are hostile to art and his open-plan school buildings are inimical to quiet, concentrated learning.
In response to these charges, Mies’s admirers need utter only one word—“Chicago.” New York is a city of canyons where buildings are only seen swooping upwards in dizzying perspective. Chicago is a city of towers that you see rising across vistas of parkland, lake and river — towers of gleaming steel and black glass, of red Corten steel and gold reflecting glass, of white marble sheathing, of massive curved pylons of concrete and delicately curved faceted glass, reflecting blue of lake and sky, like prisms of ice.
Downtown lakeshore Chicago has the most exciting and beautiful 20th century urban spaces in the world. And although he built only a fraction of the superb skyscrapers that have made Chicago a mecca for architectural connoisseurs, to Mies belonged the vision and the drive that created from the new materials of glass and steel a classical architecture with its own compelling language of forms, spaces, proportions, colors and textures.
This supreme sensitivity to the look of space and form is what comes through in the Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective exhibition of the architect’s work in New York. Mounted in honor of the centenary of his birth, it offers a rare opportunity to see Mies’s drawings as the beautiful works of art they truly are. Mies’s obsessive drive toward classical perfection is also the leitmotiv of Franz Schulze’s comprehensive and revealing book, “Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography.”
It is perhaps difficult for the current generation of American architects to appreciate Mies’s achievement, for they have had to struggle to throw off his influence. Through his buildings, his own practice and his teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology School of Architecture, Mies founded the second Chicago school of architecture. Like all schools, it produced more t
han its share of mediocre buildings. Giant Chicago firms like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (Frank Lloyd Wright called it “skiddings, owe more and sterile”) and C.F Murphy repeated the Miesian steel and glass box skyscraper around the world until it became a tired formula.
But not one of the postmodern architects who attack his style comes close to Mies’s command of materials and proportions, let alone his vision. Architects like Michael Graves, Stanley Tigerman and even the modernist apostate Philip Johnson have vied with each other in pasting arches, keyholes, gables and gewgaws onto their buildings in an effort to liven up their facades. But most of these visual links to the architectural past are so trifling and so awkward as to look merely amusing and eccentric, certainly not the stuff of a compelling architecture of the future. The distinguishing feature of the best Miesian architecture is a “rightness” of detail that comes as much from instinctual craftsmanship as from theory.
Bom the son of a German stonemason, Mies spent happy hours during his childhood helping with lettering for gravestones. His elder brother, Ewald, was known throughout their hometown of Aachen for his ability to see the slightest misalignment of lettering. So young Mies must have absorbed the craftsman’s passion for perfection very early. At 15, after attending trade school, he apprenticed to a brick-mason and subsequently trained as a draftsman. Within a few years, his superb draftsmanship attracted notice from local architects, who urged the young man to pursue architectural studies in Berlin.
The first decade of Mies’s architectural career in Berlin gave little indication of the future visionary. His forceful personality impressed rich clients enough to secure him several commissions, but the solid burgher houses he built deviated little from the mildly progressive style of the German architect Peter Behrens, in whose Berlin office Mies worked between 1908 and 1912.
Walter Gropius, the head of Behrens’s atelier and future head of the famed Bauhaus, was a much earlier apostle of steel and glass. During those years Mies was looking backward to the imposing classical structures built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the celebrated contemporary of Hegel, Kleist and Schelling. To Gropius, suiting the architecture to the age meant filling pressing needs, such as the creation of healthful workers’ housing and factories. To Mies it meant creating forms to celebrate the spirit of the 20th century, just as Schinkel had celebrated Prussian glory.
Mies was still unsure of his direction, however. It wasn’t until after World War I, in fact, that the architect adopted modernism as his creed. Then, aided by close association with artists Hans Richter, Theo Van Doesburg (co-founder with Piet Mondrian of the Dutch art movement De Stijl) and the Russian Constructivist El Lissitsky, Mies aimed the full force of his considerable willpower on the problem of creating “the will of an epoch translated into space.”
The craftsman in him, proselytized by the Constructivists, welcomed the opportunity to use the new materials and technological achievements of his age. At the same time, the idealizing order, implicit in the new art of De Stijl, gave him a spiritual anchor. For the next 10 years, Mies explored ways of welding these two poles together in buildings.
Few of the houses and none of the skyscrapers he designed between 1920 and 1937 were built. Until he came to America, Mies’s reputation rested mostly on the creation of uninhabitable spaces. But very beautiful spaces they were. Many critics still believe that the pavilion Mies built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition was the high point of his architectural career. With its lavish materials of marble, chrome-plated columns, different-colored glass, free-flowing spaces and superb proportions, it was more like a walk through sculpture than architecture. The only lasting element in the whole ensemble was the graceful leather and steel Barcelona chair, which has become a much-imitated classic of modern furniture.
It was Chicago, then, that gave Mies his chance to build for the future. But the Architect’s Westmont Centre, Montreal relationship wasn’t just one-way. The most unfair attack on Mies by his numerous contemporary detractors is that his steel and glass architecture is somehow “un-American.” This charge was repeated recently by architect Robert Stern in his public television series “Pride of Place.”
Stem, an apostle of postmodernism, suggested that America stands for the individual against the universal and that the rational, universalizing architecture of Mies has no roots in the American past.
But the reason American builders of the 1950s and 1960s embraced the Miesian style was that it seemed to them at that time quintessentially American. The skyscraper was invented in America, after all. And the steel frame building was invented in Chicago. Mies’s twin lakeshore towers, built between 1949 and 1951, gave harmonious and beautiful form to the boundless technology-based optimism most Americans felt after World War II.
Times have changed and with them the needs of architecture. Certainly Mies has no blueprint for our building future. As Jane Jacobs has pointed out, modernist architects, including Mies, never understood the human needs fulfilled by cities. The postmoderns are right to search for new means of reinforcing our sense of history and community. But it is small-minded to deny Mies his greatness. His buildings are complete statements of an artist’s vision, exacting and difficult perhaps, but classics of their time and place.
Jane Addams Allen
Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 pp20-22
Published in INSIGHT into the News Magazine, Washington DC 1986