Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography Modern Art
Mies van der Rohe
Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses
Mies van der Rohe: Architect as Educator (distributed by University of Chicago Press)
Mies van der Rohe Centennial Exhibition
Mies van der Rohe: Drawings
The centennial of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (born in Aachen on March 27, 1886) has brought forth a flood of books, exhibitions, symposia, films, and other observances reminding us that their subject was indeed one of the most important figures in the history of architecture. That fact has become increasingly easy to forget since his death in 1969, but the revisionist view of Mies as the Ursprung of the visual sterility and spiritual stagnation of Late Modernism was under way well before then. A leader in that revolt against one of the founding fathers of Modernism was Philip Johnson, who as a young man idolized Mies, in middle age copied from and collaborated with him, and in old age has renounced both the Miesian philosophy and its reductivist aesthetic. As early as 1959 Johnson observed:
Mies has transformed ordinary building into poetry, but his theories, as far as theory goes, would also fit half the factories in this country…. Mies based his art on three things: economy, science, technology; of course he was right. It’s just that I am bored. We are all bored.
Far better remembered is the subversive slogan coined by Robert Venturi in his iconoclastic and highly influential Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966): “Less is a bore,” a sly play on Mies’s most famous dictum, “Less is more.” The mid-Sixties were the high point of Late Modernism, and to a younger generation of architects and critics, the tall building formula devised by Mies in the Twenties (but not realized by him until the Fifties) had come to represent all that had gone wrong with the International Style, the institutional manifestation of modern architecture that by the Sixties had imposed a bland uniformity on cities around the world.
Starting in 1921, Mies proposed a series of high- and low-rise office buildings that became the prototype for what he called “skin and bones architecture”: the steel- or concrete-skeleton structure clad in a taut curtain wall of glass. In due course it became the most characteristic commercial building format of the century. But Mies’s most pervasive contribution to architecture cast such a long shadow that his other important achievements—such as the open plan, which he devised for his houses of the Twenties—have been largely obscured, and his reputation has unjustly suffered because of the countless, lifeless imitations his skyscraper schemes prompted (if not inspired).
But now, after two decades of Post-modernism, much of Mies’s architecture is beginning to look good again, even to Venturi. As he confesses in Michael Blackwood’s illuminating documentary film, Mies:
Of all the things I have ever written and said…there is nothing I want to take back, except maybe the term “Less is a bore.”… From our position now, I have no doubt that Mies is one of the great masters of this century and of architecture. And all architects should kiss the feet of Mies van der Rohe because of his accomplishment and what we have learned from him.
Learning from Mies, however, is perhaps more easily achieved than putting his lessons into practice. That is the paradox of Miesianism: though Mies believed he had established universal models making it possible for all architects to design clear, functional, economical structures after his example, his architecture was in fact so dependent on highly personal factors—his innate sense of proportion, his fanatical attention to detail, and his keen instinct for dramatic contrast in settings ranging from the bucolically rural to the densely urban—that his principles remain woefully incomplete in the hands of his less gifted followers.
The same can be said of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was as devoted a pedagogue as Mies and equally unsuccessful in perpetuating an architectural tradition beyond his lifetime. But the Miesian conundrum is a case unto itself. As James Ingo Freed, one of the few distinguished architects to emerge from the Miesschule, says in Blackwood’s documentary:
Mies reduced his buildings to the absolute Platonic, pure minimum evocation of the idea. And then there was no place to go. And if there is no place to go, it is really not a style that is useful for anybody else…. He was able to influence a few who did grand work, but for most it became a road to a deterioration of sensibility rather than a heightening of sensibility. And the tragedy is that there is very little good Miesian work after Mies. You had to have his uncompromising nature. Mies, after all, is the bad conscience of today’s architects because they think back to his uncompromising commitment, to the excellence of the execution and to the perfection of the detail. And if you don’t have that you can’t do good Miesian work. And even if you do have it, what can you do but replicate it?
And as Freed added at the Museum of Modern Art symposium held during its Mies van der Rohe Centennial Exhibition,
Mies described his architecture as “almost nothing” [beinahe nichts], and after almost nothing the only thing you can do is nothing, which is very difficult.
That respectful understanding of the perplexity underlying the minimalist approach—the better one does it the less one can do with it—has not been widespread since the decline of the Modernist hegemony in the early Seventies. One reason is that very little “Miesian” architecture was actually Miesian at all, but rather was expedient construction by speculators who saw minimalism not as a medium for elegant simplification and technical perfection, but only as an opportunity for cheaper, easier, and therefore more profitable real-estate development than had been possible before. Costly materials, intricate detailing, and time-consuming craftsmanship (all of which were present in such archetypal Mies works as his Barcelona Pavilion of 1928–1929, the Farnsworth house of 1945–1951, and the Seagram Building of 1954–1958) were largely dispensed with by his imitators. But it was the economic impetus behind that shift away from Mies’s exacting principles (and away from the ornament and decoration of conventional office buildings up to that time), rather than a new philosophical enthusiasm, that established the International Style as the favored mode of the American corporate establishment in the years after World War II.
Mies himself had a thoroughly developed intellectual—and indeed spiritual—reason for everything he did as an architect (though it is regrettably clear from several of the new books that the same cannot be said of his moral position as a man of affairs). But those beliefs became in time as unfashionable as his architecture. Fairly typical of the scorn with which Mies’s philosophical commitment—the most extensive that could be claimed by a modern architect—has been regarded lately is demonstrated in this passage from the critic Charles Jencks’s Modern Movements in Architecture (1973):
Nominalist philosophers and pragmatists, who believe that universals do not in fact exist, would find the Platonic statements of Mies mostly just humorous, because they go to such terrific pains to project a non-existent reality…. Not only does Mies refer to Aquinas’ formulation [in the Summa Theologica: adequatio rei et intellectus—“the conformity of object and intellect”] explicitly, but he also seems to uphold the further scholastic doctrine that all the apparent phenomena of this world are actually mere symbols for a greater reality lying behind them…. Universal essences may indeed underlie all appearances, contrary to what the nominalist believes, but the idea that they are all geometrical rectangles or even geometric is farcical. In fact when we test the architecture of Mies against more developed beliefs, we find that his world, like that of farce, is based on the radical reduction of things to a few simple formulae and rigid laws that are made to stand for a richer reality…. In other words, if one does take Mies too seriously, one starts really to believe that farce is more important and nourishing than tragedy or that a half-baked, univalent architecture is better than an inclusive one.
By those standards, one would also have to dismiss the efforts of the Zen Buddhists, the Jansenists, the Shakers, and other groups throughout history that have purposely promoted a cult of simplicity as a means of attaining spiritual purity, not visual poverty. There is, in fact, something remarkably akin to the Zen way in Mies’s pronouncement:
In architecture, the proportions that are important are not always the proportions of the things themselves. Often it is the proportions between the things that are important. There may be nothing there, but the proportions are still there.
But Jencks is at least correct in concentrating his argument on Mies’s philosophical interests, misinterpreting them though he does. That crucial aspect of Mies’s attitude toward design is clearly and succinctly dealt with in the most useful of the survey books thus far to appear in conjunction with the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Franz Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, the first full-scale treatment of his life and works. (Though the previous lack of such a study now seems shocking, it should be recalled that the entire literature on Mies in English remained minuscule before 1947.)
One of Schulze’s most helpful insights in his discussion of Mies’s philosophy as it pertains to his architecture is that the designer intentionally differentiated between appearance and reality in structure. As Schulze writes of Mies’s Alumni Memorial Hall of 1945–1946 on his campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago:
The real structure…, though suppressed, is expressed: what one knows is there is not what one sees, but is made evident by what one sees. Mies’s reasoning is tortuous, but ever so much his own: to demonstrate that the suporting steel frame is the basis, or essence, of the building, it is indicated, rather than shown, externally; to acknowledge that what shows, moreover, is not fact but symbol of fact.
Mies contrived the famous corner detail of that building to look like a “found” element—a pair of exposed I-beams flanking a squared-off column—but in truth it was decorative, a fact that Mies signified by ending the corner before it reached the ground and having it come to rest on a clearly non-loadbearing brick podium. (In any case, Mies could not have left the structural members exposed because of local fire code regulations, and he was required to give them a fireproof sheathing.) The building’s real loadbearing apparatus—its steel skeleton frame—is invisible, and this treatment, in Schulze’s words, was Mies’s “way of distinguishing between the primary structure of the building and the secondary structure of the skin.”
Such highly arbitrary handling of design components that seemed to be functional were actually only a metaphor for function. Mies was confident enough as an artist to bend and even break his own rules when he found it desirable, and his profound grasp of the necessary relation, and occasional conflict, between der Schein und das Sein (seeming and being) afforded him a freedom that turned his construction into a work of high art.
An even more challenging study of Mies’s philosophical ideas as they informed his architecture is to be found in Fritz Neumeyer’s essay “Mies as Self-Educator,” in Mies van der Rohe: Architect as Educator, the publication accompanying the Illinois Institute of Technology’s exhibition now on view in Mies’s Crown Hall on the Chicago campus.
That Mies had limited formal education is well known, and although he had strong intellectual aspirations, he was also quite proud of his attainments as an autodidact. From the ages of ten to thirteen, Maria Ludwig Michael Mies (he took his mother’s maiden name, Rohe, and the arrogated Dutch particule nobiliaire “van der” when he was thirty-five) attended the Domschule in Aachen and concluded his training with two years in the local Gewerbeschule (trade school) rather than the Gymnasium that might have been chosen had it not been decided that he would enter his family’s stone-cutting business. Some historians have inferred that the Catholic academic phase of his education was the primary source of his subsequent interest in the thought of the scholastic Church fathers, but in an interview with Schulze, the archivist of the Aachen Cathedral School
is sure that neither [Mies’s] religious studies nor his reading in Latin brought him into contact with those two philosophers, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, whom he cited often in his mature years and associated with his Catholic youth.
Neumeyer does not overstate the case for the effect these early experiences had on Mies, but he makes extremely suggestive use of the facts of his early life, and notes that
the religiously biased education Mies received at The Cathedral School in Aachen planted a special disposition for the absolute and metaphysical and a tendency towards a comparable world view.
It was not, however, until he came across a copy of the journal Die Zukunft (“The Future”) while an apprentice in an Aachen architectural office in 1902 that Mies’s interest in the life of the mind was awakened. One essay in that issue was written by Alois Riehl, professor of philosophy at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, from whom Mies received his first independent commission for a house five years later. Riehl introduced the provincial mason’s son to a highly cultivated circle, and through Riehl Mies met such philosophers as Eduard Spranger and Romano Guardini, as well as the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (whose fiancée, Ada Bruhn, Mies married in 1913). By the Twenties, according to Neumeyer, Mies’s interest in philosophy had gone far beyond self-improvement or intellectual avocation:
For Mies, the key to reality lay hidden in philosophical understanding. Philosophy, alone among the paths to enlightenment, had the advantage of depth and simplicity, because its method separated the primary from the secondary, the eternal from the temporal.
That same impulse to connect with the timeless and the absolute was evident in the historical architecture that Mies most admired: not the celebrated monuments of high art, but rather the medieval vernacular buildings of his birthplace:
[They] did not belong to any epoch…[but] had been there for a thousand years and were still impressive…. All the great styles passed, but [they remained].
As Mies wrote on one of the note cards he used to make his acceptance speech upon receiving the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1959: “LEARNED MOST FROM OLD BUILDINGS.”
What he valued about them was not just their stolid endurance (though that was particularly enviable in a century of unprecedented stylistic change), but specifically the way in which they proved to him that there were unalterable verities in architecture as much as there were in his view of philosophy; the entire direction of his career must thus be understood according to the singular intent of his designs: to convey intellectual and spiritual truth, self-evident and irrefutable, as perfectly as possible. (Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies was much less forthcoming about the influence of his contemporaries; for example, the painters and architects of the De Stijl movement, especially Theo van Doesburg, were the source of his revolutionary use of noncontiguous walls in his houses of the Twenties.) The fine prolegomenon that Fritz Neumeyer has provided for this central aspect of understanding Mies makes his more extensive study on Mies’s thought, expected later in the year,1 a book to be anticipated with great interest.
The interpretative literature of the Modern movement in architecture remains surprisingly small, and this helps to explain why it has been so easy for the polemicists of Postmodernism to perpetrate so many canards about the nature and intentions of Modernism. Furthermore, biographical information about the leading Modernist architects has been tantalizingly scarce. With the exception of Frank Lloyd Wright—the Goethe of his profession, at least in longevity, in the extensive documentation of his activities from a very early age, and in the degree to which he impressed his contemporaries as a worthy subject for recording their reminiscences—there has been relatively little data available on the private lives of his peers.
The use of biographical facts to support questionable theories about an artist’s work is a well-known scholarly abuse, but the singularly social nature of architecture makes such clues to its practitioners’ personalities especially suggestive. Franz Schulze’s book gives us far more about Mies’s life and personality than we have ever known before, but he uses that new information with great discretion and never attempts to read more into things than he can demonstrate is actually there. His greatly amplified portrait of Mies cannot be said to contain any truly startling revelation or major departures from the persona his subject presented to the world, but Schulze draws convincing parallels between Mies’s imperturbably phlegmatic nature and his unusually deliberate way of thinking and designing.
Mies was likely to ruminate a very long time about a project before even putting pencil to paper. Today, in an age when thinking before acting is much less common than it once was, some have been tempted to see Mies’s working habits as thoroughly unspontaneous. It is indeed difficult to think of a personality type further removed from that of the impulsive and restless Wright, but Mies was also far from being emotionless. As remembered by several acquaintances in Schulze’s biography and shown in two filmed interviews with Mies made in the Sixties and used in Blackwood’s film, Mies had an earthy directness and a bluff, hearty humor that could be released under certain circumstances, particularly when he had a few drinks. A more pervasive account, however, is that of Mies as a single-minded careerist, a man who let nothing—family, lovers, and above all politics—get in the way of his professional advancement.
That view was reinforced in several ways in the Museum of Modern Art’s Mies retrospective, the third time in that institution’s history that his architecture has figured in a major exhibition. (It was shown in this country for the first time as part of MOMA’s “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” in 1932, and given more extensive coverage in a one-man show presented by Philip Johnson and designed by Mies himself in 1947.)
Mies’s intense seriousness about his art was abundantly clear at MOMA, despite the deterrent of the lackluster installation supervised by the show’s director, Arthur Drexler, head of the museum’s department of architecture and design. As the home of the Mies van der Rohe Archive, repository of the architect’s professional papers (his personal correspondence is in the Library of Congress), the Museum of Modern Art was in a unique position to mount a definitive review of his work. Hopes had been high among Mies’s admirers that the centennial exhibition would present his work to a new generation largely unfamiliar with it in such a way as to give the lie to the misrepresentations and outright distortions that have been taken for the truth for much too long. That it did not seems far more the fault of Drexler’s conception and execution of the show than the intrinsic quality of the material at his disposal, which is as splendid as one could hope for.
Though the opening sections contained some stunning objects—the large presentation drawings of Mies’s famous Five Projects of 1921–1924 in particular—the entirety gave the inescapable impression of an architectural talent that entered a precipitous decline at midpoint, during the 1930s, and never returned to its high initial level. Such a view would be a distortion since even late in his career Mies was still capable of producing buildings of extraordinary quality. But it is true that Mies’s work between 1921 and 1931 (the year of his last important completed works in Europe, his House and Apartment at the Berlin Building Exposition) was the richest of any decade of his career, and that the essential nature of his architecture changed dramatically thereafter.
The Five Projects—the Friedrichstrasse Office Building of 1921; the Glass Skyscraper of 1922; the Concrete Office Building of 1922–1923; the Concrete Country House of 1923; and the Brick Country House of 1924—form one of the most brilliant accomplishments in theoretical design in this century. His Monument to the November Revolution (dedicated in Berlin in 1926 and torn down by the Nazis eight years later)—a giant gravestone for Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and the other communist martyrs of 1918—was a powerful and wholly original rethinking of the political memorial for the modern age. As artistic director and planner of the Weissenhofsiedlung, part of the 1927 Werkbund housing exhibition in Stuttgart, Mies presided over a highly visible manifestation of the social conscience of the Modern movement, a combination of attractive villas and apartment blocks designed for workers by sixteen architects from five European countries. His Barcelona Pavilion (see following page) was the Platonically perfect evocation of his theories, a low, elongated ceremonial structure whose daring combination of simple forms and rich materials conveyed a spiritual force few other modern buildings can match. His Tugendhat house of 1928–1930 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, was the most sumptuous domestic design Mies ever executed.
In 1923 Mies had written, “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.” Certainly the “will” of the expansive new Era of Good Feelings in postwar America was drastically different from that of Germany in the Twenties. Ever eager to have his architecture tap into the Zeitgeist, Mies in this country began to design buildings that responded to specifically American conditions, notably the much larger scale and more ambitious programs of our corporate and educational institutions. But evidence of how and the reasons why this was so were not adequately addressed in the MOMA exhibition, and the unexplained discrepancies between the first part of the show and the second undermined the continuity that the routine chronological organization ought to have afforded.
Most objectionable of all was Drexler’s decision to present the final half of Mies’s professional life as spent imitating his earlier American work, and the curator’s perfunctory treatment of Mies’s three concluding decades only helped to reinforce the negative view of the Postmodern revisionists. For example, the Farnsworth house, one of Mies’s most serene works, was shown in a particularly bad set of large color photos; rarely has that pristine masterpiece looked so drab. The postwar office buildings, the foundation of Mies’s later career, were lumped together without differentiation and virtually without comment. Badly neglected was Mies’s Mansion House Square scheme, designed in 1967 for a site in the City of London and only last spring abandoned after a lengthy legal battle which became a virtual referendum on the future of Modernist architecture. Drexler made no attempt to borrow the large and exceptionally instructive model from the developer, Peter Palumbo, and no hint was given that the controversy surrounding Mies’s last active commission had come to such a dramatic conclusion so recently. (The model will, however, be the focal point of the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition “The Unknown Mies van der Rohe and His Disciples of Modernism” from August 20 to October 5.)
Those old enough to recall Mies’s 1947 MOMA installation—including Philip Johnson and Ray Eames—remember it as one of the most evocative gallery settings ever devised for the display of an architect’s work. Drexler’s design was roughly equivalent to it in the way that developer knockoffs relate to Mies’s own high-rises: that is to say, the superficial application of the same basic formal vocabulary owed a certain debt to the original, but so distorted were the proportions and details (and therefore the very essence) of the source that any resemblance to Mies came off much closer to caricature than to homage.
At the Mies centennial exhibition, freestanding wall panels analogous to those pioneered by Mies for his open-plan interiors—in which one space (never “room”) melted imperceptibly into the next—entirely lacked the faultless spatial logic of those of the master. The wall labels and directions were inadequate and confusing to the point of contempt for the uninformed viewer, and the atrocious quality of the several models in particular (the Barcelona Pavilion with pools of Hollywood turquoise rather than black as they actually were, the dull plexiglass simulacrum of the Glass Skyscraper model a poor replacement for the sparkling glass original) would certainly have been the object of Mies’s withering disapproval.
But what would Mies have made of the way in which his work was presented in print? Certainly, Drexler’s lack of interest in several of the buildings was barely disguised, and the generally querulous tone of his extensive wall labels became especially unpleasant when he came to the late work. Even Mies’s greatest buildings of that period (and there were a number of less-than-great ones) seem to get on Drexler’s nerves. Of the Farnsworth house he writes, “However elegant its proportions and craftsmanship, actual experience of the building is puzzling.” The Seagram Building’s “massing enlivens the entire composition and points to important formal possibilities, all of which Mies subsequently ignored.” In the case of the buildings at 860–880 Lake Shore Drive of 1948–1951, the Chicago apartment towers that were his first completed high-rises and of inestimable importance in their subsequent effect on world architecture, Drexler ignores their central significance: Mies’s use of an interior service core and centrally segregated utilities allowed him to handle all four façades of each tower with a complete uniformity consonant with his Platonic ideal.
Mies’s furniture designs, produced for the most part in collaboration with his colleague and mistress Lilly Reich between 1927 and 1930, were shown in a separate segment in the museum’s fourthfloor Philip Johnson Gallery. Fourteen pieces (two tables, the rest seating) were displayed, but very few were period originals, most being current production models made by Knoll International, a major underwriter of the exhibition.
The arrangement of those chairs and tables was as much a missed opportunity as the treatment of the architecture galleries. Mies was acutely concerned with the precise placement of his furniture in his interiors—as he was in the design of those pieces and spaces themselves—and saw furniture arrangement as a vital aspect of creating an internal architecture within his open plans. Such characteristic Mies arrangements as the hulking row of three Tugendhat armchairs, or the ring of Brno armchairs surrounding a circular dining table (both done for the Tugendhat house), or even the pairs of side-by-side Barcelona chairs that still survive in innumerable International Style office reception rooms, were nowhere to be found. Instead, the furniture occupied a beige-carpeted platform in such a banal and unrelated formation that the only association that came to mind was a 1950s furniture showroom.
Four blocks north of MOMA was a small, unpretentious exhibition of Mies drawings at the Max Protetch Gallery. Though clearly timed to capitalize on the interest generated by the big Mies show, this intimate collection of pen and pencil sketches (the largest grouping was of the Hubbe house project of 1935 near Magdeburg) allowed one to concentrate on Mies’s superb skills as a draftsman without being distracted by Drexler’s grudging and counterproductive commentary. To be sure, the Protetch show had none of the magnificent treasures that made a visit to the MOMA exhibit worthwhile despite that show’s considerable failings. But its ample proof of the fluidity of Mies’s hand and the delicacy of his sensibility, as well as the familiar steadiness of his eye, presented an entirely different picture from that which many people now have of Mies as the unyielding Teutonic taskmaster of the orthogonal rule. These relatively minor drawings together movingly revealed Mies’s humanistic impulse in domestic design, now often misconstrued as being reductive to the point of deprivation. But Mies’s evident intention to link the glass-walled interiors of the Hubbe house to its Arcadian riverside site (so similar to the setting of the Farnsworth house of a decade later) is a reminder that he saw an excess of intrusive furnishing as a hindrance, rather than an aid, to true comfort, which he believed must be psychic as much as physical.
Two big questions were in the air at the beginning of the Mies centennial year. One was whether or not his architecture would be presented with enough conviction and originality to restore his faltering reputation (the MOMA show was no help in that respect, though the studies by Fritz Neumeyer, Franz Schulze, and Wolf Tegethoff will no doubt win him new enthusiasts). The other was how much more would be revealed about one of the most controversial phases of Mies’s career: his complicity with the Nazi regime between Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933 and Mies’s final departure for the United States in 1938.
The cursory account of those events in David Spaeth’s pedestrian Mies van der Rohe is representative of the short shrift Mies’s political attitudes and activities are given in most books, especially puzzling in light of the speculation that has been rife for years on just what Mies did (and when) to remain in the good graces of the would-be architect Adolf Hitler. Charles Jencks’s bland misstatement in Modern Movements in Architecture that Mies “worked for [the Nazis] until 1937” is characteristic of the way in which his part in the architecture of the Third Reich has been oversimplified.
Interestingly, despite the compromising nature of some of Mies’s actions during his last five years in Germany, his name remained remarkably untainted in this country thoughout his lifetime. This must be especially galling to Philip Johnson (who first met Mies in Berlin in 1930), who in several interviews has done little to clarify his mentor’s ambiguous position, no doubt because Johnson’s own (subsequently regretted) Nazi sympathies during that period have made it necessary for him to account for far more than Mies ever had to.
The most comprehensive summary and evaluation of Mies’s politics appears in Schulze’s biography, though other recent books contain significant expansions and clarifications of points worth examining in greater detail. As in his judicious handling of the interplay between Mies’s philosophical beliefs and his architectural design, Schulze does not make sweeping conclusions about Mies’s willingness to ingratiate himself with the Nazis. Partly because of the worldwide economic depression, and partly because of the tide of architectural conservatism that accompanied Hitler’s rise to power, Mies’s career had come to a virtual standstill by 1933. That he was among the thirty architects invited in February of that year to participate in a limited competition for the design of a new Reichsbank headquarters in Berlin—the first major public commission to be given by the Nazis—was certainly a welcome turn of events for him. The design he submitted was not chosen, but he was among six semifinalists.
The late Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, the architecture critic (and widow of Mies’s left-wing Bauhaus colleague) who, in her acerbic role as a one-woman “truth squad” on Mies’s dealings with the Nazis, became a fixture at architectural conferences in the Sixties, saw his Reichsbank scheme as a “deadly Fascist” design and, more important, as a tangible symbol of Mies’s political complaisance. She found in its severe regularity and symmetry the alacrity of its architect to alter his style significantly to suit the anticipated desires of his new clients.
Some historians (including Kenneth Frampton in his 1980 Modern Architecture: A Critical History) have claimed that the Reichsbank design represents the exact stylistic turning point in Mies’s oeuvre away from the lively, informal nature of his early architecture (characterized by loose arrangement of interior spaces and exteriors that attempt to blur the transitions between indoors and outdoors) and toward the hieratic, monumental feeling of his later work (identificable by its clear containment and tendency to formal effects). However, those characteristics could already be seen in the Concrete Office Building project of 1922–1923—despite the understandable desire to see the Nazi period as the stimulus for Mies’s changes from the open-ended spirit of early Modernism to a more traditional architecture of stasis and enclosure.
A fuller investigation of the Reichsbank competition, and one which provides a better reconstruction of the atmosphere that surrounded it, can be found in Winfried Nerdinger’s essay “Versuchung und Dilemma der Avantgarden im Spiegel der Architekturwettbewerbe 1933–35,”^2. The short-list for the Reichsbank competition was put together by Ministerialdirektor Kiessling, a friend of the leftist Martin Wagner, chief municipal planner of Berlin, who also served on the jury (along with the conservative Paul Bonatz and the middle-of-the-road Peter Behrens, for whom Mies had worked from 1908 to 1912). An approximately equal number of “progressives,” “moderates,” and “conservatives” were asked to submit designs, and it cannot be assumed that everyone who was invited was sympathetic to the Nazi regime.
Far more damaging was Mies’s signing a proclamation that appeared in the Nazi house organ, the Völkischer Beobachter, on August 18, 1934, one day before the rubber-stamp election that was to confirm Hitler as both president and chancellor of the Reich following the death of President Paul von Hindenburg. Not included in the Schulze biography or any of the other new Mies publications, it was reproduced in the catalog accompanying the Bauhaus Archive’s 1985 exhibition in Berlin on the final year of the Bauhaus before Mies (who was the school’s director from 1930 to 1933) closed it in the face of Nazi harassment.3 Entitled “Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden” (roughly, “Proclamation of the Producers of Culture”), in reads in part:
We believe in this Führer who has fulfilled our fervent wish for unity. We trust his work, which demands sacrifice beyond all carping sophistry; we place our hope in the man who, beyond man and things, believes in God’s providence…. The Führer has called upon us to stand by him in trust and faith. None of us will be absent when it matters to bear witness.
(translation by Rosemarie Haag Bletter)
In addition to Mies, other signers included the artists Ernst Barlach, Georg Kolbe (who sculpted the figure of Evening that stood in a reflecting pool of Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion), Emil Nolde, and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler; and, in the greatest of ironies, next to Mies’s name was that of the reactionary Paul Schultze-Naumburg, prophet of the Blut und Boden movement, vitrioloc critic of the Bauhaus, and archenemy of the Modernism he wished to eradicate by returning to völkisch architectural values.
Also quoted in the Bauhaus Archive catalog is a revealing letter from Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi minister of culture, to Joseph Goebbels, minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment of the People. Dated October 20, 1934, but never mailed, it offers a fascinating account of Mies’s precarious position at the time:
The Baseler Nachrichten reports on the matter of the “Proclamation of the Producers of Culture” for the election on August 19 the following: a privy councilor in your Ministry supposedly urgently asked the cultural Bolsheviks in question [to sign the Proclamation]…. Prof. Mies van der Rohe, the creator of a monument for Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, finally agreed, but apologized to his friends immediately thereafter…. It is depressing at the same time to beg for signatures for the Führer among those whom we have for years fought to the utmost culturally and politically.
(translation by Rosemarie Haag Bletter)
Earlier in 1934, Mies received the only commission from the Nazis he would see through to completion: part of the design for the Deutsches Volk/Deutsches Arbeit exhibition in Berlin, sponsored by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, a workers’ group within the Nazi party. Though Walter Gropius also took part (nonferrous metals and mining were the relatively minor assignments given to the two old Bauhäusler), it was hardly an innocuous trade show. As the architectural historian Richard Pommer said in his talk on Mies’s politics in the MOMA lecture series that followed its symposium, the exhibition “was set up as a warning to Germans of the dangers of racial degeneracy, and a display of the countermeasures of the new regime.” (Franz Schulze neglects to be as specific about the true nature of the show, but mentions that “the Nazi authorities allowed [Mies] to carry out his design, but finding its modernist look offensive, omitted his name from the exhibition catalogue.”)
The chronology of these events is worth noting, in that the “Proclamation” published on August 18, 1934 followed by over a year Mies’s decision to close the Bauhaus, which he announced to its students on August 10, 1933. During his American years Mies made much of his seemingly high-minded sacrifice of the Bauhaus ideal on the altar of principle—since the Nazis had granted provisional permission for the school to remain open—but it is clear that Mies in fact made a virtuous act out of an unavoidable one. Mies was not then, nor had he ever been, a fighter for freedom, and he continued for at least a year thereafter to curry favor with those whom he much later depicted himself as having valiantly defied.
There was only one other job Mies won from the Nazis, also in 1934, for the design of the German Pavilion at the 1935 Brussels World’s Fair. (It was never built because of economic constraints.) Mies was a logical choice, in view of the acclaim that greeted his German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition (documented with great thoroughness in Wolf Tegethoff’s valuable contribution, Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses. His formal analysis of twenty-one projects correctly approaches them as compositional exercises as much as revolutionary experiments in domestic architecture). The inclusion of a Mies sketch for the Brussels pavilion in the MOMA retrospective gave rise to many a frisson among the public: quickly but unmistakably emblazoned on one wall of the project was the dreaded swastika. But only a few feet away in the gallery were several of Mies’s drawings for the Liebknecht-Luxemburg monument, bedecked with the Communist star, hammer, and sickle.
The point was that Mies would work for anyone, as he tried to do for the old imperial regime before the revolution of 1918, and as he did for the Weimar Republic in Barcelona. Richard Pommer’s lecture (to be published as an essay in the Museum of Modern Art’s forthcoming catalog, which, like The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of 1977 will come out long after the show has closed) pays particular attention to Mies’s ability to consolidate political trends among the bitterly contending architectural factions in Germany in the Twenties. He could do so precisely because of his lack of any strongly held political principles, the same reason he was chosen to head the beleaguered Bauhaus in 1930.
Mies van der Rohe had the misfortune of seeking a perfectable vision of the world in the least perfect of times and places. Lora Marx, his mistress for the last three decades of his life, perhaps put it best: “He was an avowed atheist, but he was constantly searching for a spiritual source.” Mies’s romantic quest for eternal certainties, his search for a deep, inner reality beneath the surface of things, was strangely at odds with the highly abstract nature of his architecture. Did it ever occur to Mies that technical perfection alone could not provide architecture with the qualities—strength, eloquence, and timelessness—that he so esteemed in the anonymous Romanesque monuments of his home town? To a certain extent he suppressed some of the most intuitive aspects of his architectural nature, which flourished in his designs of the Twenties, to insure that his work not be undermined by chance miscalculations. “You must be careful with improvisation,” he warned a student, but for himself that might have been the worst advice he ever took.
Nevertheless, as a whole his career must be seen as a heroic, and largely successful, undertaking—not least because Mies’s imprint has been so strong that it is unlikely it can ever be fully effaced, dimmed though it might have become in recent years through a debased use of its most easily exploited features. At the very end of his life, when the forces he sought to marshal were already in disarray, he could not understand why the discrepancy between his ideas and the use made of them had become a central issue. “We showed them what to do,” he complained to Arthur Drexler. “What the hell went wrong?”
Fritz Neumeyer, Das Kunstlose Wort: Manifeste, Texte, Schriften zur Baukunst (Berlin: Siedler Verlag, 1986).↩
Bauhaus-Archiv, Bauhaus Berlin: Auflösung Dessau 1932; Schliessung Berlin 1933; Bauhäusler und Drittes Reich: Eine Dokumentation (Berlin: Kunstverlag Weingarten, 1985).↩