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Building & Nothingness

Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography Modern Art

by Franz Schulze. in association with the Mies van der Rohe Archive of the Museum of
University of Chicago Press, 355 pp., $39.95

Mies van der Rohe

by David Spaeth, preface by Kenneth Frampton
Rizzoli, 205 pp., $25.00

Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses

by Wolf Tegethoff
Museum of Modern Art (distributed by MIT Press), 223 pp., $55.00

Mies van der Rohe: Architect as Educator (distributed by University of Chicago Press)

Catalog for Exhibition at S. R. Crown Hall, June 6–July 12, 1986.
Mies Centennial Project at the Illinios Institute of Technology, 168 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Mies van der Rohe Centennial Exhibition

Museum of Modern Art, New York February 10–April 15, 1986. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago May 9–August 10, 1986

Mies van der Rohe: Drawings

Max Protetch Gallery, New York February 5–March 1, 1986

Mies

A film produced and directed by Michael Blackwood

1.

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.

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