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

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 …

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