Mies, Classical Modernist
For more than half this period, Mies designed houses in the vein of Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose elegant classical buildings became a well of inspiration for Mies. One sees Mies producing Schinkelesque houses — comfortable environments, well proportioned, conducive to living — until the late 1920s.
Mies also was influenced by the pure classicism of ancient Greek architecture, as seen in his proposal for the Bismarck Monument of 1910, which includes a super-scaled colonnade.
His design for the Kroller-Muller Villa of 1912 was never built, but photos in the exhibit of full-scale mockups on site reveal a compound of pure white temple-like buildings. His experimental side can be seen during these same years in the crystalline Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper project of 1922 (perhaps his most conceptually ambitious and exciting project) and his blocky country house projects — all of them unbuilt.
Mies did not appear to be fully immersed in Modern architecture and ready to let go of Schinkel until the late 1920s, a decade before he emigrated to the U.S. The most important projects during this period are the Tugendhat House and the Barcelona Pavilion.
To my eye, the later projects never equal the brilliance of these two. Many of the 1930s projects were never built, or strike one as miserable human environments, such as Lemke house of 1932, Mies' last built project before he left for America.
Mies in America
The Whitney exhibit is smaller than MoMA's, but gutsier and more visceral. Here, one finds Mies finally hitting his stride, designing projects that are actually built and have a far-ranging influence on American and world architecture.
Mies arrived in America in 1938, on the cusp of a failed project for a house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He'd been asked to teach at the Armour Institute, later known as the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), for which he would design a new campus and head its architecture school.
New projects followed: the pristine Farnsworth House, a miniature Greek temple if there ever was one, complete with its own plinth; the Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago; the Seagram Building (instigated by Lambert when she urged her father, Samuel Bronfman, to hire Mies and build his most significant post-war building); and towers in Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, and other cities.
Mies completed a circle with his own architecture in Berlin, the city where he started life as an architect, with the completion of the New National Gallery. The display of this project, shown in its own room in the exhibit in hushed darkness, includes a continuously running film by artist Inigo Manglane-Ovalle that documents a day in the life of the gallery.
An Eye for Detail
Some of the most riveting pieces in this exhibit are Mies's full-scale drawings of steel I-beam details for such projects as IIT. Mies rendered such details with an almost compulsive fervor.
His narrow focus on I-beams stuck to the outside of glass curtain walls suggests that although usually portrayed as a Prince of Modernism, at his core Mies could be considered a classical architect, reveling in ornamental detail, pristine columnar buildings carefully placed on plinths above the hustle of the city, and the new "Order of the I-Beam."
No matter how hard it strives to become otherworldly, architecture is ultimately grounded in the messy reality of people's lives. There are two ways an architect can look at with this: People and their lives are either the life-blood of architecture, or people and their lives just mess up a self-referential, self-contained architectural world.
For me, Mies, belongs in the second camp. When I see his buildings in the context of people's daily lives, they always look out of place.
Mies created a pristine, classical architecture so fragile that the solemnity of an important project like the New National Gallery collapses when one notices the "flying bird" decals that are plastered on the gallery's windows to keep pigeons from crashing into them.
In fact, Manglano-Ovalle's film of the gallery poignantly documents how out-of-place human beings can be in Mies's architecture. Both these exhibits would have us believe this is an "architecture of humanism," but I was not convinced.
That these exhibits seem to have appeared in the hope that Mies's architecture is still worthy of emulation, is to me an indication of the conservative architectural culture of the current moment.
Michael J. Crosbie, contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek, practices with Steven Winter Associates and is the editor of Faith & Form.
Mies van der Rohe in the doorway of the Riehl House, 1906-1907, Potsdam-Neubabelsberg, Germany.
Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Kroller Muller Villa, 1912, never built. Perspective view from the garden of the pergola and large exhibition hall.
Image: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Weissenhof Apartment House, 1927, Stuttgart, Germany. View of the street facade.
Photo: Thomas Ruff
S. Adams Department Store, 1928-1929, Berlin. View from Friedrichstrasse.
Photo: Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
The German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exposition, 1928-1929, demolished 1930. View of the courtyard reflecting pool and interior (reconstruction of 1986).
Photo: Kay Fingerle
The Tugendhat House, 1930, Brno, Czech Republic. View up the stairwell.
Photo: Kay Fingerle
Illinois Institute of Technology, 1939, Chicago. Perspective sketch looking southwest along State Street.
Image: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
880 Lake Shore Drive apartments, 1948-1951, Chicago.
Photo: Guido Guidi
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