His Was the Simplicity That Stuns
TIME: Architecture & Design – March 3, 1986
His Was the Simplicity That Stuns
Reconsidering Mies, the century’s absolute modern master
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s life was well timed. He was born at the right moment (100 years ago next month) and in the right place (prosperous middle Europe) to lead the radical transformation of architecture during the 1920s and ’30s. He left his native Germany just ahead of probable persecution by the Nazis, arrived in Chicago just as his austere vision was catching on among U.S. architects and developed his pragmatic skyscraper design just as the war ended and corporate America found itself instantly in need of such a prototype for acres of new high-rise office space.
Even his passing, in 1969, came in the nick of time. The American architect Robert Venturi had just published his influential rejection of less-is-more Miesian modernism (“Less is a bore,” Venturi punned), and younger colleagues were starting to grumble that the inspirational rigor of the International Style had turned to rigor mortis. Death spared Mies both from seeing any of the lush species of postmodernism and from the ignominy of a public rejection in 1985, when British authorities denied a die-hard Miesian builder permission to put up a high-rise that Mies had designed for the City of London.
But that was last year. Apparently the time has now come to rethink the last two decades of revisionism, to rehabilitate Mies posthumously. The definitive biography has just appeared, a wise, readable book by Franz Schulze titled simply Mies van der Rohe (University of Chicago; $39.95). Barcelona has nearly finished reconstructing his perfect building, the cool, absolutely confident German Pavilion built for the 1929 International Exposition. And now at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, always Mies’ most important institutional propagandist, Architecture and Design Director Arthur Drexler has assembled the ultimate Mies exhibit: doodles, sketches, renderings, building models, photographs, furniture and even construction materials, all packed into two floors.
Like many of his generation in Europe, Mies was proudly glum, an earnest young Spenglerian. The present cycle of civilization was tapped out, it seemed to him. Sweat and serendipity were anachronisms; the future looked to be a matter of machines and bureaucracy. “The individual is losing significance,” Mies wrote in 1924. “His destiny is no longer what interests us.” And yet has any individual had a greater impact on architecture, ever, than Mies?
Indeed, it almost seems that he invented modernism all at once. During 1921 and 1922 he proposed on paper two grand, denuded glass skyscrapers, a pair of unassailable abstract objects oblivious to everything but their own technological prowess. The drawings of the two buildings, on display at MOMA, are oversize and dashing, like Mies himself. Designed without particular functions in mind, one without even a hypothetical site, the forms are altogether different from the architecture that preceded them, not merely novel but profoundly new. Neither was to have any obvious top, bottom, entrance or decoration. Mies’ visionary high-rise modernism was not just a few years ahead of its time; dreamy, romantic modern buildings like these did not come along until almost a half-century later.
He also invented a new surname by appending Rohe, his mother’s maiden name. (Less is more be damned: in German, mies means lousy, more or less.) Mies van der Rohe, invigorated by Weimar Berlin, spent most of the 1920s designing gorgeous industrial exhibits and handsome, blocky villas descended from Frank Lloyd Wright. Well into the decade, however, Mies the modernist was not scrupulously practicing what he preached: a neo-Georgian country house appeared as late as 1924.
No utopian, Mies pursued rather luxurious ideas about appropriate modern style. It was his insistence on exquisite materials and craft that made his best work sublime rather than plain or mean. The pavilion in Barcelona was the apotheosis of posh Miesian austerity: slender chrome-plated columns, travertine floors, slabs of Algerian onyx (which alone accounted for 20% of the construction cost), green Tinian marble, etched glass, a grand red curtain. The big leather-and-steel Barcelona chair remains a popular modern icon. The pavilion was small and stood for only eight months, which makes its feat–converting the world to a new kind of architecture–even more extraordinary. It was intended by the German government to clean up the country’s image internationally, to be a quintessentially modern thing, stripped of gemutlich nostalgia. It was meant to deny history, and Mies complied.
A year later in Berlin, Mies met Architect Philip Johnson, then 24. And it was Johnson to whom Mies owed much of his latter-day American fame and fortune. Johnson organized an exhibit of modernist work at MOMA in 1932, co- authored a book on the movement and mounted a 1947 MOMA show all about Mies. Then, in the mid-1950s, Johnson helped him win the commission for the Seagram headquarters in New York City and collaborated on the design. ^
Mies, meanwhile, was taking the logic of the empty architectural box to its unnatural extreme in the U.S. His campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology is a grove of steel ectoskeletons, essentially giant one-room buildings. The Farnsworth House (1951), a planar H-beam box floating over a floodplain outside Chicago, was Mies’ last modest building, and the most affectingly American one. (Alas, his project for an Indiana fast-food stand never got built.) Farnsworth looks like a house, just barely. After it came almost nothing but true Miesian “universal space”: high-rises, modeled on his twin apartment slabs (1951) on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, that were supposed to serve any purpose–living, working, learning–in any region of the world.
The MOMA exhibit does show off Mies’ absolute strengths. Like Sir Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, he had one big idea, and he thought it all the way through. No architect since has done work of such internal coherence. The openness of buildings like Farnsworth is bracing. His best designs have a simplicity that stuns, the kind of elemental integrity now sought by many younger architects, the post-postmodernists. Like millions of self-conscious moderns, though, Mies tended to equate a kind of compulsive candor with Truth. Asymmetry, architectural ornament and symbol were deemed dishonest, sentimental. His idea of order was a kind of neurotic Mr. Spock classicism, as if the solemn, repetitious expression of a building’s structural components was proof of virtue.
Moreover, at MOMA one does not see any work of Mies’ legion of followers, the modern architects who have remade and ravaged downtowns from Los Angeles to Riyadh. Mies was personally taciturn, but his vision was evangelical. He claimed that he had the answer, that his modern style was an architectural ultimate. “With Mies,” wrote MOMA’s Drexler in 1960, “architecture leaves childhood behind.” In fact, it seems that Mies’ example, brilliant in itself, provoked a prolonged architectural adolescence, a period when a stylistic conformism was enforced. To be modern, a building was obliged to wear what Critic Reyner Banham calls the “teenage uniform” of the International Style. That sort of architectural peer pressure is gone. The vital, messy pluralism now prevalent may not make for neat history, but it might produce better cities.