Honestly, I was at first put off by the raw severity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartakusbund and martyrs of the failed November 1918 Revolution in Germany. The monumental structure — first erected in 1926, before being torn down by the Nazis less than a decade later — is almost proto-brutalist in its cantilevered slabs and brazen use of unrefined materials, made up of jagged bricks held together by unsanded grout organized around a steel-and-concrete frame. It just seemed too willfully barbaric to commemorate anything of value, so stark was its ugliness.
But as it turns out, this was precisely Mies’ intention. In a conversation with the prominent communist and cultural commentator Eduard Fuchs, Mies was reported to have said the following:
As most of these people [Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, other fallen heroes of the revolution] were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument.
Though he’d later downplay its radical Bolshevik origins by recasting it in terms of a sorrowful republicanism, Mies would always emphasize that the building was meant to convey a certain brutal honesty. Even in his deeply apolitical American exile, this remained the case. As recalled at several decades’ remove, the monument did not aspire to beauty but to truth:
[I built it] in a square shape. I meant clarity and truth to join forces against the fog that had descended and was killing all hope — the hopes, as we rightly perceived at the time, of a durable German republic.
To his credit, Mies took seriously Luxemburg’s famous dilemma of “socialism or barbarism” (adapted from some lines by Engels written toward the end of his life). Luxemburg’s pronouncement of this opposition was not meant to be regarded as some sort of perennial choice haunting humanity throughout its existence, but rather was historically specific to her own moment, as Second International Marxism entered into profound crisis. Since socialism did not come to pass, as the world revolution stopped short, it is necessary that everything that transpired afterward be regarded as barbarism. For this reason, I’ve come to appreciate the self-conscious barbarism of Mies’ monument. There is something fitting about the unrelenting gnarliness of the brickwork in embodying Mies’ trademark perfect volumes, proportions, and harmonious distribution. Mies went to great lengths to put this symbolism across: the bricks, stacked some twenty feet high, had been assembled from the bullet-riddled remains of buildings damaged or destroyed during the Spartacist uprising.
Of course, it is well known that that Mies, the third Bauhaus director and one of the great pioneers of the modern movement in architecture, was never all that political to begin with. True to Tafuri’s by-now canonical interpretation of “Miesian silence,” the architect typically kept his mouth shut when it came to such affairs. Unlike Hannes Meyer, whose position as the rector of the Bauhaus he’d eventually usurp in 1930, he saw no inherent connection between politics and architecture. Continue reading