Ludwig Mies van der Rohe hardly needs any introduction to readers of this blog, or indeed to anyone more than casually familiar with the history of twentieth century architecture. Still, a few words might be included here for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure. He was the third director of the legendary Bauhaus art school, after the pioneering modernist Walter Gropius and the controversial Marxist Hannes Meyer. Descended from stonemasons, Mies entered the building trade at a young age. Prior to his tenure at the Bauhaus, he was an apprentice along with Gropius in the studio of Peter Behrens, who also later supervised a Swiss prodigy by the name of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (alias Le Corbusier). Under the German master’s tutelage, Mies gained an enduring appreciation for the Prussian classicist Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Besides Behrens, the other modern influence on Mies during this early phase of his career was the Dutchman Hendrik Petrus Berlage, through whom Europe learned of the groundbreaking designs of Frank Lloyd Wright in America.
Mies’ turn to full-fledged modernism came in the 1920s, after he came into contact with Kurt Schwitters and other members of the international avant-garde. Although his commissions earlier in the decade still came from clients whose taste was rather more traditional, Mies nevertheless began writing bold articles and manifestos for the constructivist journal G. Other contributors to this periodical were artists and critics such as El Lissitzky, Werner Gräff, and Walter Benjamin. Jean-Louis Cohen, author of The Future of Architecture (2012), details the various experiments Mies conducted around this time. In 1926, he was selected to design the monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Berlin. Following the success of the 1927 Wießenhof exhibition, spearheaded by Mies, a number of more daring projects now opened themselves up to him. Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czechoslovakia and the Wolf House in Gubin, Poland were only the most famous of these projects. In 1929, Mies was chosen to design the German pavilion for the world’s fair in Barcelona, which received widespread acclaim. You can read more about these works in an excerpt taken from Alan Colquhoun’s historical survey Modern Architecture (2002).
In any case, just as Mies was beginning to make a name for himself, Gropius asked Mies to step in and replace Meyer over at the Bauhaus in Dessau. At the time, Meyer was embroiled in a scandal concerning his communist sympathies. He exited, along with many of his left-wing students, to plan new cities in the USSR. (Eva Forgacs has written excellently about the politics that surrounded this decision). With the rise of Hitler in 1933, Gropius’ iconic Dessau building was commandeered by the Nazis and the school moved to Berlin. Mies’ choice to stay in Germany, and indeed collaborate with the fascist authorities, has been chronicled at length by Elaine Hochman in her 1989 study Architects of Fortune. Cohen dismisses this book as a bit of journalistic sensationalism, but its charges are worth taking seriously. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, for her part, never forgave him for this. “When [Mies] accepted the commission for the Reichsbank in July 1933, after the coming to power of Hitler, he was a traitor to all of us and to everything we had fought for,” she wrote. In a 1965 letter, she further rebutted the historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock:
Mies van der Rohe seemed to be wholly a part of that slow death when he finally arrived in this country in 1937. His first scheme for the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology is painfully reminiscent of his deadly fascist designs for the German Reichsbank, and the Krefeld Factory of 1937 proved the old German proverb that he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas. Yet he was the only one of the diaspora architects capable of starting a new life as a creative designer following World War II, because to him technology was not a romantic catchword, as it had been for the Bauhaus program, but a workable tool and an inescapable truth.
Personally, I am inclined to agree with the judgment of Manfredo Tafuri and his co-author Francesco Dal Co. Mies was for the most part apolitical; i.e., “not connected with any political ideology.” Either way, as Moholy-Nagy herself noted, he enjoyed great fame and prestige throughout the postwar period, in which he consolidated the formal principles of the international style of the twenties and thirties, despite his opposition during those decades to formalism or “problems of form.” However, Tafuri was right to deny this apparent variance: “There is nothing more erroneous than the interpretation of Mies van der Rohe in his late works as contradicting the Mies of the 1920s, or the reading of his late designs as renunciatory incursions into the unruffled realm of the neoacademic.” In many ways, it was only during this later phase of his career that Mies was able to realize the programmatic vision he laid out between 1921 and 1923. One need only take a look at the apartments he designed in Chicago or Lake Point Tower, posthumously realized by his pupils John Heinrich and George Schipporeit, to see the embodiment of the speculative office building and the skyscraper he envisioned back in the 1920s. Really, it is a shame that Mies’ signature style has lent itself so easily to imitation, because the features which seem replicable conceal the subtler secret of their proportions.
At any rate, you can download a number of texts which deal with the work of Mies van der Rohe below. Following these there are a number of images, sketches and delineations of various provenance (most come from MoMA’s collection), as well as photographs of both Mies and buildings which were realized. Texts on Mies written by Cohen, Colquhoun, and Tafuri/Dal Co finish these off.
- Franz Schulze, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography (1985/2012)
- Fritz Neumeyer, The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art (1991)
- Elaine S. Hochman, Architects of Fortune: Mies van der Rohe and the Third Reich (1989)
- George Dodds, Building Desire: On the Barcelona Pavilion (2005)
- Detlef Mertins, “Mies’ Event Space” (2005)
- Dietrich Neumann, “Three Early Designs by Mies van der Rohe” (1992)
- Gevork Hartoonian, “Mies van der Rohe: The Genealogy of Column and Wall” (1989)
- Gevork Hartoonian, “Mies: The Window Framed” (2008)
- Thomas de Monchaux, “Mies Reconsidered: A Review of Detlef Mertins’ Mies” (2014)
- Carsten Krohn, Mies van der Rohe: The Built Work (2014)
Architecture since 1890
(New York, NY: 2012)
Van Doesburg forged a close connection between the Netherlands and Germany not only through his presence on the doorstep of the Bauhaus but also through his participation in the Congress of Revolutionary Artists held in Düsseldorf in 1922. There he founded a short-lived “Constructivist International” together with Hans Richter and El Lissitzky. In July 1923 Richter, Lissitzky, and Werner Gräff, who had attended Van Doesburg’s lectures at the Bauhaus, published the first issue of the journal G, subtitled Material zur elementare Gestaltung [Materials for Elemental Form Creation]. Its program was to disseminate images of the technological world and to propose an architecture based on the Sachlichkeit, or objectivity, of construction systems. Van Doesburg published his own manifesto “Zur elementaren Gestaltung” [On Elemental Form Creation] in G. One of the principal supporters of and contributors to G was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who published his theoretical project for a Concrete Office Building in the same issue that carried Van Doesburg’s manifesto. It was accompanied by his own manifesto “Bürohaus” [Office Block], a first expression of his theoretical positions, in which he declared that “Architecture is the spatially apprehended will of the epoch,” drawing on the ideas of Berlage, the precursor he most admired, and Behrens, who had considered architecture the “rhythmic incorporation of the spirit of the time.” A few months later, Van Doesburg invited Mies to participate in the De Stijl exhibition at the Galerie de l’Effort moderne.
Beginning in 1921, Mies conceived several iconoclastic projects. In a competition entry for a Glass Office Building on the Friedrichstraße in Berlin, he submitted a design for a glass prism with a triangular plan. The angular volume consisted entirely of a curtain wall, without base or cornice, which appeared to extend the glazing of the nearby train station over the entirety of its 80-meter (260-foot) structure. A radical response to New York’s Flatiron Building — which the Berlin Dadaists had illustrated in their journal — Mies’ project seemed to materialize Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of Manhattan construction sites. Access to the upper floors was provided by a central elevator core, while narrow canyons lined with glass allowed light to penetrate to the interior of the site. The transparent façades revealing stacks of offices called to mind a beehive — a metaphorical term Mies used to identify the building in the competition. In 1922 he elaborated a second version of the project in which the angular facades gave way to a more fluid and sinuous outline, praised by critics for its “Gothic power.”
After his Concrete Office project, which was an abstract interpretation of the palazzo block that Peter Behrens had built earlier for Mannesmann, Mies conceived a concrete “Country House” (1923), about which he would declare, “We know no forms, only problems of construction.” The house extended horizontally across the site and reflected Mies’ awareness of Wright’s houses. His Brick Country House, designed the same year, was more provocative. An assemblage of brick elements, the house consisted of orthogonal volumes joined in a free-flowing continuum. For Mies, this “series of spatial effects” was the result of “the wall [losing] its enclosing character and [serving] only to articulate the house organism.”
Up to this point, Mies’ only real commissions were for bourgeois houses, for which he employed a traditionalist language. He was able to impose more radical views upon his clients only after 1925. Initially, he used brick in an aesthetic, expressive way, as in the Wolf House in Guben and especially in the Monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (1926) in Berlin, a sculptural interpretation of a wall evoking the execution of the two Spartacist leaders. Beginning with his houses for the textile industrialists Hermann Lange (1928–1929) and Josef Esters (1928) in Krefeld, his use of brick ceased to be load bearing. These two opulent homes, whose facades brought to mind the factories of the neighboring Ruhr region, had steel structures, which made it possible to superimpose very different floor plans on two different levels: large rooms to display the owners’ collections on the ground floor, bedrooms above.
Mies soon applied himself to a more radical annihilation of traditional domestic space. The first building to undergo such treatment, the Germany Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, did not have much of a program beyond its ceremonial purpose. The latent fluidity of his Brick Country House began to be palpable in this sequence of open rooms resting on a podium and evoking the garden structures of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, which Mies admired. Its stone and glass partitions defined a free-flowing space and were clearly distinct from the load-bearing steel frame — despite a few invisible compromises. The dominant element was a wall of golden onyx, intended as a backdrop for the king of Spain’s reception by German officials. In this space — unregulated by any axial system, open to diagonal views, and designed to accommodate visitors’ movements — the only perceptible symmetry was the horizontal one between floor and ceiling, making the vertical space of the pavilion practically reversible.
The promise of a new type of domestic space first glimpsed in Barcelona was brought to fruition in the house of Fritz and Grete Tugendhat (1928-1930) in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the house reproduced the fluid floor plan of the Barcelona Pavilion, but this time areas had well-defined purposes, as if the partitions between rooms had been erased once the plan was completed. According to the critic Paul Westheim, Mies conceived the house as “a circulation route leading from room to room according to [the owners’] style of living.”
Westheim continued: “[T]he home must be considered entirely as a kind of business that, like any other business, is based on the principle of an articulation of various functions. No room should be isolated and cut off from the others. Even more, continuity between the rooms is to be pursued. The entire space is to be arranged organically, according to its envisaged uses.” As at Barcelona, the living room, which overlooked the city, was backed with an onyx wall. The dining room was defined by a cylindrical partition of rosewood. In 1930, thanks to his very public success in Barcelona, Mies was named director of the Bauhaus in Dessau, where he would radically change the pedagogy of architecture.
(New York: 2002)
Although no one architect in the Germany of the 1920s dominated the professional scene as Le Corbusier did in France, the reputation of Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) in the sphere of aesthetics seems to have been equal to that of Gropius in the sphere of organization. A man of few, if weighty, words, Mies was not only an astute self-publicist, but an architect with the ability to reduce every problem to a kind of essential simplicity — a simplicity that continues to give rise to conflicting interpretations of his work to this day.
In Mies’ work, two opposing tendencies struggled for dominance. One could be described as the enclosure of function in a generalized cubic container not committed to any particular set of concrete functions — a tendency partly derived from his early allegiance to neoclassicism. The other was the articulation of the building in response to the fluidity of life. This second tendency, however, seldom involved him in figural shaping, as it did the Expressionists, nor did it align Mies with what Behne called “functionalism.” Following a constructivist or neoplasticist logic, neutral forms could create systems flexible enough to respond to any imaginable life situation, every building taking on a unique configuration while being made from similar elements. It was such a process that Mies adopted when he abandoned the house as a single pavilion and broke it up into its basic elements. I will discuss here the houses Mies produced between the wars, in which he attempted to reconcile these conflicting ideas — neoclassical objectification on the one hand and Neoplasticist fragmentation on the other.
Mies’ architectural formation was remarkably similar to Le Corbusier’s, though their response to the conditions of modernity that they both recognized could hardly have been more different. Both had been trained in craft schools and had climbed into the professionally and socially higher sphere of architecture and the “fine arts”; both changed their names; both worked their way through a formative period of neoclassicism (in the design of furniture as well as that of houses) based on the example of the same two masters — Bruno Paul and Peter Behrens; in both cases, their Modernist work followed on without interruption from their neoclassical work and was strongly influenced by it. But, whereas Le Corbusier designed only two neoclassical houses before moving on to other explorations (though he continued to design Empire style interiors for several years), Mies’ “Biedermeier” period lasted from 1907 to 1926 and was the basis of a successful architectural practice. He was over 40 when he completed his first modernist-constructivist building, the Wolf House in Guben (1925–1927).
All Mies’ neoclassical houses are symmetrical two-storey prisms, sometimes with minor appendages. These houses, especially the Riehl House (1907) , borrowed heavily from the illustrations of eighteenth-century vernacular–classical houses in Paul Mebes’ book Um 1800 of 1905. The Riehl House differs from the others in its siting. Like Le Corbusier’s Maison Jeanneret and Favre-Jacot at La Chaux-de-Fonds (and like Giulio Romano’s Villa Lante on the Giannicolo in Rome which might have influenced both Le Corbusier and Mies) it is sited on a steep incline. One of its gable ends is frontalized by means of a loggia and plunges unexpectedly down to connect with a long retaining wall. This might be called the building-as-dam type, and is a variant of the Stadtkrone, tending to be shown towering above the viewer, in the Wagnerschule manner. It is also found in other projects by Mies: the competition scheme for the Bismarck Monument of 1910 (which probably had its origin in Schinkel’s Schloss Orianda project of 1838), the Wolf House, the Tugendhat House (1928-1930), and the Mountain House project of 1934.
When he resumed his practice in Berlin after the First World War, Mies met the experimental filmmaker and Dadaist Hans Richter and joined his circle of artists and writers, which included van Doesburg and El Lissitzky. Mies’ conversion from mimetic eclecticism to Constructivist abstraction dates from this first encounter with the Berlin avant-garde. In 1922, Richter, El Lissitzky, and the artist and filmmaker Werner Gräff founded the journal G: Material zur Elementaren Gestaltung [G: From Material to Form]. It was here that Mies published his earliest Constructivist projects together with brief polemical articles in which he took a strongly anti-formalist position: “We know no forms, only building problems. Form is not the goal but the result of our work.”
These early Constructivist projects in which Mies explored some of the fundamental problems posed by new techniques and materials, comprise two Scheerbartian glass skyscrapers (1921-1922), an eight-storey office block in reinforced concrete (1922), and two single-storey houses — a Concrete Country House (1923) and a Brick Country House (1924). The houses in this group, together with the little-known Lessing House project (1923), summarize the dialectic in Mies’ work. In the Concrete Country House the cube is dissolved into a spread-eagled, swastika-like form; in the Lessing House the cube is broken up into smaller cubes, interlocking with each other in echelon; in the Brick Country House the cubes are replaced by a system of planes. This progressive fragmentation and articulation, in which the external form of the house reflects its internal subdivision, betrays the indirect influence of the English freestyle house, Berlage, and Wright, but its immediate ancestor is De Stijl.
The Wolf House, and the Lange and Esters houses, both built in Krefeld in 1927, explore the Lessing type. Built of the local building material, brick, they are broken up into interlocking cubes to form roughly pyramidal compositions of two and three storeys. The principal rooms on the ground floor are opened up to each other to form sequences in echelon. The bedroom floors are set back to provide roof terraces.
The Tugendhat House at Brno in the Czech Republic marks a new stage in Mies’ development. No longer in brick, it is rendered and painted white. Its organization results from a site condition that recalls that of the Riehl House. Built against a steep slope, the house consists of a monolithic cubic mass with a set-back, fragmented upper floor, through which one enters from the street to descend to the living room on the floor below. The living room is an enormous space divided by fixed but freestanding screens. The monolithic volume of the house is wedged solidly into the sloping ground. The south and east sides of the living area are fully glazed with floor-to-ceiling, mechanically retractable, plate-glass windows, opening to a panoramic view. Thus, the inflected space, which in the Brick Country House extends out to infinity, is here contained within a cubic volume. But at the same time, this volume is made totally transparent. Classical closure and the infinite sublime are combined by means of modern technology.
Contemporaneous with the Tugendhat House is the German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929, known as the Barcelona Pavilion. Here, the enclosing cube is dispensed with and the entire space is defined in terms of independent horizontal and vertical planes. But instead of disappearing into infinity, the wall planes turn back on themselves to form open courts which clamp the building to the two ends of the site. Sited astride one of the exhibition routes, the pavilion was not so much a dam as a filter.
In both the Tugendhat House and the Barcelona Pavilion, in contrast to the Brick Country House, the roof is supported by an independent grid of columns. At first sight this looks like an oddly belated discovery of the principle of the free plan. But at second glance the columns seem too slender to carry the roof without some help from the wall planes (their slenderness is enhanced by their reflective finish). Rather than columns they seem more like signs marking the modular grid.
Barcelona pavilion covered in Die Form
Between 1931 and 1935, Mies designed a series of houses which adapted the Barcelona Pavilion plan-type to domestic use. The first was a model house in the 1931 Berlin Building Exposition. This was followed by a series of unbuilt projects, including the Ulrich Lange House (1935), for single-storey houses within closed courts. These designs become more and more introverted. In one sense they can be seen to be following the same Mediterranean prototypes as other avant-garde architects of the 1930s — in this respect Le Corbusier’s enclosed garden at Poissy makes an interesting comparison. But they also suggest that Mies (or his clients) might have been withdrawing into a private world, unconsciously reacting to a threatening political situation. In spite of this tendency towards enclosure, however, the more elaborate projects of this period, such as the Hubbe House, were left partially open to give framed views of nature. Indeed, the natural landscape is omnipresent in Mies’ sketches at this time, suggesting that the main function of the house had become that of framing a view in which nature is idealized. Mies later acknowledged this distancing effect: “When you see nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House it gets a deeper meaning than from outside. More is asked from nature because it becomes part of a greater whole.”
According to a common misconception, Mies’ minimalist distillation of architecture was the result of a deep engagement with the craft of building. Certainly, Mies was obsessed by certain craft-like aspects of architecture, but he was more concerned with idealizing and mediating techniques of graphic representation than with construction. As is clear from his writings, Mies realized that the traditional relationship between the craftsman and his product had been destroyed by the machine. His criteria were ideal and visual, not constructional — not even “visual–constructional.” It is true that unlike, for instance, Le Corbusier, Mies displays the materiality of his building elements, but he assembles these elements like montages; their connections are never visible. Even more than that of the other modernists, Mies’ work runs counter to the “tectonic” tradition.
Recently, in a justified reaction against the myth of Mies-the-constructor, critics have invented a postmodern Mies — one who primarily operated with surfaces and effects, within the endless play of the signifier. But this interpretation errs in the opposite direction. It ignores Mies’ fear of post-Nietzschean chaos and it also assumes that an aesthetic of materials and their ephemeral appearance (as signified by the German word Schein) is incompatible with a belief in foundational values. Mies’ conception of architecture followed the dialectical tendency of German Idealism to think in terms of opposites.
According to the Neoplatonic aesthetics that influenced his thinking, the transcendental world is reflected in the world of the senses (Mies was fond of quoting St Augustine’s dictum: “Beauty is the radiance of truth”). When modified by the concept of the “will of the epoch,” this became the basis of his belief that the spiritual could only become active in the world in a historicized form, that is to say in the form of technology. Such problems of surface and depth, the contingent and the ideal, also lay behind the anti-formalism of Mies’ articles in G in 1923. These did not represent a “materialist” phase (later to be abjured) as most commentators claim; they reflected a topos of modernist aesthetics derived from German Romanticism, according to which the forms of art should, like those of nature, reveal an inner essence and not be imposed from the outside.To inquire into Mies’ philosophical background is, of course, in no way to suggest that his architecture was an “expression” of philosophical ideas. For Mies, it was precisely the auto-referentiality of the work of architecture that gave it access to the world of spiritual meaning. Mies’ modernism and his idealism were perfectly compatible.
Manfredo Tafuri and
Francesco Dal Co
A History of Modern
The career of Mies van der Rohe was of a different historical importance from those of Perret, Gropius, and Mendelsohn. The very fact that he did not flee Nazi Germany until 1937 gives cause for reflection. Nor is it irrelevant that Philip Johnson, his future collaborator, was at the time supporting a pro-Nazi political line and in an article published in 1933 pointed to Mies as a potential leading figure in the architecture of the Third Reich. Let there be no uncertainty: the personal ideology of Mies was not connected with any political ideology. For Mies the world is what it is; it is not given to us to change it in its structures. The Zeitgeist is a categorical imperative, and each and every particular manifestation of it is, in the long run, equivalent to every other. “The exigency of our time of realism and functionalism must be satisfied,” he had written in 1924, affirming however the “grandeur” of the imperative that leads to anonymity. Exactly that anomalous collocation within modern architecture made it possible for Mies to realize himself in the United States with the same supreme indifference that had guided his attitude before then.
Yet in his celebrated first speech at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1938, he declared in reply to the laconic introduction made by Wright: “Thus true education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values. By our practical aims we are bound to the specific structure of our epoch. Our values, on the other hand, are rooted in the spiritual nature of men. Our practical aims measure only our material progress. The values we profess reveal the level of our culture. Different as practical aims and values are, they are nevertheless closely connected. For to what else should they be related if not to our aims in life?” Those apparently conventional words seem to contradict his own famous distinction between the “what” and the “why.” Their hidden side, like that of the entire personality of Mies, can only be comprehended by linking the results of his European efforts with the works he created in his new home.
Immediately after having assumed the direction of the architectural section of the Illinois Institute of Technology (then the Armor Institute) Mies was asked to design the new campus of the university. His first ideas date from 1939, and work was begun in 1942. The campus is situated in a chaotic slum area close to the center of Chicago. Mies immediately posed the problem of how to accentuate even more the isolation of the vast rectangle of the campus, while maintaining an axis of symmetry for the buildings that would define the central open area but at the same time progressively liberate those toward the periphery from the geometrical imperative thus created. This basic idea was maintained in successive plans, although Mies had to give up his goal of a campus entirely without streets. As the unit of control he established a single module of 24 × 24 feet with a height of 12 feet. This is clearly seen in the brickwork of certain walls and in the glass panels framed by the exposed steel structure and is implicit in the planimetric principle governing the entire complex. Only in the library and the administration building was the module expanded to measure 64 × 64 × 30 feet. In this way he ensured that this purely ideal unit would be applied in all subsequent buildings, whether realized by Holabird & Root, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or by himself in collaboration with other firms. With that established, all his attention could be concentrated on the details of the blocks he himself was to realize, keeping as a fixed principle the identification of the total form of the buildings with the naked geometrical schema. With reference to the laboratory for mineralogical and metallurgical research and to the Alumni Memorial, Johnson could speak of a philosophy of the beinahe nichts, the “almost nothing,” which brings to mind such hermetic aphorisms of Mies as “less is more” and “the Good Lord is in the details.” It would be misleading to interpret this as concentration on the purity of the technological factor or, even worse, to speak in generalized terms of a “new classicism.”
For the Institute complex Mies created one set of his masterpieces in 1952-1956, Crown Hall, the architecture school. It is a pure prism set on a rectangular ground plan with its roof and attic suspended from four parallel steel frames so as to obtain a totally unencumbered interior space. Here were combined two themes, both tried first in works very different from this and from each other: the house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth in Piano, Illinois, built in 1950, and the projects for the so-called Fifty-Fifty House of 1951 and for the National Theater in Mannheim, Germany, in 1953. Those three designs, like Crown Hall, end up as mere geometric objects lifted off the ground and enclosing absolutely free interior spaces. For all three the principle of suspended roofs and attics is linked to structural inventions. The glass of the walls of the Farnsworth house is interrupted only by eight painted-white steel piers that raise its volume above the ground and render metaphysical its contact with the rich natural wooded site. But the perfectly square Fifty-Fifty House is suspended by four supports that have been placed in the middle of the sides in such a way as to seemingly eliminate any materiality from its mass. The design Mies proposed for the Mannheim theater, like Crown Hall or the more complex project of 1954 for a convention hall in Chicago, featured a single vast space in which the various internal functions would not detract from the absoluteness of the enclosing volume. Much has been written that seeks to decipher the significance of such implacable purism, taking sides for or against the flexibility or — depending on the critic — the constriction of the “free” spaces designed by Mies.
Perhaps we can trace its origins. “Less is more”: behind the reduction to minimalist signs is the quest for value. God is resuscitated from the Nietzschean ashes, even if hidden in the minimum element, the detail. The reduction to the sign is, in any event, faithful to the doctrine of the elementarist avant-garde. In all of the buildings by Mies we have mentioned so far these “signs” are obvious: for example, the suspension of the attic above the ground and the clear distinction between structures and volumes. In these respects Mies was still within the trend expressed by the review G, the abstract films of Hans Richter, and his own Barcelona Pavilion. But the values — the what — are not to be confused with the facts, the how. In this Mies remained perfectly faithful to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus even if, like Wittgenstein himself, he found himself constrained, in order to justify the autonomous universe of the laws of logic, to admit a mystical presupposition that is connected with those laws in problematic manner. The “facts” possess the language of existence. The language of the signs must not be confused with them lest it betray both the “facts” and the “values.” To quote Karl Kraus: “Since the facts have the floor, let anyone who has anything to say come forward and keep his mouth shut.” Silence is, therefore, a “symbolic form” in a sense all its own, and because of this the link of Mies with De Stijl is no more than apparent. Moreover, his American works go beyond the simple stripping bare of the void, as in the signs that defined the Barcelona Pavilion. Even if only “exposed,” the signs take on body again, but they no longer articulate themselves. In this, Mies was the most remorseless critic of Moholy-Nagy and Lissitzky. If all the incorporated value is in the “will” to make the sign remain sign, to speak only of the renunciation that makes it possible to dominate the destiny imposed by the Zeitgeist by interjecting it as “duty,” then articulating the signs — attempting to make them “speak” — can only lead to betraying the value, reducing the language of signs to instrument of publicity. This is what Moholy-Nagy and Lissitzky were forced to do, not having wished — by force of their own programmatic intent — to go all the way in accepting the separation between the language of forms and the language of existence. Mies, however, did go the full way in that distinction. His spaces, in that sense, are not “accessible,” do not speak of the “freedom” that they seemingly promise. On the contrary, Crown Hall and the Fifty-Fifty House assume in themselves the ineluctability of absence that the contemporary world imposes on the language of form. But this does not signify “renunciation of form.”
Mies declared that the task of art is to impose order on the existing chaos. His IIT campus is an oasis of order irreproducible within the metropolitan chaos. The inflexibility of its geometrical laws demonstrates that if “order is chaos,” then form introduces itself into it as a mute and unassailable mirror of that chaos. With this one can also explain the so-called classicism of Mies, his “return to Schinkel.” The essence of the classical, Olympian peace, is not totality achieved; quite the opposite, it is precisely conscious renunciation of the vital flux of change — of the Eros — in order to dominate it intellectually. Behind the exposed concrete web of the Promontory Apartments of 1949 in Chicago or the steel skeletons forming the framework for the uniform glassed walls of the two Chicago residential skyscrapers — the Lake Shore Drive Apartments of 1951 and the Commonwealth Promenade Apartments of two years later — lives just such a return to the spirit of Goethe’s Weimar. No longer is there a plurality of signs but the entire edifice appears as neutral sign. The will to dominate chaos is entirely contained in the intellectual act that takes its distance from the real so as to affirm its own presence. In the interior of chaos the perfect silence is disquieting. It introduces ruptures that are polemical to the extent that the distance which the building as architecture interposes between itself and its context is hermetical. In the Seagram Building of 1954-1958, an office skyscraper on Park Avenue in the heart of mid-Manhattan, Mies repeated on another scale the operation he had carried through in Chicago with the IIT campus. Here again he adopted the curtain wall and the continuous glass face. But the exposed metal parts are in bronze, the paneling in polished marble, and the heat-proof glass is brown. All this accentuates the volumetric unity of the principal prism connected with two lower parallelepipeds to its rear.
Here the absoluteness of the object is total. The maximum of formal structurality is matched by the maximum absence of images. That language of absence is projected on an ulterior “void” that mirrors the first void and causes it to resonate: the small plaza paved in travertine that separates the skyscraper from Park Avenue contains two symmetrical fountains. This is no place for repose or contemplation: Mies said that the two basins should be filled right up to their brims to prevent the public from sitting on their edges. The plaza is intended to be the planimetric inversion of the significance of the skyscraper: two voids answering each other and speaking the language of the nil, of the silence which — by a paradox worthy of Kafka — assaults the noise of the metropolis.
That double “absent structure” stands aloof from the city in the very act of exposing itself to it. Renunciation — the classical Entsagung — is definitive here. To articulate this renunciation Mies takes a step backward and remains silent. The void as symbolic form — ultimate act of the European myth of Reason — has been reduced to a phantom of itself. Victory over anguish no longer has at its disposal the “language of the soul,” as in the Kandinsky of the first abstract watercolors. Nor is the homogeneous bronze and brown-glass mass of the Seagram Building in any way akin to the white-on-white square of Kasimir Malevich. Despite everything, the Miesian absence is contradiction interjected. The American architects grasped this very well when they adopted the urban model of the Seagram Building — a prismatic skyscraper with forecourt — and repeated it in the Chase Manhattan Bank Building and the Union Carbide Building, but even more when they made use of it to get the old zoning law reformed. In 1961 a new zoning code for New York City sanctioned extra height for skyscrapers set back from the street in such a way as to provide open public plazas on their lots. The result was a rapid change in the panorama of Lower Manhattan and a good stretch of Sixth Avenue, especially in front of Rockefeller Center. At the feet of the lucid glass prisms of the Exxon Building, the new McGraw-Hill Building, the Celanese Building, little plazas [piazzettas] huddle all in a line. They are adorned with sculpture and fountains that are quite without any real function, sitting there in the most absolute disorder like so many useless outdoor waiting rooms. What is tragic in the Seagram Building is repeated as a norm in these in the form of farce. The compact curtain wall devised by Mies likewise proved an easy formula for wholesale reproduction. It would be wrong to consider this to be contrary to the intentions of Mies. But it would also be wrong to reduce his intentions to just that.
The supreme indifference of the transplanted German master made him an easy prey for speculative operations passing themselves off as cultural, as in the Lafayette Park quarter of Detroit. There Mies collaborated with Ludwig Hilberseimer to cancel a plan for slum clearance which called for a low-cost housing development. That worthy project was replaced with a tidy alternation of tall slabs and low blocks providing residential accommodations in a landscaped setting for members of the middle- and upper-income brackets. But beyond all that, once the “language of silence” had been achieved, nothing remained but to repeat it always and anew. In the Neue Nationalgalerie built between 1962 and 1968 in West Berlin, the museum itself is underground. As in the Barcelona Pavilion, the real architectural focus is the empty space. In other works — an extraordinary project of 1957-1958 for restructuring the tip of Manhattan with three residential skyscrapers isolated from the disorderly dregs of the housing behind them, the Charles Center of 1964 in Baltimore, and the Federal Court Building in the Federal Center in Chicago — Mies calibrated to the point of paradox infinitesimal variations inside his decorticated volumes which, not only metaphorically, constrain chaos to reflect itself in them. The unified surfaces of the exterior of the Federal Court Building uniformly conceal a greatly variegated interior where the double-height walls of the courtrooms are disposed between two ribbons of offices. But the perfectly homogeneous, vitreous expanse is also a mirror in the literal sense: the “almost nothing” has become “big glass,” although imprinted not with the hermetic surrealist ploys of Duchamp, but reflecting images of the urban chaos that surrounds the timeless Miesian purity. Once again a return to origins.
Kurt Schwitters, the great friend of Mies in his Berlin years, threw into his “Merz” pictures all sorts of scraps and the most unlikely objects, transforming his collages into “universes of affection.” While the art of Rauschenberg and the new American Dada in the fifties and sixties warmed over the themes of the negativist avant-garde, Mies was siting his Merzbau plumb in the center of the metropolis, a construction that has no need to dirty itself with the shift and flux of phenomena. It accepts them, absorbs them, restores them to themselves in a perverse multi-duplication, like a Pop Art sculpture that obliges the American metropolis to look at itself reflected — and Mies was not one to accentuate the horror of the image thus produced — in the neutral mirror that breaks the city web. In this, architecture arrives at the ultimate limits of its own possibilities. Like the last notes sounded by the Doctor Faustus of Thomas Mann, alienation, having become absolute, testifies uniquely to its own presence, separating itself from the world to declare the world’s incurable malady.