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)