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)
Like many of his contemporaries, Jan Tschichold adhered to a kind of “apolitical socialism” during the 1920s. Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and numerous others shared this outlook. He helped design books for the left-wing “Book Circle” series from 1924 to 1926. Tschichold quoted Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1924) with approval in the inaugural issue of Typographische Mitteilungen, published that same year:
The wall dividing art and industry will come down. The great style of the future will not decorate, it will organize. It would be wrong to think this means the destruction of art, as giving way to technology.
David Crowley and Paul Jobling suggest that “Tschichold had been so enamored of the Soviet Union that he had signed his works ‘Iwan [Ivan] Tschichold’ for a period in the 1920s, and worked for German trade unions.” Some of this enthusiasm was doubtless the result of his contact with El Lissitzky and his Hungarian disciple László Moholy-Nagy, a legend in his own right.
In 1927, a pen manufacturer accused Tschichold of being a communist, which prompted fellow typographer Stanley Morison to rise to his defense. From that point forward, his work became even less overtly political.
Yet he remained cognizant of the revolutionary origins of modern orthography. “At the same time that he was promulgating the depoliticized functionalism of the New Typography,” writes Stephen Eskilson. “Tschichold still recognized his debt to Constructivism’s Russian, communist roots.” Christopher Burke thus also writes in his study of Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and the New Typography that
Tschichold’s compilation contains the Constructivists’ Program in an edited and abridged — one might even say adulterated — German version adapted by Tschichold himself. The Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of the original is significantly toned down: for example, the proclamation in the original that reads “Our sole ideology is scientific communism based on the theory of historical materialism: loses its reference to scientific communism in Tschichold’s version. He was obviously tailoring the text for his readership in Germany, where the November Revolution immediately after the First World War had been ruthlessly suppressed. The German Communist Party leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered in cold blood on 15 January 1919 by right-wing, counterrevolutionary troops with the tacit acceptance of the Social Democrat government of the Weimar Republic itself.
Tschichold himself called for an objective, impersonal, collective work destined for all, espousing a vaguely left-wing but not overtly communist point of view common to many statements from this period of International Constructivism in Germany. Despite quoting Trotsky in Elementare Typographie, Tschichold did not belong to the German Communist Party, nor was he associated with any particular “-ism” or group, apart from the Ring neue Werbegestalter later in the 1920s and 1930s, which had no political dimension.
Regardless, the Nazis suspected Tschichold of harboring communist sympathies. Continue reading
Iakov Georgievich Chernikhov was one of the most outstandingly original artists of a period which produced many great talents. He was born on December 17, 1889 in the Ukrainian provincial town of Pavlograd, and studied first at Odessa College of Art, from which he graduated in 1914, and then at Petrograd’s famous Imperial Art Academy, now the Russian Academy of Art. Here he studied painting and education before switching to the architectural faculty in 1916. One year later, Chernikhov completed his teacher training and his degree thesis on methods of teaching drawing. He was called up for military service in 1916, but managed to continue studying, working, and teaching, though he was unable to resume his studies at the architectural faculty of VKhUTEMAS [the Higher Art and Technical Studios, previously the Academy of Art] until 1922. By the time he completed his degree in 1925, he had gained many years’ experience of educational theory and practice.
From 1927 to 1936 he worked for various architectural firms, designing and building a large number of projects. Until his death in May 1951, Chernikhov also continued to teach a wide variety of graphic arts subjects, including representational geometry and construction drawing. He became a professor in 1934, and was granted tenure the following year. By the standards of his time, he was simply a successful and fulfilled architect. His publications earned him a favorable reputation among his colleagues between 1927 and 1933, but after the Stalinist era his name disappeared from the scene. Only now, many decades after his death, are some of his books and examples of his wide-ranging graphic art being republished, and the magnitude of his unique creative genius becoming more widely recognized. Chernikhov’s first book, The Art of Graphic Representation, was published in 1927 by the Leningrad Academy of Arts. It was a textbook for the drawing course which he had devised but, despite its title, its purpose was not to teach readers how to draw. Even in Chernikhov’s time, the title had an old-fashioned ring to it, but he wrote the book with much more modern aims in mind. It is about graphic, spatial, and abstract compositions, and seeks to encourage students to use lines, planes, and solid to express beauty and movement without depicting anything known or recognizable, experimenting with all the boundless possibilities open to them. This thin volume is actually an extract from Chernikhov’s wide-ranging work. It was aimed at young secondary school and university students with no training in (or experience of) drawing or painting, and was ambitious in its aims. Publications like this were very unusual, since for the previous fifteen years, modern art had been used to express slogans, manifestoes, and statements of principle.
Few of the leading figures in modern art were teachers, but as a passionate educationalist, Chernikhov regarded his books primarily as textbooks, and his superb graphics simply as illustrations. He used his exceptional talents in the service of education and, unlike many other gifted and famous artists and architects, did not prescribe specific styles or techniques, instead focusing on such down-to-earth subjects as the use of materials or ways of depicting form and space. The importance of the imagination to Chernikhov is apparent in the title of the first chapter: “Fantasy and Object.” The Art of Graphic Representation is primarily a way of depicting imaginary spaces, something at which he excelled, and his drive toward systematization compelled him to share this knowledge with others. To his mind, the ability to sketch and draw were essential, but the most important thing was imagination. Chernikhov’s work, which even his harshest critics freely admitted was unique, provides impressive evidence of the dominance of the imaginary over the factual and representational. Continue reading
Below is an article written in memoriam of De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg upon his death in 1931. It discusses his pivotal intervention in the life of the Bauhaus, where Dexel was a student. In between there are reproduced all 72 pages from his Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst (1925), published as part of the Bauhausbücher series.
Theo van Doesburg
Das Neue Frankfurt
Vol. 4, №. 6 (1931)
On March 7, Theo van Doesburg died at Davos. He was a highly significant and almost a tragic figure, since the opportunity to realize his potential to the full was largely denied him — a fact that is hard to understand if one looks at some of those who are permitted to work.
He was a painter, an architect, a typographer, and from 1917 the founding editor of the magazine De Stijl, the first ever to campaign consistently for new formal design. (The cover of De Stijl remains an exemplary piece of modern typography — think of the visual changes that have overtaken our periodicals in the past decade, and you have one small illustration of Van Doesburg’s startling anticipation of present-day design principles.). He fought in the foremost ranks of the Dutch shock troops alongside Mondrian, Oud, Rietveld, Wils, Huszár, Van t’Hoff and others. What they stand for is well known. Now that he is dead, let us reflect for a moment on what we in Germany owe to Doesburg. Historical justice and the memory of an important man demand that we remember.
In 1921 Theo van Doesburg came to Weimar, with his vital energy and his clear critical mind — Weimar, where the Bauhaus had been in existence since 1919, and where a considerable number of modern artists were living, attracted by the wind of progress that used to blow — in those far-off days — through Thuringia. The credit for inviting Doesburg to Weimar goes to Adolf Meyer; straightforward, phlegmatic, and consistent, Meyer never diverged from the straight line that led from the buildings designed in cooperation with Gropius in Cologne and Alfeld to the works of his later, mature period in Frankfurt. The teaching appointment as such was not a success, since it proved impossible to bridge the gap between Doesburg’s views and those of the then dominant Bauhaus personalities. Continue reading
Below are the covers to the books in the Bauhausbücher series, № 1-14.
- Walter Gropius, Internationale Architektur. Bauhausbücher 1, München 1925
- Paul Klee, Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch. Bd. 2, München 1925
- Adolf Meyer, Ein Versuchshaus des Bauhauses in Weimar. Bd. 3, München, 1925
- Oskar Schlemmer, Die Bühne im Bauhaus. Bd. 4, München 1925
- Piet Mondrian, Neue Gestaltung. Neoplastizismus. Bd. 5, Eschwege 1925
- Theo van Doesburg, Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst. Bd. 6, München 1925
- Walter Gropius, Neue Arbeiten der Bauhauswerkstaetten. Bd. 7, München 1925
- Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Malerei, Fotografie, Film. Bd. 8, München 1925
- Wassily Kandinsky, Punkt und Linie zur Fläche: Beitrag zur Analyse der malerischen Elemente. Bd. 9, München, 1926
- Jan Peter Oud, Holländische Architektur, Bd. 10, München 1926
- Kasimir Malewitsch, Die gegenstandslose Welt, Bd. 11, München 1927
- Walter Gropius, Bauhausbauten Dessau. Bd. 12, München 1928
- Albert Gleizes, Kubismus. Bd. 13, München 1928
- Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur. Bd. 14, 1929
Theo van Doesburg
Het Bouwbedrijf: Vol. 6, № 6
March 1929, pgs. 116-122
The mass, the opposition of the colors, the play of light give depth to certain surfaces, instill infinite values in all modulations of I don’t know what secret architecture, which is the gift of genius.
— H.A.C., in Les demières Nouvelles
The structure on the Place Kléber in Strasbourg, named “Aubette” is the remnant of a large but straggling monastic complex, dating from the thirteenth century; most of the buildings were demolished in the sixteenth century (1552). The remaining ones were adapted to military use. In 1764, in connection with the construction of new highways, the French architect Blondel was commissioned to build a structure on the Place Kléber which could serve as a model for the style of that time. Blondel, nicknamed “The Straightener,” encompassed the entire straggling complex in the enormous façade, which even now occupies nearly the full Northern side of the Place Kléber. This complex was named “Obet,” later “Aubette.” For nearly a century the building was used for military purposes, until in 1845 a café (Café Cade) was established there, to which in 1867 a concert hail was added, which served for quite a long time as a music school. In 1869 the Aubette was acquired by the city, which turned it partly into a museum in which paintings by famous masters were housed. A year later it was burned by the Germans, not a single artwork being saved. Only Blondel’s façade survived.
In 1911 the Place Kléber was to undergo an important renovation, in which no less than 46 architects would take part. However, the plans, now kept in the city archives, were never executed and thus the Aubette remained an undistinguished, neglected building, disgracing the square rather than enhancing it.
Just as the Aubette in Strasbourg was transformed in the course of time in accordance with the circumstances and the needs of the time, so the building presently has had to conform to contemporary needs. The Aubette, and primarily the right wing, has changed into an amusement center. In 1921 the developers Horn and Heitz Brothers leased the building from the city for a period of ninety years. The city stipulated, however, that no essential changes could be made in the façade, this being a Monument historique. Except for the marquee over the terrace, 53 m in length, which links the halls looking out on the square, and for the modern electric light sign on the façade, nothing on the exterior was changed. Nevertheless, the tall plate glass panes of the Five O’clock and the adjoining cafés, which are mounted in thin iron frames, give the façade a modern look. Originally, I had wanted the neon sign to run the length of the entire façade, but the city government, which is even now in litigation with the developers because the strictly horizontal, dominating marquee over the terrace does not correspond to the style of the eighteenth century, refused Its permission.
The developers — one of them, Mr. Paul Horn, is himself an architect — originally did not know what to do with the many halls. The projects designed during the first five years with the assistance of many architects-decorators were not executed. Among these there were all kinds of “modern” and “classic” style variations, with Biedermeier prevailing. On paper, the Aubette traversed all styles, from Empire to Jugendstil, and as they say, the realization was mainly prevented by the high costs and by the monetary instability of that time. Mr. Paul Horn had seen to it that the foundations were reinforced and had combined many smaller rooms into a few large ones. In short, the rough work had already been prepared when I got involved with the Aubette in September 1926. The Horn brothers invited me to come to Strasbourg and, encouraged by the possibility to realize my ideas about interior design on a grand scale and without restrictions, I accepted the commission to transform the principal halls in a modern sense, architecturally as well as aesthetically.
The first task was the design of new floor plans in accordance with the location and purpose of the various halls. These designs were approved by the city as well as by the developers without important changes. Here I operated in the most functional manner, but how could one possibly define a priori the whole life and activities in such a building before learning how they actually develop. The floor plans undeniably bore the mark of metropolitan activities, while I avoided defining function and purpose too strictly.
I set myself the task of creating a galeria, aiming at connections between the spaces, which would allow the public to come and go, without the necessity of remaining in any one of the halls for a long time. The existing arcade, which separates the right wing from the left, connecting the main entrance at the square with one of the main streets in the center, facilitated this task. This arcade gives entrance to the spaces on the ground floor: cafés, restaurants, the Five O’clock (with decorations by Mrs. Täuber-Arp), pastry shop, bar, and service quarters with elevator.
Also to the stairwell, leading to the Caveau-Dancing and the upper floors. In order to assist the public in finding their bearings I placed an information chart at the main entrance of the arcade. Every section bears a number of a definite shape and color, while this same sign is clearly visible at the entrance to each room.
Located on the ground floor are the arcade, café-brasserie, café-restaurant, tearoom, the Aubette bar and a service area. In the basement are the telephone booths, toilets, coat rooms, the American bar and the Cabaret-Dance hall, painted by Hans Arp. On the mezzanine are located: toilets, coat rooms and a billiards room. On the first floor above ground level are the Cinéma-Dancing-Cabaret,a small and a large function room, and a service area. On the level above that are located the apartments of the director and the permanent staff; also the store rooms for provisions. In the adjoining rooms are the offices, while the enormous kitchens and the cooling installations are on the mezzanine.
The principal materials used for the interiors, in accordance with modern requirements, are: concrete, iron, plate glass, aluminum, nickel, hard caoutchouc (used for the first time by me for stair banisters and bars on doors), terrazzo, rabitz, linoleum, parquet, tiles, duralumin, lincrusta, ripolin, frosted glass, rubber, leather, enamel, silver leaf etc, I avoided the use of wood as much as possible: the doors are all executed in iron and plate glass without subdivisions. The windows and doors giving onto the arcade were extended up to the ceiling, making for maximal light, transparency and orderliness. Hereby the annoying space between ceiling and window and between ceiling and door was eliminated. Continue reading
The revolution on display
El Lissitzky was one of the great masters of Soviet avant-garde art and architecture. Besides Malevich, Tatlin, and Rodchenko, Lissitzky is probably the most famous Russian modernist from this period. He was certainly the most internationally renowned. Part of the reason for this was his numerous expeditions abroad, throughout Western Europe, usually sent there by the USSR’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii.
International constructivism followed him, as he met and worked closely with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, J.J.P. Oud, Mart Stam, and a host of others. Journals, too: Veshch, G, ABC.
After 1926, Lissitzky began to design pavilions for the Soviet Union for international exhibitions. Konstantin Mel’nikov’s striking pavilion from the 1925 Paris Expo set a very high standard for formal dynamism and innovative use of materials. Many looked to the Soviets to continue to lead the way. (De Stijl impresario Theo van Doesburg was only impressed by Mel’nikov’s building and one other at the 1925 show). Lissitzky’s crowning achievement as far as exhibition displays went was the 1928 “Pressa” exhibition in Cologne. “Pressa” was meant to showcase the journalistic culture of the various countries that participated.
What follows are a number of rare images from that show. Some of them are extremely high resolution. A few translated passages of reviews in the German and British press are also included along with some of Lissitzky’s own remarks.
With Lissitzky, all the possibilities of a new exhibition technique were explored: in place of a tedious succession of framework, containing dull statistics, he produced a new purely visual design of the exhibition space and its contents, by the use of glass, mirrors, celluloid, nickel, and other materials; by contrasting these newfangled materials with wood, lacquer, textiles and photographs; by the use of natural objects instead of pictures…by bringing a dynamic element into the exhibition by means of continuous films, illuminated and intermittent letters and a number of rotating models. The room thus became a sort of stage on which the visitor himself seemed to be one of the players. The novelty and vitality of the exhibition did not fail: this was proved by the fact that this section attracted by far the largest number of visitors, and had at times to be closed owing to overcrowding.
— Jan Tschichold, “Display that has
dynamic force: Exhibition rooms by
Lissitzky,” Commercial Art (1931)
A trip to the individual displays, and around the pavilion as a whole, will give the viewer an idea of the tremendous results achieved during ten years of Soviet activity.
— Die Welt am Abend
The Soviet pavilion at the “Pressa” exhibition is a towering achievement, unique in its imaginative content, and unparalleled in its power of illustrative effect.
My most important work as an artist began in 1926: the design of exhibition rooms. That year I was asked by the committee of the International Art Exhibition in Dresden to create the room of non-objective [Suprematist] art and was sent there by “Voks” [the commissariat/embassy that works with countries abroad]. After an educational trip — the new architecture in Holland being the subject — I returned to Moscow in the autumn.
— El Lissitzky (1932) Continue reading
In 1929, the Soviet avant-garde journal Modern Architecture (Современная архитектура, or СА) published a special issue devoted to color and light in design. Below is an embedded link to the full issue on Scribd, as well as some lower-quality scans of individual pages. More later. Enjoy these for now.