circa 1960:  German born American architect Mies Van Der Rohe (1886 - 1969) on the rooftop of a skyscraper in Chicago.  (Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images)

Mies van der Rohe

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).

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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.

Continue reading

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Rietveld’s Schröderhuis in Utrecht (1924)

Exterior view of the northeast façade of Schröder House, Utrecht, Netherlands, 1925 Blitz, E.A. von  View of the southwest façade of Schröder House from the street, Utrecht, Netherlands, 1925

Jean-Louis Cohen
The Future of Architecture
Since 1889
(Lonon: 2012)
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The cabinetmaker Gerrit Rietveld, who had briefly made copies of Frank Lloyd Wright’s furniture for Robert van’t Hoff, was involved with De Stijl’s activities from the beginning. He conceived furniture prototypes composed of basic shapes — wood planes and standard profiles — sliced in ways that visually extended the volume of the objects. His most provocative piece from this period was the Red and Blue Armchair of 1918, which he later explained “was made to the end of showing that a thing of beauty, e.g., a spatial object, could be made of nothing but straight, machined materials.”

Rietveld, who rejected the inhibiting patronage of [Theo] van Doesburg, gave the most convincing interpretation of De Stijl’s longing for a synthesis of the arts with his Schröder house (1924) in Utrecht. Located at the end of a row of banal brick buildings, the house plays with vertical and horizontal planes in three dimensions. Individually, the rooms are very small but flow into each other. Sliding partitions make it possible to modify the floor plans of the two main levels, which are partly lit by a small skylight. The intersection of planes and linear elements and the articulation of joints and railings make the house’s interior spaces as difficult to grasp from the inside as they are from the outside. Walls are no longer the single determining factor of space. Actually very compact, the house was not intended to be a manifesto for an aesthetic reinterpretation of domestic functions but rather, according to Rietveld, to create formal clarity and intensify the experience of space.

Projects by the Vienna-based artist and architect Frederich Kiesler, invited in 1923 to join De Stijl, seem to echo Rietveld’s furniture and to transform it into broader, more inclusive spatial systems: the Leger- und Trägersystem, a flexible and independent hanging system for gallery displays, and the Raumbühne, or space stage, were constructed at the Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik (Exhibition of New Theater Technology) in Vienna in 1924; while the “City in Space” appeared at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

Schwitters, Kurt  Exterior view of the southwest and southeast façades of Schröder House, Utrecht, Netherlands, 1924 Schwitters, Kurt  Exterior view of the northeast façade of Schröder House, Utrecht, Netherlands, 1924FotoFotoFotoFoto

Kleinbeeld Foto Kleinbeeld Foto KleinbeeldFoto Continue reading

Le Corbusier new york1

Event review: Le Corbusier/New York

Sammy Medina and Ross Wolfe

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Saturday, June 8th, 2013
Center for Architecture
Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY

Originally published at Former People:
A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers
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“Le Corbusier/New York” was billed as a two-day international symposium focusing on the architect’s relationship to the city, and featured such luminaries within the field as Jean-Louis Cohen, Kenneth Frampton, Peter Eisenman, Stanislaus von Moos, and Mary McLeod, along with a host of other lesser-known critics and historians. Jointly organized by the Center for Architecture together with the Museum of Modern Art, the event was held at the former’s downtown headquarters on the occasion of the latter’s upcoming exhibit, Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes. Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, was on hand to preside over several rounds of the discussion. With headlining acts like these, the space was predictably packed to the gills. Somewhere around two hundred people attended the symposium.

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Beneath this general rubric of Corbusier’s relationship to New York City, the quality of the presentations varied widely. The first batch was composed of papers decidedly more academic, even scholastic, in character. Of these first few twenty-minute talks (though they frequently ran over time), the one by Mardges Bacon “On the Streets of the Vertical City: Le Corbusier in New York, 1935” was perhaps the most compelling. In all likelihood, this owed  its fidelity to the historical record of Corbusier’s actual visit to the city in that year, rather than to speculation about the impact the city might have had in concept — in the abstract. Bacon carefully traced his ambivalent impressions of New York as he encountered it in person for the first time, no longer forced to make do with the visual descriptions or the photographic documentation of others. She explained the great modernist’s awe before the sheer verticality of Manhattan, and his profound admiration for skyscrapers’ use of the latest building materials and techniques. In Corbusier’s view, the real tragedy was that such modern methods were forced to fit the framework of such antiquated zoning laws. Continue reading

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The Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Paris International Exposition

For those ardent enthusiasts of Soviet avant-garde architecture from the 1920s, whom I suspect account for a great deal of this blog’s readership, my retrospective evaluation of Konstantin Mel’nikov’s famous house in Moscow from a few weeks back may have rubbed some the wrong way. While generally appreciative of the architect’s built and unbuilt legacy, it was decidedly less impressed with the private domestic arrangement he designed for himself. This might not seem all that controversial to those of you who remain unschooled in Soviet architectural esoterica, but when it comes to a structure as iconic as Dom Mel’nikova — a building currently threatened by years of neglect and decay — such an opinion could well be considered anathema. In case this opinion offended any Mel’nikov partisans among you, however, this post is intended to make up for it. Today we’ll review one of his projects that I consider an overwhelming and unambiguous success: the Soviet Pavilion for the 1925 Paris Exposition.

Mel’nikov’s undoubtable talents as an architect revealed themselves nowhere more clearly than in his submissions to international design competitions. A number of historians have noted this fact.”Mel’nikov rose to prominence through competitions,” writes Jean-Louis Cohen in his recent historical overview, The Future of Architecture since 1889. “Mel’nikov created a sensation with his Makhorka Tobacco Pavilion at the Agricultural Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923 and, two years later, with the pavilion he designed to represent the USSR at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” (pgs. 165-166). Though they drew a dubious inference regarding Mel’nikov’s overall “qualifications” from the work, Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co reached a similar conclusion in their history of Modern Architecture: “Mel’nikov acquired immediate international fame with his Russian pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1925” (pg. 180).

Initial sketches, models, and designs

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As the above would seem to suggest, Mel’nikov’s pavilion was, at least visually, extremely striking. Not only that, however. Its perambulatory effect, experienced chiefly through the mechanism of the open staircase, was similarly unprecedented. The glasswork, laid out in flat sheets stood vertically adjacent to the stairs, allowed the entire contents of the building’s interior (its stands, internal layout, and displays). Concerning the formal significance of the structure’s composition, and its reception by crowds of Parisians and foreign visitors, Cohen summarizes: “Composed of two glazed triangular volumes bisected diagonally by a staircase, it was the most conspicuous structure at the Paris exhibition. It revealed to the West the existence of a new Russian architecture, which was further confirmed by the presentation elsewhere at the fair of over one hundred projects conceived in the USSR since 1920” (The Future of Architecture, pg. 166).

El Lissitzky, writing several years after the 1925 Paris Expo, reasoned along similar lines. For him, the Mel’nikov’s piece was significant as an early and profound expression of the formalist wing of Soviet architecture, represented in the theory and methods of the ASNOVA group, of which Mel’nikov was a member at the time. Lissitzky wrote:

The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Mel’nikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task.

In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit. (The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR [1929], pgs. 35-36.

The building thus reflected the relatively advanced state of Russia’s architectural thinking rather than any inherent political message. Tafuri and Dal Co. wisely warned against seeing the structure as some kind of metaphor for socialism. Paying close attention to the architect’s initial sketches (shown above), they derived an interpretation of the pavilion as a daring formal experiment rather than a propaganda piece. “[Mel’nikov’s pavilion] was a dynamic building based on the intersection of deformed geometrical masses that obliged the visitor to move along specific diagonals. There is no point in reading those ‘intersections’ as metaphors of the socialist dynamic: the preparatory drawings for the pavilion show circular buildings which are broken up, inclined, and interconnected in informal manner, indicating beyond a doubt that what interested the architect was only experimentation with a language made up of alienated objects, of volumes designed to deform their own geometry and in fact clashing with each other” (pg. 180).

Photos of Mel’nikov’s 1925 pavilion

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This was, incidentally, roughly in accordance with Mel’nikov’s own self-understanding at the time of the Paris Expo. Upon arriving in Paris, and completing the startling structure, the Soviet architect found himself a minor celebrity on the scene. A buzz already surrounded Mel’nikov given the sketches that’d been previewed in the Parisian press. In the summer of 1925, then, a major newspaper sat down to interview the emerging designer. Continue reading

Ross Wolfe and Sammy Medina, "Corbu's Corpus" Le Corbusier at the MoMA

Corbu’s corpus

Ross Wolfe and Sammy Medina
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First published by the University of Bristol’s Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, and is reproduced here with permission.
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Exhibit review
Le Corbusier: An atlas of modern landscapes

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Jean-Louis Cohen with Barry Bergdoll.
15 June-23 September 2013.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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The Museum of Modern Art’s Le Corbusier: An atlas of modern landscapes, recently opened to the public, marks the institution’s first exhibit devoted to the archmodernist in over fifty years. As such, it’s already managed to generate a great deal of buzz amongst members of New York’s architectural community. Corbu enthusiasts from up and down the East Coast have thus flocked to the show, turning out in droves. But its impact extends well beyond just the fanboys and devotees, whose attendance might be taken for granted. Many from the general public with only a passing interest in architecture have also made pilgrimages, hoping to catch a glimpse of what once seemed imaginable. Name recognition alone cannot account for this success, however. Part of it has to do with the timing of the exhibition.

In terms of overall curation, the sheer volume of works amassed at the MoMA show is enough to make it worth a visit. Each phase of Le Corbusier’s legendary career is laid out in incredible detail, with multiple models, sketches, and photographs accompanying individual displays. Breadth finds itself matched by depth, as the architect’s corpus is examined across a variety of media. While the exhibit unfolds chronologically — beginning with his youthful pastoral depictions of the Jura mountainsides up through his post-Cubist collaborations with Ozenfant, then on to his first buildings and forays into urbanism — the astonishing scope of Corbusier’s travels and commissions is conveyed throughout. This was very much the way Jeanneret operated, keeping several fires going at once. At the height of his creative output, while he was writing La Ville Radieuse (1930-33), the book’s subtitle grants a sense of just how far his projects ranged: Algiers, Antwerp, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Geneva, Moscow, Montevideo, Nemours, Paris, Piacé, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo. An atlas of modern landscapes chronicles Corbusier’s journeys through space over time, in a chronotopic manner of which his friend Giedion, the “official historian” of modernism, would no doubt have approved.

Cutaway revealing the interior to Le Corbusier's Villa Cook, 6 Calle Denfert-Rochereau, Boulogne-sur-Seine (1926)

Cutaway revealing the interior to Le Corbusier’s Villa Cook,
6 Calle Denfert-Rochereau, Boulogne-sur-Seine (1926)

Of course, the curatorial intelligence exhibited by the show’s selection and presentation of pieces should not surprise anyone familiar with the process by which it came together. Assembly was carried out under Jean-Louis Cohen’s encyclopedic gaze, with contributions also coming from numerous other scholars and academics. Cohen, whose brilliance has for too long gone now unrecognized in the Anglophone world, has finally begun to enjoy some success of late with the release of his sweeping historical overview, The future of architecture since 1889 (2012), and supervision of MoMA’s blockbuster Corbusier expo. His fingerprints can be seen all over the show. Its contents are not merely exhaustive — they are definitive. For a figure on the order of magnitude of a Le Corbusier, this is an impressive feat. Continue reading

Photo by Sammy Medina

Corbu conference

Here are some photos I took from the international Le Corbusier symposium that took place on Saturday at the Center for Architecture, organized primarily by the architectural historian (and curator of the new MoMA exhibition on Corbu’s lifework) Jean-Louis Cohen. Also presenting at the conference were Kenneth Frampton, Mary McLeod, Stanislaus von Moos, and Peter Eisenman, to name a few. I’ll be posting a review of the event in a couple days. Enjoy!

Images from the conference