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.

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Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: Modern architecture comes into its own

The significance of the Werkbund exhibition on “Die Wohnung” at Stuttgart-Weißenhof in 1927 is universally attested. Organized by Mies van der Rohe two years prior, it aimed to unite the various strands of modern architecture that had been developed earlier in the decade. Despite its commitment to internationalism, its international character was nevertheless somewhat limited by sheer geographical proximity and the haste with which it was thrown together. As Reyner Banham pointed out, it was a largely Berlin affair:

[I]n spite of these international overtones, Weißenhof was primarily a manifestation of Ring architecture, and apart from…four non-German designers…the remaining eleven were mostly Berliners by professional domicile, birth, or attachment — Mies himself, Gropius, Hilberseimer, the Tauts, Scharoun, Döcker, Behrens, etc. The style to which the foreign designs conformed was the style of Berlin by sheer pressure of numbers. No other city at the time could have mustered, as Berlin could by this date, over a dozen convinced modernists of recognizable talent.

Van Doesburg noted at the time that Corbusier, whose distinctive style was already well known, was strongly influenced by the Neues Bauen architects at the Weißenhof estate. Functionalism was out in full force, and van Doesburg had no illusions about its origin: “Principally this trend came from Russia, and therefore it concurs with the communist philosophy of life.” His intuition wasn’t too far off, and indeed the Nazis would denounce the settlement ten years later for its “Bolshevik depravity.” Wolfram von Eckardt, the architectural historian, recalls that the fascists installed pitched roofs onto the flat terraces in order to render them more palatable. Bombs dropped by Allied planes during World War II destroyed several of the buildings. Restoration since has only been partial.

Schulze strikes a slightly different note in his Critical Biography of Mies. In his view, the functionalism on display at the Stuttgart exhibition was more apparent than it was ever actual, largely an aesthetic effect. “To the extent that functionality was one of the New Architecture’s objectives at Stuttgart,” avers Schulze, “it is hard to defend the rapid deterioration of most of the houses — stunningly, within as little as a year or two. In short, Weißenhof was never a triumph of Sachlichkeit and functionalism, but of the image of modernism.”

Below you can read a selection of articles in translation about the exhibit at the time.


Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: The famous Werkbund exhibition on “the dwelling”

Theo van Doesburg
Het Bouwbedrijf
November 1927


Some remarks about the prehistory. The demonstrative architectural exhibition, being held in Stuttgart from July 23 on, means the realization of an idea which has existed for years in the minds of the younger generation grouped around the periodical G (Gestaltung). This notion can be worded thus: since all exhibitions, whether of art objects or of architecture or technology, only show separate portions of an entity, Einzelstücke, and because on the other hand in our modern time the Gesamtarbeit, the unity of a collective stylistic purpose, is the only thing that counts, it must be clear to everyone that the exhibition of separate works of art, architectural models and designs lacking an inner coherence is pointless and passé. On the contrary, the requirement should be the following: demonstration of an entity in which all parts (meaning: color, furniture, utensils etc.) are organically combined. With the regular manner of exhibiting: the placing and hanging of loose objects next to, or on top of, each other, this was of course impossible, because that would be too much of a strain on the imaginative powers of the masses. They wanted to place the visitor within, instead of opposite, the new environment and make him “experience” it, instead of “looking at” it. This new requirement to demonstrate instead of exhibit was put into words for the first time in 1922, at the international artists’ congress in Dusseldorf, by the constructivists: “Stop holding exhibitions. Instead: space for demonstrations of collective work.” And under point 4: “Stop separating art from life. Art becomes life.”[1]

In fact, as everybody will remember, the aim to achieve a Gesamtarbeit formed the basis of the modern art movement in Holland, which around 1916 propagated its ideas in the modest periodical De Stijl and took up the defense for a collective rendering as opposed to an individualistic one. Then, in the midst of the war, no trace of this zeal was to be discerned in other countries, and this is understandable when we realize that this new tendency postulated an international orientation.

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The periodical G, in which the functionalists started publishing their views on architecture in 1923, was primarily based on the ideas of the Dutch and Russian artists, the former of which were becoming more and more the aorta of the new direction in Europe. It is because of the initiative of the architect Mies van der Rohe, by far the strongest personality of the group of German constructivists, the core of the circle around G (only five issues of this periodical were ever published), that the common ideal of a demonstrative architecture exhibition was almost completely realized. Not only is the Siedlung Weißenhof Mies van der Rohe’s work with respect to grouping etc., but the stands of construction materials and ingredients in the Gewerbehalle [Trade Hall] and the Plan- und Modellausstellung [exhibit of plans and models] — all of which are of great importance for the entire planning of the exhibition — can be considered his mental property as well. Neither should we forget the Versuchsgelände [testing area], located next to the Weißenhofsiedlung, where the visitor can get acquainted with the construction and building method and the materials used here. Various kinds of solutions for roof covering of flat roofs, sound proof walls etc. are displayed here. Certainly nobody will be surprised that the realization of this wide-ranging demonstration required enormous energy, all the more because unexpected difficulties, prejudices and even political complications had to be overcome; not to speak even of the financial difficulties, resulting from the tight budget with which the organizers had to work. We have to credit the architect Mies van der Rohe, vice president of the Werkbund for having tackled the majority of these problems, assisted by the 15 collaborating architects as well as by his faithful supporters Werner Gräff, Willi Baumeister, Hilberseimer, Döcker etc.; the latter undertook the supervision of the execution of the work.

It is not premature to state that — leaving the quality of the architectural products themselves aside for the moment — this undertaking of a demonstrative exhibition is the product of a modern necessity, not only putting the traditional way of exhibiting in the shadow, but surpassing it, and rendering it obsolete for future use. Those who have visited the exhibition held in Paris in 1925 and compare it to this exhibition, will have to acknowledge that the former sinks into insignificance compared to the construction manifest in Stuttgart. The latter contrasts sharply with the exhibition in Paris, with respect to organization as well as to the exterior aspect.

Robert Bothner, Stuttgart- Blick vom Turm des Höhenrestaurants auf die Weißenhofsiedlung 1931


Impressions of the exhibition. — When we, after visiting the Weißenhofsiedlung, come to the glass display in the Gewerbehalle, we find ourselves, without preparation, in the best and purest presentation of this exhibition in the field of interior architecture (if these words are not a misnomer!). This glass hall, also executed after a design of Mies van der Rohe, owes its creation to the unequivocal task of displaying fragile material (semi-transparent and opaque glass of different colors) in such a way that it would be shown to full advantage. This was realized best by raising glass plates of enormous dimensions straight in the free space as walls, unprotected from top of bottom, without base board, profile or ornament. These glass plates are mounted in narrow, flat frames of nickel-coated steel. The problem was a sober one, but the solution reached the highest point that blessed, inspired visual artists can attain, and that only in very special moments: conquering the material with all of its faults, such as weightiness, resistance and transience, with the maximum of the energy force of the material itself.

Every material has its own energy force, and the challenge is to enhance this energy force to its maximum by proper application. The opposite is: violation of the material by wrong application, whereby a relatively large percentage of the energy force is lost. Weighing one material against another in respect to their energy and character, and proportioning them well, most certainly belongs to the essence of the new architecture. Only in this way can modern architecture bring to realization what it has to offer in involuntary beauty.

Only when iron concrete was, for the first time, applied in the right way (I believe this was done by Wright), were the character of the tension and the energy of the iron concrete shown off to such an advantage that architecture attained a new beauty, involuntarily, without a preconceived aesthetic intention. The same is true for plate glass, seamless floors, and other unjointed surfaces of materials, which by their purity, simplicity and their Gespanntheit [surface tension] are in keeping with the modern mentality.

It is my utter conviction, formed in practice, that only the ultimate surface is decisive in architecture. “How so? and what about the construction, the mechanism?”

The answer to this question is: “The ultimate surface is in itself the result of the construction. The latter expresses itself in the ultimate surface. Bad construction leads to a bad surface. Good construction produces a sound surface with tension.” Indeed, the finishing touch of architecture is in the finish of the surface, interior as well as exterior. The development of the ultimate surface is essential, from the first stone to the last stroke of paint. Every architect having a visual sense for construction knows this, and with this glass display Mies van der Rohe proved to be on top of this new problem.

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Object lessons from the Bauhaus

Joan Ockman
Art in America
Dec. 1, 2009

Bauhaus is the name of an artistic inspiration.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, January 1954

Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the meaning of a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.

— Max Bill, letter to Asger Jorn, January 1954

If Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, it is the name of a doctrine without inspiration — that is to say, dead.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, February 1954

What was the Bauhaus really? The question has been raised repeatedly ever since Nazi agents raided the school in April 1933, precipitating its closure by the faculty a few months later. On the 90th anniversary of its founding, and the 20th of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a major exhibition organized by three institutions in Germany,1 and now another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have relaunched the debate. The answer proffered in MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” assembled by Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design, and Leah Dickerman, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, is that the Bauhaus was, above all, a new form of art education: a radically innovative and progressive school for artists and designers in the modern epoch. This is hardly revelatory, but it’s a valuable frame for rethinking the Bauhaus’ lessons for today. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue advance the argument that under each of its successive architect-directors — Walter Gropius (1919-28), Hannes Meyer (1928-30) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1930-33) — and in three locations — Weimar (1919-25), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33) — the Bauhaus brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers and architects in “a kind of cultural think tank for the times.”2

But if the Bauhaus may be said to have been the ultimate decantation chamber for early 20th-century modernity, it didn’t just emerge from Gropius’ head after World War I as a full-fledged idea. Nor did its afterlife in the various institutions and schools that carried forward its legacy over the remainder of the century play out neatly. The curators have made the decision not only to leave out its often messy pre- and post-history, but also to circumscribe most of the surrounding context, focusing narrowly on the school’s 14-year existence and its leading pedagogical figures and students. (The catalogue does a better job of situating the school’s development as well as some of its exemplary objects in relation to the cultural background, with many fine essays.) As Bauhaus scholars have amply documented, the roots of the school’s design reformism lay in the British Arts and Crafts Movement (especially as filtered into Germany in the first decade of the century by the architect, author and cultural ambassador Hermann Muthesius), the European Werkstätten and Werkbund movements, and the school’s immediate predecessor in Weimar, Henry van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbeschule, whose building also housed the Bauhaus during its initial phase. Pedagogically, the school’s anti-academic, experiential philosophy of learning, variously imparted by its different masters, also had well-established antecedents in 19th-century and early 20th-century progressive education movements, including those of Europeans Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Georg Kerchensteiner, as well as John Dewey in the United States. Arguably, what was unprecedented at the Bauhaus was neither the effort to forge a new unity between the fine and applied arts, nor even, subsequently, between esthetic practice and commercial production, but rather the school’s extraordinary gathering of creative talents in the service of these objectives. That it sustained this project for nearly a decade and a half with a total of 33 faculty and 1,250 students over the course of its life, all the while being threatened by reactionary political forces and destabilizing economic ones, is all the more remarkable. Even if the school’s efforts to bring its designs to the marketplace had checkered success, the widespread diffusion of its intellectual and pedagogical program remains a phenomenon. Apropos of the show’s title, it is worth emphasizing that the workshop per se is hardly a modern form of organization. It harks back to the medieval craft guilds or Bauhütten — brotherhoods of masons and other tradesmen that existed all over Europe from Gothic times, typically bound together by arcane social rituals and unified spiritually around architecture, or more precisely Baukunst, a monumental synthesis of the building arts. The instructors in the Bauhaus workshops, initially split up into formal and practical training, were known as masters rather than professors; students progressed from Lehrlinge (apprentices or trainees) to Gesellen (journeymen) to Jungmeister (young masters).

The transmission of knowledge on the model of the guild workshop also parallels the hieratic relationship between master and acolyte in a religious sect. That the Bauhaus was steeped in both these atmospheres—of craft and cult—in the immediate aftermath of World War I is richly conveyed in the exhibition, which opens with Lyonel Feininger’s famous woodcut made to accompany the school’s founding program. The crystalline image of a Gothic cathedral is charged with the same romantic-utopian afflatus that inspired the revolutionary socialism of several other cultural-political groups formed in the early months of the Weimar Republic, including the Workers Council for Art, the November Group and the circle of architectural fantasists brought together by Bruno Taut and known as the Glass Chain. Handcrafted products by the school’s bookbinding and pottery workshops, including a series of superb vessels by the future monk Theodor Bogler, as well as curious totems like a coffin designed by Lothar Schreyer and Marcel Breuer’s long-lost “African” Chair — a student project created in collaboration with Gunta Stölzl in the weaving workshop — likewise reflect an early Bauhaus whose metaphysical-material concerns were remote from the machine. Similarly, the Sommerfeld House, a log dwelling for a rich timber merchant and Bauhaus patron, realized in 1920-21 by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, belongs to this late Expressionist mood. Represented in the exhibition by a series of original photographs and a colored drawing, the house was based on a system of wood prefabrication, and its construction was solemnized by a ritualistic topping-out ceremony (regrettably documented only by the invitation produced in the Bauhaus printing workshop). Inside, it was fitted with elaborately carved wall decorations, stained-glass windows and furnishings crafted by Joost Schmidt, Josef Albers, Breuer and other Bauhaus students in a Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration among all the workshops. The first of a series of “worksites,” the house inaugurated the on-site approach to teaching architecture that prevailed until the subject was finally integrated into the curriculum under department head Hannes Meyer in 1927. Along with his Märzgefallenen-Denkmal (Monument to the March Dead), 1921-22 — a cantilevered concrete “thunderbolt,” displayed in an early plaster model — the Sommerfeld House reveals a wholly different Gropius from the one associated with both the sachlich Fagus Factory of 1914, which made his early reputation as a functionalist architect, and the Bauhaus building to come in 1925-26 in Dessau.

The most visually arresting image from this period is an abstract painting by Johannes Itten titled Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascent and Resting Point), 1919. The canvas unexpectedly evokes the Parisian Orphism of the Delaunays or František Kupka, attesting to more complex cross-pollination across the modernist map than conventional narratives (and this show) suggest. The charismatic Itten, whose sacerdotal persona and haptic teaching methods made him the school’s most distinctive figure in these years, also inaugurated the famous Vorkurs in 1919. Subsequently modified under his successors, the half-year-long preliminary course was the portal to the workshops and would serve for most of the next decade as a fundamental initiation rite for every student entering the school. Continue reading

Mies’ Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1926)

Honestly, I was at first put off by the raw severity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartakusbund and martyrs of the failed November 1918 Revolution in Germany. The monumental structure — first erected in 1926, before being torn down by the Nazis less than a decade later — is almost proto-brutalist in its cantilevered slabs and brazen use of unrefined materials, made up of jagged bricks held together by unsanded grout organized around a steel-and-concrete frame. It just seemed too willfully barbaric to commemorate anything of value, so stark was its ugliness.

Mies' site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

Site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

But as it turns out, this was precisely Mies’ intention. In a conversation with the prominent communist and cultural commentator Eduard Fuchs, Mies was reported to have said the following:

As most of these people [Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, other fallen heroes of the revolution] were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument.

Though he’d later downplay its radical Bolshevik origins by recasting it in terms of a sorrowful republicanism, Mies would always emphasize that the building was meant to convey a certain brutal honesty. Even in his deeply apolitical American exile, this remained the case. As recalled at several decades’ remove, the monument did not aspire to beauty but to truth:

[I built it] in a square shape. I meant clarity and truth to join forces against the fog that had descended and was killing all hope — the hopes, as we rightly perceived at the time, of a durable German republic.

"Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein"

“Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein”

To his credit, Mies took seriously Luxemburg’s famous dilemma of “socialism or barbarism” (adapted from some lines by Engels written toward the end of his life). Luxemburg’s pronouncement of this opposition was not meant to be regarded as some sort of perennial choice haunting humanity throughout its existence, but rather was historically specific to her own moment, as Second International Marxism entered into profound crisis. Since socialism did not come to pass, as the world revolution stopped short, it is necessary that everything that transpired afterward be regarded as barbarism. For this reason, I’ve come to appreciate the self-conscious barbarism of Mies’ monument. There is something fitting about the unrelenting gnarliness of the brickwork in embodying Mies’ trademark perfect volumes, proportions, and harmonious distribution. Mies went to great lengths to put this symbolism across: the bricks, stacked some twenty feet high, had been assembled from the bullet-riddled remains of buildings damaged or destroyed during the Spartacist uprising.


Of course, it is well known that that Mies, the third Bauhaus director and one of the great pioneers of the modern movement in architecture, was never all that political to begin with. True to Tafuri’s by-now canonical interpretation of “Miesian silence,” the architect typically kept his mouth shut when it came to such affairs. Unlike Hannes Meyer, whose position as the rector of the Bauhaus he’d eventually usurp in 1930, he saw no inherent connection between politics and architecture. Continue reading

Free PDFs of the German Avant-Garde Architectural Journal Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau (1926-1931)

Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau's Coverage of Ivan Leonidov's Proposal for the Lenin Institute

 The modernist movement was alive and well in interwar Germany.  Not only at the Bauhaus, which stood at the forefront of the avant-garde, under the leadership of Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, but all over the country.  László Moholy-Nagy and Gropius published their famous Bauhausbücher series, El Lissitzky established his journal ABC: Beitrage zum Bauen, and Theo van Doesburg transplanted his Dutch De Stijl magazine to Germany. Continue reading

A Cruel Irony in the History of Architectural Modernism

Monument to Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg (1925)

It is a cruel irony in the history of architectural modernism that the Mies van der Rohe, who earlier in his career designed the monument to the fallen Communist heroes Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg, would (thirty years later) be the same man who designed the Seagram Building, one of the swankiest monuments to high-Fordist capitalism.  This may have been pointed out before, but it stands as a testament to the tragedy of architectural modernism in the twentieth century.

The Seagram Building (1958)

Digitizing Microfiche: Строительство Москвы и другие Советские журналы об архитектуре (Building Moscow and other Soviet Journals about Architecture)

Aleksandr Sil'chenkov's Proposal for the "House of Industry" Project, 1929

Another long overdue update.  My two-month absence can be explained by a series of personal matters to which I’ve had to attend, as well as by an exceedingly laborious part of my research in which I’ve been involved.  This post will share some of the fruits of that labor, however, providing a sneak-peak into some of the subjects I’ve been working on.  I flatter myself to think that I am also hereby contributing to the further democratization of knowledge, freeing long-forgotten documents from their obscurity in old libraries and distant archives.  But the truth is that I have been the beneficiary of so much of the work undertaken by people with similar motives, scanning valuable documents and thereby disseminating their information, that I feel this is the least I could do.

Cutting to the matter at hand, the files attached to this post are just some of the old avant-garde journals which I’ve been carefully converting to a readable PDF format, in full-text versions that include illustrations as well as raw text.  The difference between these files and the ones I digitized from Современная архитектура late last year is that I actually never encountered the physical documents that I was working with.  These rare documents were only accessible to me in microfiche and microfilm format, preserved as part of Columbia University’s and the New York Public Library’s effort to catalogue early Soviet periodicals.  Some of these microform documents were in good condition, with minimal dust and other imperfections.  Others, unfortunately, were not.

To briefly describe the process by which I digitized these journals (for those who might be interested or are perhaps considering similar work), I shall here sketch out the major steps it involved.  First, I had to create a makeshift light-table separate from the actual microform scanners at the library, which tend to produce extremely shoddy and unreadable facsimiles.  I then proceeded to photograph each individual frame of microfilm or microfiche with a digital camera.  I personally do not own a camera with a very high-resolution optical lens (this requires something like a 40-100x zoom), so I instead removed one of the detachable high-zoom lenses from one of the scanners and then shot my own pictures at my camera’s maximum zoom through this second lens.  Anyone who has better equipment than I did can easily bypass this step.

It took a while to get used to taking good shots of each individual frame, but once I had gathered all of them I loaded them onto my computer and began running them through image-processing software.  The number of programs I ended up using, which probably could be simplified by anyone who knows how to work with images better than I, included Aperture, Photoshop, and the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).  If anyone is interested in the actual adjustments I made to each file to render them more readable, they can inquire in the comments section.  I shall spare my readers these boring details.  Anyway, clarifying the text portions of these journals I found often distorted the images that appeared alongside them, and so I decided to process each page with images twice, once for the images and once for the text.  I then mapped on some cleaned-up versions of the pictures onto the cleaned-up texts and ran the resulting images through the ABBYY FineReader text-recognition program.

The final product of this whole confounded process can be found below.  Enjoy! More will be coming soon.  I’ve catalogued the entire run of Строительство Москвы from 1926-1932, Советская архитектура from 1931-1934, and a number of assorted articles relating to architecture from the journals Советское искусство, Плановое хозяйство, and Революция и культура.  They shall be forthcoming.  Here are some of the ones I’ve finished so far:

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 9

Строительство Москвы – (1931) – № 8

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 4

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 2

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 3

Николай Докучаев – «Архитектура и планировка городов» – Советское искусство – (1926) – № 6

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism


An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.

Walter Curt Behrendt’s The Victory of the New Building Style (1928)


Influenced by the powerful spiritual forces in which the creative work of our time is embodied, the mighty drama of a sweeping transformation is taking place before our eyes.  It is the birth of the form of our time.  In the course of this dramatic play — amid the conflict and convulsion of old, now meaningless traditions breaking down and new conventions of thinking and feeling arising — new, previously unknown forms are emerging.  Given their congruous features, they can be discussed as the elements of a new style of building.

Though the public regards these new building forms with immediate and visible excitement, their unfamiliar appearance often leads to a feeling of unease and incomprehension.  For the public, and at best for those members of the profession who have not been hardened by the dead certitude of a doctrine, only one path leads to a vital understanding of the new architecture.  These new forms must be shown to be inevitable, so that they will be seen as a natural consequence and logical result of a changed formulation of the problem.

This is the approach taken in the following remarks.  Their aim is to make a broader circle of people familiar with the crucial building problems of the time; to show that these problems concern not purely aesthetic issues or the vain conceits of a company of misfits but rather quite universal and concrete questions.  These questions, moreover, are of interest not just to architects to us all, and they can therefore be discussed in a very specific way.

The New Architectural Form

Let us begin by describing very superficially the exterior attributes of the buildings of the new style, which, owing to a number of unmistakable features, stand out against their surroundings so emphatically.  As the accompanying illustrations show, they are usually works with a simple, austere form and a clear organization, with smooth, planar walls, and always with a flat roof and straight profiles.  The building body is generally articulated by a more or less lively gradation of masses and by the distribution of windows and openings in the wall surfaces.  It is also apparent that the openings the windows, and occasionally, also the balconies (quite contrary to tradition) are placed at the corners of the buildings, where formerly we were accustomed to seeing the load-bearing parts of the building or the solid masonry of corner piers.  Further, we notice that these buildings altogether lack the familiar and [90-97] customary means of decoration.  The advocates of the new building attitude seem to have a particularly keen dislike for the column, that popular showpiece of academic architecture, and they are notably cool toward any kind of ornament or decorative detail.  Ornament — the decorative accessory, the detail in the old sense — has completely disappeared.  They prefer smooth walls and consciously exploit the wall’s planar attributes as an architectural design tool.  They compose simple building bodies, which are themselves plastically articulated, and create a powerfully punctuated rhythm of movement by linear accents or occasionally by overhanging slabs and deeply shaded projections, which emphasize and strengthen the impression of the corporal, the spatial, and the three-dimensional.

The most curious and striking feature of the new architecture is the absence of any kind of exterior ornament, which is then usually the first criticism leveled against it.  This is completely understandable.  In many areas of our life today we stand under the crippling weight of traditional views that cloud our judgment.  Our artistic judgment is also greatly confused by the widespread superstition that art is synonymous with decoration.  This deeply rooted belief makes it inevitable that not only the lay world but also the professionals look upon the unadorned and therefore unfamiliar works of the new architecture as cold and dry, raw and unfinished, purely and simply as inartistic.  They miss in these buildings the familiar charm of decorations.  They are put off by linear, hard, and angular forms.  And we must conceded that such limited judgment is to some extent justified, that the buildings of the new style do lack the effect of the pleasing, the artistic, the emotional that was evoked by the sensuous charm of detail in historical works.

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Репринт Журнала Современная Архитектура [Reprint of the Journal Modern Architecture] (1926-1930)

I came across this advertisement yesterday while searching online for any articles on the early Soviet periodical Modern Architecture.  For those who don’t spend their time painstakingly researching long-dead avant-garde movements, this publication might not mean much.  However, it’s of great historical and theoretical importance — a project featuring a truly spectacular cast of characters.  The main organ for the OSA group of architectural Constructivists, Modern Architecture was edited first by the legendary theoreticians and architects Moisei Ginzburg and Aleksandr Vesnin, later coming under the editorship of Roman Khiger, after 1928.  Its layout was designed by Aleksei Gan, author of the seminal text on Constructivism in art, Конструктивизм (1922).  A number of young Soviet modernists contributed pieces to the journal: Mikhail Barshch, Ivan Leonidov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Kazimir Malevich, etc.  Articles by some of the most extraordinary foreign avant-garde architects and artists were also included: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Fernand Léger.

Needless to say, I was immediately overcome with excitement. You see, last winter I spent weeks at the New York Public Library, poring over their microfiche collection of the 1927-1930 editions of Modern Architecture (they didn’t have the volume for 1926).  I sat there using their clumsy old machines, struggling to center the pages exactly and bring them into focus by using the different microscopic lenses, only to make poor-quality printouts in the end.  So now that Tatlin press is re-releasing it in full, 80 years after Stalin’s government forced them to cease its publication, I can honestly say I’m stoked.  Here’s the description included in the ad:

ISBN 978-5-903433-12-4

редактор составитель — Эдуард Кубенский
вступительная статья — Жан-Луи Коэн
5 томов, 1076 стр., 24.0х34.0 см,
мягкая обложка, футляр, рус./фр./нем./англ.

Современная архитектура — иллюстрированный журнал «Государственного издательства», выходивший в Москве с 1926 по 1930 годы 6 раз в год. Журнал освещал вопросы современного градостроительства, жилой, промышленной и сельской архитектуры, типового проектирования, истории и теории архитектуры и строительства. Несмотря на короткий срок своего существования, журнал Современная архитектура — журнал-эпоха. В его реализации принимали участие ведущие мастера эпохи авангарда. Среди выдающихся имен, имевших отношение к журналу, можно назвать архитектора и бессменного редактора журнала Моисея Гинзбурга, автора проекта Дома Наркомфина; художников Алексея Гана и Варвару Степанову, занимавшихся версткой и дизайном издания и других. На его страницах публиковали свои работы Иван Леонидов и братья Веснины, Ле Корбюзье и Мисс Ван дер Роэ. Отдельной темой выступает в издание его графический строй, являющийся образцом передового дизайна своего времени. Сегодня эти журналы стали библиографической редкостью: растет цена информации, размещенной на их страницах. Об актуальности всего, что связано с эпохой русского авангарда в мире, не приходится говорить, это давно сформировавшаяся позиция. Анализ этого явления и его актуализация сегодня поможет еще раз осознать место России в мировом архитектурном пространстве.