“Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms.” 

This statement of Mies Van der Rohe clearly shows his perception of space. Mies’s architectural spaces are referred to as Universal space or Flowing space. His spaces encourage the dissolution between interior and exterior. They eliminate the feeling of being enclosed instead, they encourage maximum flexibility in their spatial configurations which, for Mies, meant that they maximized their spatial utility. The clarity of Mies’ built work has led many to mislabel him as a pure rationalist, but in truth, his buildings were major aesthetic refinements of the rationalist problems at hand. Mies’s spaces were not austere, functional modernism, but a cerebral and spiritual pursuit of an architectural essence (Jervis, 2020). This determined German Architect was set out to design an addition to the museum that was non-traditional and would redefine the qualities of a space of the era (1953), ‘The Cullinan Hall’ in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Year: 1953
Architect: Mies Van der Rohe
Style: International style
Total Area: 10,000 square meters
Height: 9 meters
Materials Used: Glass, Steel, and Plywood panels (Interior)
Design Philosophies: Transparent, Modern, Minimalistic

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The Cullinan Hall, Museum of Fine Arts by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: A Window to International Style - Sheet1
Diagram of the two Mies van der Rohe MFAH addtions, 1958 and 1974._©Mahruf Kabir

The Immaterial (Spatial) Monument

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who used the immaterial and transparent characteristics of industrial glass and steel, is considered an important initiator of modern minimalist architecture (Grogan, 2020). Cullinan Hall is a ‘glass’ box (with the subtle horizontal curve) of abstracted volumes, which seemed to offer an entirely new vocabulary for rebuilding the post-war world. The museum’s original building was designed by William Ward Watkin in Neoclassical style in the South facade. Whereas, the North facade designed by Mies is an example of the International style. (Topping, 2011)

The “Bekleidung” Theory declared that the enclosure and the structure were separate (Kim, 2005). It resulted in  Mies’ immaterial and transparent architectural approach. Light glass enclosures covered the structure to allow for the transparency of immaterialization. The stone pillars and trabeated structures of Greek architecture were transferred into slender steel pillars and steel frames.

The museums of the era showed monumentality in materials. Rather, Cullinan Hall represented modernism in an immaterial form. Mies did not opt for heavy stone columns to represent monumentality. For him, the vast space dedicated to the public with a maximum of spatial utility had monumental character. Hence, Cullinan Hall was subtitled as “Renovation by Devouring” of the “bleak old classical building.”

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The Cullinan Hall, Museum of Fine Arts by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: A Window to International Style - Sheet2
Left: Neoclassical south facade; Right: International North facade _© MFAH Archives

The Ideal building

The clarity of spatial and experiential intentions in Cullinan Hall made the building relevant even today. The 30-foot high, 10,000 square foot gallery, and relocated reception program prioritize the exhibition space while easily sidelining the few other requirements into the basement. The space is emphasized by the subtle horizontal curve that is created on the front façade, forming a parabolic-like shape that is perceptional pleasing (Duran, 2015).  The curve also serves as the primary interior circulation of the building, thus leaving the vast flexible space for the exhibitions.

The Cullinan Hall, Museum of Fine Arts by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: A Window to International Style - Sheet3
The parabolic curve as circulation pathway  _©MFAH Archives

The significant interventions, most of which are still in place as the introduction of air conditioning with erased or concealed details. This included the insertion of new lower ceilings into the formerly skylit galleries and cladding of most interior walls in fabric-lined plywood panels. Mies introduced a thick buffer between the old walls and his new gallery. Into this thickened wall, he strategically located the mechanical systems and a new elevator. The imposition of this modernist scrubbing contributed to a homogenization of the space and dramatic impact on the spatial characteristics, attempting to morph them into consistent Miesian language (Grogan, 2020).

The Cullinan Hall, Museum of Fine Arts by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: A Window to International Style - Sheet4
Floor Plans of MFAH building _©Albert Pope and William Silverman Architects

The Urban Stage

Contrary to the assumption about his work and its disconnect with the surrounding environment, Mies Van Der Rohe was probably one of the true innovators of contextuality within an urban fabric (Mies van der Rohe Architecture, Bio, Ideas, n.d.). His buildings often emphasize their presence relative to their surroundings, through their transparency, putting their inhabitants on view. Mies proposed a “Museum for a Small City” as a “center of enjoyment, not the internment of art.” There was apparent consensus in envisioning the role of the museum as a cultural and even social node within the city, rather than a traditional “storehouses of antiquities.” (Grogan, 2020) He envisioned the Cullinan Hall, serving the smaller city center and accommodating a wider set of communal functions and social events.

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A5993-The Cullinian Hall, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston-Image 5

Though considered by some a “temporary facade,” this was the most published aspect of the 1958 addition. Houston photographer Maurice Miller and New York photographer Ezra Stoller emphasize the north facade and various exhibitions juxtaposed with the exterior and city beyond. Furthermore, Fox pointed out that “Because its transparency was so vivid at night, Cullinan Hall was photographed from outside numerous times during exhibition openings or such special events as the museum’s annual fund-raising ball”. The advantageous relationship of the glazed wall to the community makes the hall an “urban stage”.

Night view of Cullinan Hall 1958  _© Hedrich-Blessing Architectural Photography, Courtesy: Chicago History Museum.

The city of Houston was a place that could be enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Rohe’s vision to create a museum full of beautiful tectonic and structural architecture, accomplished by his bold design, subtle quaintness, and his immense attention to details and space can be enjoyed by all (Duran, 2015). The need for Cullinan Hall to the Museum of Fine Arts in the 1950s paved the way for a beautiful modernist museum full of unique spatial qualities and wonderful architecture to be designed and built by the world’s most prestigious and renowned modern classicist to have ever practiced.

References

  1. The Art Story. n.d. Mies van der Rohe Architecture, Bio, Ideas. [online] Available at: <https://www.theartstory.org/artist/mies-van-der-rohe-ludwig/>
  2. Grogan, M., 2020. Texas Two-Step: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Addition(s) to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Arris, 31(1), pp.88-107.
  3. Topping, D., 2011. AD Classics: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston / Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/153819/ad-classics-the-museum-of-fine-arts-houston-mies-van-der-rohe>
  4. the lying truth. 2011. Mies-Conceptions. [online] Available at: <https://thelyingtruthofarchitecture.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/mies-conceptions/
  5. Duran, M., 2015. An Architectural Review of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. [online] Archinect. Available at: <https://archinect.com/blog/article/126962407/an-architectural-review-of-the-houston-museum-of-fine-arts
  6. Jervis, J., 2020. The icon of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and America. [online] Stirworld.com. Available at: <https://www.stirworld.com/think-opinions-the-icon-of-modern-architecture-ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe-and-america>
  7. Do-sik Kim (2005) A Study on Mies van der Rohe’s Wall as “Objet” and its Spatial Characteristics, Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering.
Author

Guruprasath believes in a conscious approach towards architecture, which fulfills the intentions of the people towards the built spaces and vice-versa. He is more interested in understanding architecture, which made him incline towards writing on architecture. He also enjoys reading and writing other stuff.

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