“I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.” – Ludwig Mies Van De Rohe

Throughout history, the evolution of different styles of architecture has had an impact on the various socio-economic and cultural growth of the cities. These different styles of architecture, right from Renaissance, to Baroque and Art Nouveau to Modernism, emerged from one idea that someone proposed and then layered the designs with different factors according to the context of the space. One such revolutionary moment in architectural history happened during the mid 20th century, when minimalism began to be favoured by architects around the world, like Philip Johnson or Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius or Ludwig Mies van de Rohe. This marked the arrival of the Minimalist style of architecture- one that received a huge momentum due to its simplistic elegant design. 

Past to Present 

Isn’t it wonderful how a revolutionary concept of designing a building that emerged a century ago prevails in the cities we live in today- be it the skyscrapers in New York or the distinct skyline of Mumbai or even the simple minimalist homes of today? The traces of the past are to date, keeping up with technological changes, of today’s times, replicated into the present-a vision that evokes memories of some of the greatest architectural works of the Modern Age. 

What makes a building beautiful?
Is it the ornamentation or its simplicity?
Is it how it functions or makes you feel?
Is it a proper balance of functions versus aesthetics or the overall composition and design? 

You would have often come across numerous instances of beautiful ornamentation and embellished designs, and awe-inspiring architecture. Now let’s take a look at an example of pure simplicity and elegant design- of a structure that would at first glance look no less than a life-sized 3d perspective drawing- Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

This museum of modern art uplifts the surroundings with subtle dominance but without much imposition- a common characteristic seen in most of the buildings made by the same architect- Ludwig Mies Van De Rohe. 

Neue Nationalgalerie by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: A beautiful cage from the Modern Age - Sheet1
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin_©Thomas Bruns

The Architect and his Style of Work  

Ludwig Mies Van De Rohe, one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, introduced the world to the idea of “Less is more” – to see buildings not just as a means to explore the wildest imagination or create works of mere aesthetic beauty but to build structures that remain grounded by the principles of architecture while taking into consideration the existing methods of constructions and available technologies of the particular time and age. Mies was known to challenge the beliefs and notions of architectural design and construction methods. It is evident in his work and can be categorized into three major parts- 

  1. Structure vs space definition. eg. the Barcelona Pavilion
  2. Glass and steel skeleton, eg. Lakeshore Drive Apartments
  3. The suspended roof, eg. Crown Hall

A brief History of the Context

The museum once stood at the edge of West Berlin, as a part of the Kulturforum’s foundational anchor which was then an epitome of the cultural rebirth of the city after the Second World War, drawing a distinct border between East and West Berlin. Owing to the development of the Potsdamer Platz and eventual construction of buildings like Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek), chamber music hall (Kammermusiksaal), Neue Nationalgalerie stands as an icon of 20th-century modernism today, where it once faced the possibility of being forgotten and abandoned. 

Design Philosophy 

It is known that his designs were often inspired by his previous work with the addition of technological changes of the particular time. This concept of his architecture being a “constant work in progress” was realized even in his last major construction that took place in 1968- the Neue Nationalgalerie- the Museum of Modern art in Berlin- a careful conglomeration of his major design philosophies- 

  1. Open floor plan without using load-bearing walls, 
  2. Glass curtain wall with enclosed steel frames to provide a complete connection between inside and outside, 
  3. Suspended roof to provide a flexible arrangement within the interior space and make it column-free. 

Mies laid the importance of finding a balance between aesthetic simplicity and precise geometry in his designs. As he once said ‘God is in the details’, most of his works emphasize fluidity in movement and vastness of space, allowing the structure of the building to get enhanced with articulate details. 

Neue Nationalgalerie by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: A beautiful cage from the Modern Age - Sheet2
Interior of Neue Nationalgalerie,Berlin_©Simon Menges

Neue Nationalgalerie- Plan and Organization

Spatial organization 

The two-storeyed museum, more commonly known as the modern temple of steel and glass, is elevated from the street level accessed via a flight of stairs that land on a stone plinth leading towards the entrance of the exhibition pavilion. 

The upper story comprises the primary exhibition space within an area smaller than the lower floor, which is submerged almost three quarters below the ground level, that accommodates within it a library, offices, shop, and a cafe, whilst providing the space for storage of various artworks. 

Column arrangement 

The use of eight cruciform columns, that are arranged along the length of the facade, to make the corners barrier-free, serves the dual purpose of creating a vast open space within the interior of the gallery and providing the roof with the necessary support on the exterior. 

The suspended roof 

The floating roof that catches the eye at first glance is quickly realized as a complete built form upon seeing the glass facade that is divided by slender vertical lines that run from top to bottom at regular intervals. The cantilever of the roof spanning eighteen meters creates ample space for movement between the facade and the columns. A peculiar thing about the roof is that it looks perfectly straight but it is raised by five centimeters at the corners and ten centimeters in the middle. 

Form of the building 

The building exemplifies a fine composition of vertical and horizontal grid systems that come together to create a seamless blend of geometric elements, mass, and void, the connection of inside and outside, openness and enclosure. The rectangular plan is enclosed by vertical glass walls on all four sides. The walls are punctuated by slender vertical metal supports that run along the peripheral facade at regular intervals. 

Construction 

An unusual approach was used to make the giant floating black painted steel roof plate which was 1,8 m thick, 65 m square, and it was planted on top of the standing vertical walls, using the lift-slab method. The huge roof that was to be hydraulically lifted in one piece, on the steel beams posed an enormous challenge. The cruciform columns emerged as a result of welding four t-profiles together to form a cross-shaped figure. 

Neue Nationalgalerie by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: A beautiful cage from the Modern Age - Sheet3
Neue Nationalgalerie interior view_©Marcus Ebener

Materials 

The primary materials used for construction were steel, glass, and stone- an ode to the “skin and bone” architecture approach of the architect. Mies was known to be very careful in his selection of materials for the interior designing- in this particular museum, some of the materials used were Tinos marble, brown oak, granite, and also curtains.

Lighting design 

A grid within a grid system is used in the ceiling design with the lighting fixtures engulfed within.

Interior of Neue Nationalgalerie,Berlin_©Simon Menges

Conclusion

Neue Nationalgalerie shows how contrasting qualities of different materials when used in a balanced proportion find a way to coexist. The heavy metal roof compliments the light glass facade, the rigid structural grid in the ceiling heightens the vastness and flexibility in the floor plan, and openness of the space is felt even if you are within a cage of steel due to the consistent connection to the outside. The museum of modern art may host a variety of different artworks, but it is also an art in itself- though it may contradict the views of the architect who strongly believed in creating simple structures- he still managed to create a form of art and showed us how even the most minimal things can be beautiful too. Neue Nationalgalerie is a manifestation of the modern art forms it so beautifully houses

References:

Books

  1. Lange, A. and Lange, J.M. (2012). Writing about architecture : mastering the language of buildings and cities. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

‌Online Sources

  1. neuenationalgalerie.com. (n.d.). Neue Nationalgalerie Elements. [online] Available at: https://neuenationalgalerie.com/detail/roof [Accessed 10 Dec. 2021].
  2. Divisare. (2015). Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Rory Gardiner · Neue Nationalgalerie. [online] Available at: https://divisare.com/projects/297030-ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe-rory-gardiner-neue-nationalgalerie.
  3. ‌Berlin, S.M. zu (n.d.). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: Profile. [online] Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Available at: https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/neue-nationalgalerie/about-us/profile/.
  4. ‌Chicago Architecture Center – CAC. (n.d.). Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. [online] Available at: https://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/architecture-dictionary/entry/ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe/.
  5. Lagdameo, J.B. (n.d.). Buildings and Houses by Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe – Buildings and Structures by Iconic Modernist Chicago Architect. [online] Dwell. Available at: https://www.dwell.com/article/ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe-architect-19dd30ba.
  6. architectuul.com. (n.d.). New National Gallery. [online] Available at: http://architectuul.com/architecture/new-national-gallery.
  7. www.atlasofplaces.com. (n.d.). Neue Nationalgalerie by Mies van der Rohe (119AR) — Atlas of Places. [online] Available at: https://www.atlasofplaces.com/architecture/neue-nationalgalerie/.
  8. https://www.facebook.com/riccardo.bianchini.505 (2019). Neue Nationalgalerie – Berlin | Mies van der Rohe building. [online] Inexhibit. Available at: https://www.inexhibit.com/mymuseum/neue-nationalgalerie-berlin-mies-van-der-rohe/.
  9. ‌www.people.vcu.edu. (n.d.). The Architecture of van der Rohe. [online] Available at: https://www.people.vcu.edu/~djbromle/modern-art/02/Ludwig-Mies-van-der-Rohe/index.htm [Accessed 10 Dec. 2021].
Author

Shaymi Shah is a published author and an architectural content writer by profession. Through keen observation about architecture and life around her, she weaves narratives through her writing as she wants to make people, even outside the fraternity, realize the importance and fundamental need of design in our daily lives.

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