“We must be as familiar with the functions of our buildings as with our materials. We must learn what a building can be, what it should be, and also what it must not be… And just as we acquaint ourselves with materials, just as we understand functions, so we must become familiar with the psychological and spiritual factors of our day. No cultural activity is possible otherwise; for we are dependent on the spirit of our time.”- Mies van der Rohe

With pioneering ideas about the use of materials such as industrial glass and steel structures and principles of the spatial enclosure, Mies van der Rohe’s work stood true testament to his philosophy. During his journey, the eminent modern architect earned significant accolades from around the world for his work in the field of architecture as well as furniture design.

Born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, Mies spent his early years working at his father’s stone carving workshop. Moving to Berlin in 1902, he began working for Bruno Paul on interior and furniture projects. It was in the year 1908 he was exposed to the designs manifested in glass and steel during his tenure at Peter Behrens studio where he was in the company of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Whilst working on the elevation for the AEG Turbine Factory, Mies came across the expression ‘less is more’, which became one of his famous aphorisms.

Debut- an innovation

With his background at Behren’s and significant influences of Viollet-Le-Duc and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Mies started his practice in 1912. During this phase, Mies explored the possibility of embracing the virtue of industrial development through a design that dwindled the visual threshold of inside and outside. It was envisaged through the design for Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper in Berlin, a design competition conducted in 1921. Emphasizing the verticality, the design enclosed the interiors in the glass exterior opening the indoors to the outdoor, like a hollow crystal, a concept devoid of ornamentation, revealing an architecture of ‘skin and bones’.

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Image Sources: The debut project by Mies- Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper in Berlin  ©  Phaidon

Bauhaus and Mies

The Barcelona Pavilion (German Pavilion) and Barcelona chair for the King and Queen of Spain was designed in 1929 which carried forward a similar ideology of minimalism, open plan, and technological advancement of materials. While the latter was internationally acknowledged, the Barcelona chair was subjected to criticism from the Bauhaus as it was inspired by the Greek Klismos chair, meaning an appreciation of the traditional form, which was in disparity with the Bauhaus ideology.

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Image Sources:

  1. Barcelona Pavilion ©Flicker
  2. Barcelona Chair ©Knoll

Bauhaus, however, became another milestone in Mies’s career following the resignation of Hannes Meyer. This was a period when Nazis attributed to hostility in Dessau and Mies appointed as the Director in 1930 ensured that the school remained apolitical. In the stride, the school was also shifted to Berlin in 1932 as the Nazis opposed the cultural concept of the school. The attempt, however, was terminated in 1933 following the proliferation of Hitler’s opposition to the school, as Mies refused to align the school according to the ‘rules of the new state’.

The USA chapter

His association with architectural education and modern architecture gained momentum again when he was invited to head the Illinois School of Architecture in Chicago. Moving to the USA in 1937, Mies embarked towards yet another landmark of his career. During his tenure till 1958, he designed 20 buildings with the campus master plan. Within a fixed grid of columns, he inculcated the design of the buildings through internally defining furniture layouts, which directed the room sizes rather than vice-versa. Built on the thorough modernist approach, the buildings keenly focused use of glass and steel incorporating the concept of ‘universal space’. Crown Hall was one such accentuated example of his ideology.

The Crown hall, considered an architectural masterpiece was designed as an open plan abiding with the ‘universal space’ offered its users open studios with the flexibility of spatial interaction. With exposed steel frame construction covered with a glass skin the design, space within was only segregated through free-standing oak partitions.

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Image Sources:The Crown Hall designed by Mies  ©IIT college of Architecture

The Controversial Farnsworth House

Commissioned as a weekend retreat, Farnsworth’s house was an exemplary minimalist structure designed in 1950. Yet another open plan supported on eight-column rising from the ground with planar surfaces enclosed within glass walls encapsulating the natural surroundings of the Fox river emerged as a remarkable example of the International style of architecture. Though critically acclaimed, the project became a famous controversy accusing Mies of designing a rather inhabitable space.

“I thought you could animate a predetermined, classic form like this with your presence. I wanted to do something ‘meaningful,’ and all I got was this glib, false sophistication,”, were Ms. Fransworth’s words of outrage.”- Dr. Fransworth

With a range of complaints from bugs, improper ventilation to the exponential cost of construction, the house turned a disappointment for Dr. Fransworth. Additionally, her response to Mies’s ‘less is more’ ideology for the design was, “We know that less is not more. It is simply less!”

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Image Sources:

  1. The location of the house in the floodplain has often caused flooding damaging the building ©Architect Magazine
  2. The Farnsworth House ©Illinois Partners

Mansion House Square

The conceptualized project based in London was never manifested as it was criticized as ‘a giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago’ by Prince Charles. Being revived from the archives, the design is now being visualized as it was intended, to be published as a book by the REAL Foundation.

‘It is almost inconceivable that such an important project remains unknown to the public, so at a basic level it is right that this material is made available, and to properly understand the history of modernism in Britain,’ Self asserts. ‘From its elegant bronze facade to the civic gesture of creating a new public square, Mansion House Square is a unique masterpiece by one of the 20th century’s most celebrated architects.’- Jack Self, Founder of the REAL Foundation.

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The visualization of Mansion House Square  ©John Donat, courtesy Drawing matter and REAL Foundation

Seagram Building- unconventional design

Designed with Philip Johnson, the Seagram building laid an open plan furniture layout, efficient lighting from the floor to ceiling windows, the continuous bronze dark exterior became an iconic design. By abutting the building at a difference of 100 feet from the road, Mies opened the space ahead of the building, seamlessly accommodating the urban space. This aspect became a commonly adopted feature of the upcoming buildings.

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The Seagram Building ©Arch daily
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Plan of the Seagram Building ©Arch daily

Postmodernism

‘Less is bore’, the phrase introduced by Robert Venturi as a response to the modernist approach, also ‘Less is more’, proposed a postmodern architecture that braced the context, created a different character, and even incorporated ornamentation. The contrast from the modernist architecture was first expressed in Vanna Venturi’s residence. A pitched roof with walled exterior provided with an arch in the façade was the realization of ‘less is bore’.

The Vanna Venturi House  ©Arch daily

Irrespective of the criticism and controversies, Mies continued to evolve as a modernist visionary leaving behind a remarking legacy.

References:

  1. Mansion House Square: Mies van der Rohe’s London ghost could be revived in a new book, Malaika Byng, The Spaces.
  2. Mies van der Rohe Society at Illinois school of Architecture.
  3. Architecture’s internal debate “less is more” vs “less is bore”, Paul Keskeys, Architizer
Author

Aditi Sharma is an architect, researcher and amateur photographer based in Mumbai. Through RTF she is expressing her ardent thoughts in the domain of culture, history, gender, and architecture.

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