Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)
American Architecture Series
Closely associated with the International Style of modern architecture as well as the group known as the Second Chicago School (c.1940-70), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a German-American architect who - along with Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright - is widely regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th century architecture in America. Like many of his post-World War I contemporaries, Mies sought to establish a new architectural style that could represent modern times just as Gothic and Baroque did for their own eras. In his case, he created an influential style of skyscraper architecture, stated with extreme clarity and simplicity. For Mies, technology was the most significant force shaping this or any other time. His work expresses this, by raising the materials of the Industrial Revolution - glass, steel and reinforced concrete - to the realm of art. He is often associated with the aphorism "less is more", referring to his modernist style of minimalism, devoid of all decorative references to historical movements. Mies, like Gropius, sought to devise a "modern" style of architecture for the modern age: a neutral, functional type of design, without any of the decorative motifs of (say) Greek, Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque architecture, all of which were deemed obsolete. His innovative designs for the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51) Chicago, the Seagram Building (1958) New York, the IBM Building (1971) (now 330 North Wabash) New York, and the Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower (1967-91) Toronto, make him one of the greatest of American architects and a key contributor to urban American art of the 20th century. Touchingly, Mies van der Rohe remained true to his close friendship with the talented but short-lived German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919), by introducing Lehmbruck statues into his buildings for much of his career.
Born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies to a modest stonecutter's family in Aachen, Germany, Mies had little opportunity for formal education. Until age 13 he attended Aachen's cathedral school and then trade school, followed by apprenticeship as a brick mason. Three years with a firm of interior decorators refined his talent for freehand drawing; a short time in an architect's office developed his drafting skills.
Finding Aachen's opportunities limited, Mies moved to Berlin, where, after two years' further tutelage, including a period in the office of interior designer Bruno Paul, he designed the Riehl House (1907), described as a work so faultless that no one would guess it was the first independent work of a young architect. At age 23, feeling the need for further training, Mies entered the office of Europe's most influential architect, Peter Behrens (1868-1940), a pioneer of the modernist school, and a founder of the Deutscher Werkbund. (See: Arts and Crafts Movement.) Behrens employed two other future leaders of modern architecture, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Le Corbusier (1887-1965). He remained with Behrens for four years, until 1912, during which time he absorbed many of the prevailing architectural theories. He also managed the construction of the German Embassy in St Petersburg.
Mies's architectural flair was quickly recognized and - despite his lack of formal qualifications as an architect - he soon began to handle independent commissions - mostly private houses for Berlin's cultural and business elite, using neoclassical architecture, in the manner of the prolific Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). Even at this early stage, however, Mies's designs were noticeably free of unnecessary or eclectic decoration, a tendency which would later lead to his signature minimalist style. He was also an exceptionally ambitious individual, and took advantage of his growing reputation to change his name: adding the Dutch prefix "van der" plus his mother's surname "Rohe", to give himself the appearance of an aristocrat.
Experience in supervising war-related construction coupled with the artistic liberation occasioned by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II's abdication unshackled Mies's creativity. During the early years of the Weimar Republic, Mies - along with other avant-garde designers - searched hard for a new style of "modern architecture" suitable for the "modern era". Associated with the radical design magazine "G", he became a founder of the architectural association Der Ring, and Director of Architecture with the German Work Federation, or Association of craftsmen (Deutscher Werkbund), for whom he organized the important Weissenhof Estate prototype housing exhibition. Architecture was rapidly coming of age. The older historical styles - many of which hid their modern construction methods and materials underneath a facade of traditional decoration - were seen as obsolete, and theorists now demanded a brand new type of design process regulated by rational problem-solving and an exterior that showcased its modern structure and components. Spurred on by this revolutionary quest, Mies van der Rohe showed off several designs which were so visionary as to place him at the forefront of modern architecture. See, for instance, his design for the faceted all-glass Friedrichstrasse skyscraper in 1921, as well as his taller curved version in 1922 named the Glass Skyscraper. His furniture designs, successfully applying the cantilever principle, produced the most enduring symbol of excellence, the Barcelona chair (1929). (Other classic Mies designs include the Barcelona table, the Brno chair, and the Tugendhat chair.)
Between 1928 and 1930 he designed two important buildings, the German Pavilion and Industrial Exhibits at the International Exhibition, Barcelona, Spain (1929), and the elegant Tugendhat House, Brno, Czechoslovakia (1930), both pure expressions of architectural space defined, not enclosed, by walls, floors and ceiling planes. In 1930 he was appointed to replace Hannes Meyer as director of the Bauhaus Design School, and in 1931 his European career reached its zenith with his election to the Prussian Academy.
Mies's attitude to building design was shaped by a number of schools of avant-garde art which blossomed in the 1920s, including: (1) Bauhaus, embodied by the works of Walter Gropius; (2) the Dutch De Stijl group, with its clean lines and geometric forms; (3) Russian Constructivism, which favoured applied art with a social purpose; (4) the design concepts of the Czech-born architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933), who had worked alongside Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), a member of the first Chicago School of Architecture, absorbing his hostility to ornamentation. Loos had published his theories in his landmark essay Ornament and Crime (1908), and put them into practice in his concrete Steiner House in Vienna (1910); (5) the American Prairie Style building designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
Hitler's assumption of power in 1933 made Mies's position untenable. His modernist style, deemed un-German by the authorities, could not compete with the imposing Totalitarian architecture being adopted by Albert Speer and others. (See Nazi art 1933-45.) During a 1937 visit to the United States, Mies was appointed director of architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology IIT) in Chicago. A major attraction of the new post was that Mies was commissioned to design many of the new IIT campus buildings, including the Chapel, the Alumni Hall, and his masterpiece - the School of Architecture itself - known as S.R. Crown Hall. It was also here that he introduced a new kind of education and design style, known as the Second Chicago School of architecture, which became the dominant building style in America during the 1950s and 1960s.
In some ways, his super-modern designs were a natural progression of the 19th century Chicago School style led by William Le Baron Jenney, and developed by such firms as Burnham & Root and Adler and Sullivan. However, he injected a huge dose of European modernism, derived from the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, which was already known as The International Style of modern architecture. Characterized by sleek modern-looking minimalist buildings made from glass, steel and reinforced concrete, without any old-fashioned revivalist decoration in the manner of (say) Greek, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque architecture, Mies's International Style became the dominant mode of building for American corporations, public agencies and cultural institutions during the middle decades of the 20th century. Corporate America, in particular, loved being associated with its progressive, high-tech look.
Mies designed and built a number of iconic buildings. At 860-880 and 900910 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, he produced the world's first all-glass apartment buildings (1948-51); and in Piano, Illinois, the first all-glass residence, the Farnsworth House (1946-51). He designed the Seagram Building (1954-58) New York's most elegant and, at the time, most expensive office building, in collaboration with Philip Johnson (1906-2005); and as part of Detroit's renewal, his design for Lafayette Park (1955-63) demonstrated that urban life could combine the best of city and country living. Other important buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe include McCormick House, Elmhurst, Illinois (1952); Cullinan Hall (1958) and the Brown Pavilion (1974) for the Caroline Weiss Law Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Chicago Federal Center (1959); Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower (1967-91); the New National Gallery (Neue Nationalgalerie) (1962-68), Berlin; and the IBM Building (1971) (now 330 North Wabash) New York.
Mies believed that his architectural language could be taught and then applied to any type of modern building. To this end, he established a radical new system of architectural education at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The traditional Ecole des Beaux-Art curriculum was replaced by a three-step-program consisting of (1) drawing and construction (2) planning (3) theory of architecture; some of which is still in use. Paradoxically, while Mies' approach had a huge impact on students, and the aesthetics of his finest buildings proved impossible to match, his very success led to such slavish imitation that architects and public got bored. As a result, during the late-70s and early 80s, Mies's International Style was eclipsed by a new wave of Postmodernist art, which reopened the doors to historical styles and visually interesting ornamentation, such as the daring neo-Georgian (Chippendale) crown of Philip Johnson's AT&T Building (1984) (now the Sony Building) in Manhattan.
Before his death he received for his contributions to architecture and education the 1959 Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the 1960 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Germany's Order of Merit and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although later eclipsed by postmodernist decoration, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe remains one of the greatest architects of the mid-20th century, and has left behind a substantial legacy of public art, created not just by himself but also by his followers - notably Gene Summers, David Haid, Myron Goldsmith and Jacques Brownson - by structural engineers like Fazlur Khan (1929-82); and by progressive firms of architects, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and C.F.Murphy & Associates. Mies's designs were largely adopted in a number of prestigious skyscraper towers such as the Lake Point Tower, Chicago (1968) (George Schipporeit and John Heinrich); the John Hancock Center, Chicago (1969) (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill); and the Sears/Willis Tower, Chicago (1974) (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill). For his postmodernist creative equivalent, see the designer Frank O. Gehry (b.1929), pioneer of deconstructivism, the bizarre anti-geometric style.
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