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Artists Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Photo

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

German-American Architect and Designer

Movements and Styles: The International Style, Modern Architecture, Bauhaus, Art Nouveau

Born: March 27th, 1886 - Aachen, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire

Died: August 17th, 1969 - Chicago, Illinois, USA

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Timeline

Quotes

"Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"God is in the details."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"Architecture is a language. When you are very good, you can be a poet."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"Architecture is the real battleground of the spirit."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"Never talk to a client about architecture. Talk to him about his children. That is simply good politics. He will not understand what you have to say about architecture most of the time."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"An architect of ability should be able to tell a client what he wants. Most of the time a client never knows what he wants."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"No design is possible until the materials with which you design are completely understood."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"Architecture has the power to create order out of unholy confusion."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

"Less is more."

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Signature

Synopsis

On November 20, 1938, the Armour Institute of Technology held a gala at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago to celebrate its new head of the architecture program. Introducing him was Frank Lloyd Wright, who admired virtually no other architect alive. But this occasion was different. Of the guest of honor, Wright intoned, "I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. Armour Institute, I give you my Mies van der Rohe. You treat him well and love him as I do. He will reward you." Wright then promptly left the stage. The rarity of publicly receiving Wright's unqualified accolades underscores the brilliance of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his vaunted place within modern architecture as one of the founders of the International Style in Germany. Mies did not disappoint his new employers, either: over the next thirty years, he helped establish the International Style as the definitive architectural language of North American postwar modernism and influenced hundreds of emulators worldwide. His steel-and-glass aesthetic became the archetype of the term "modern architecture" for decades even after his death. Mies' buildings became the prime targets for postmodernists who later attacked the International Style.

Key Ideas

Along with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, Mies helped pioneer the crystallization of the International Style as the core movement of modern architecture during the early 1920s. Unlike Le Corbusier and other early champions of the International Style who moved away from it, in part due to critiques of modern architecture in the 1960s, he remained completely devoted to the movement over the last four decades of his career.
Mies first called his designs for steel-and-glass skyscrapers and horizontally-oriented houses and pavilions "skin-and-bones" architecture due to their minimal uses of industrial materials, definition of space, along with the rigidity of structure, and their transparency. His architecture promotes the dissolution between interior and exterior and the negation of feeling completely enclosed. Instead, they encourage maximum flexibility in their spatial configurations, which for Mies meant that they maximized their spatial utility.
Mies' buildings often emphasize their own singularity relative to their surroundings, putting themselves - and through their transparency, their inhabitants - on view. This makes many of them, such as the Barcelona Pavilion, ideal for public functions, but it also makes some of them, such as the Farnsworth House, notoriously difficult to inhabit when privacy is needed.
Having grown up around his father's stonecutting shop, Mies was very sensitive to the choices of materials in his designs, including fine stone, chrome, bronze, and even brick. Many of his buildings, especially the Tugendhat House and Seagram Building, were extremely expensive structures to build and are noted equally for their fine craftsmanship along with their industrial methods of construction.

Most Important Art

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Famous Art

Alois Riehl House, Potsdam-Neubabelsberg, Germany (1907)

This was Mies' first completed commission, an impressive feat considering he was employed to design it at age 21 and had not even established his own practice (he was still working as an apprentice to Bruno Paul). Moreover, Mies' client was Alois Riehl, one of the most significant figures at the time in German philosophy circles and a university professor.

Mies' result is not particularly innovative, and nearly all of the houses he would build until the end of the 1920s would employ similar, traditional formal strategies. It does, however, demonstrate the extent to which he had digested the currents of contemporary German architectural practice, notably the kind of bourgeois simplicity derived in part from the English Arts & Crafts movement and encouraged by such leading designers in Berlin such as Herrmann Muthesius, former attaché to the German Embassy in London. The simple, centralized main façade with steep roof and large interior Halle space (the main living room space) all point to these conventions. The garden façade, meanwhile, drops down one level below to accommodate the sloping hillside that runs away from it, with a large retaining wall that spans its width.

Mies' method of accommodating the house to its natural environment, particularly the garden, was a skill that he continued to employ throughout his career. It demonstrates his engagement with Wohnreform, a German movement at the turn of the century that sought a renewal of German culture through the relocation of living to a natural, healthful environment away from the center of cities. Wohnreform encouraged design of the house as an integral piece of a larger natural/constructed environment. Mies' work caught the eye of Peter Behrens, the nation's most capable architect and the official designer for AEG, the German General Electric company, who quickly offered Mies a job in his firm after seeing the house, thus effectively launching Mies' career.
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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Early Life and Training

Maria Ludwig Michael Mies was born in the city of Aachen in western Germany, in the spring of 1886. Aachen, known in French as Aix-la-Chapelle, had been the capital of Charlemagne's Frankish Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. By the time of Mies' birth almost 1100 years later, however, it had become one of the numerous centers of heavy industry in the Ruhr region of the Kingdom of Prussia, the dominant state in the Wilhelmine Empire before World War I.

Mies' father was a stonecutter, but while Mies accompanied his father to building sites, he never received any formal architectural training. Mies developed his skill for drawing beginning at age 15, when he was apprenticed to several local Aachen architects to produce renderings for architectural ornaments.

Mies standing in a doorway of the Riehl House in Potsdam, Germany, his first completed commission, about 1907
Mies standing in a doorway of the Riehl House in Potsdam, Germany, his first completed commission, about 1907

In 1905 Mies moved to Berlin, where he obtained an apprenticeship with Bruno Paul, who was known both for his work in Art Nouveau and for his furniture design. Within two years he received his first independent commission, the Riehl House in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, which so impressed the architect Peter Behrens, then the best-known and most progressive architect in Germany, that he offered Mies a job in his office. It was there that Mies met both Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, who also would join Behrens' office staff during Mies' tenure.

Mies was frustrated, however, working under Behrens. He would later claim credit for the courtyard elevations of Behrens' great Turbine Factory for AEG, built between 1907-10 in Berlin, saying that Behrens "didn't realize what he was doing." Mies often expressed great admiration for Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage and his Amsterdam Exchange, finished in 1903, a building Behrens once remarked to be passé. Mies apparently responded "Well, if you aren't badly mistaken," which made Behrens furious, barely restraining himself from striking Mies.

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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Biography Continues

The War Years

Mies' physical maturation had given him an imposing frame, but his personality was reticent, laconic, and deliberative. In 1913 he married Adele Auguste (Ada) Bruhn, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Much like Le Corbusier would later do in 1920, in order to mark his professional transformation from craftsman to architect, Mies changed his name by adding his mother's surname "Rohe," with the Dutch connection "van der," since in Germany at the time (still an Empire) the use of "von der" was legally restricted to those who could prove noble heritage. It also offset his father's familial name, as "mies" translates to "rotten" or "lousy."

Mies' first daughter, Georgia van der Rohe, who became an actress and dancer
Mies' first daughter, Georgia van der Rohe, who became an actress and dancer

By most accounts his marriage to Ada was not a happy one, though it did produce three daughters. Dorothea, (1914-2008), known as Georgia (van der Rohe), made a name for herself as a dancer and later actress, primarily in New York. Marianne (1915-2003), and Waltraub (1917-1959), who later became a curator and researcher at the Art Institute of Chicago. Mies was conscripted for World War I in 1915, posted initially to Frankfurt-am-Main, then to Berlin, and finally in 1917 to Romania, where he spent the rest of the war and fathered a child out of wedlock.

Postwar Return to Architecture

Mies returned from war service in November 1918. Though his family, through Ada's father, remained well-off, even during the period of hyperinflation in Germany, Mies grew restless. Though he resumed his practice, he was experiencing a professional crisis about the direction of his architecture, and in February 1920 he and Ada separated. She assumed custody of their daughters, whom Mies only saw on occasion until after he moved to the USA. He kept their apartment in Berlin while Ada and the girls moved to the western suburb of Bornstedt.

Through most of the first half of the 1920s Mies lived the life of an artist-bachelor, moving in the great melting pot of architectural and design ideas that Berlin had become, becoming acquainted with Theo van Doesburg, Werner Graeff, and El Lissitzky, and staying abreast of the developments of the Bauhaus, de Stijl, Expressionism, and Constructivism. He kept his practice afloat through commissions for private residences for wealthy clients, which remained aesthetically very traditional. At the same time, his theoretical ideas about architecture began to move in new directions.

By 1924 Mies had become involved with Lily Reich, a furniture designer who also became his office manager until he moved to the United States (and even then she still maintained his personal and professional records until her death in 1947). Nonetheless, Mies maintained a separate residence from her, as he did from all the women he was involved with after the breakup of his marriage.

Mies and Le Corbusier talking in Stüttgart during preparations for the Weissenhofsiedlung housing exhibition (1927)
Mies and Le Corbusier talking in Stüttgart during preparations for the Weissenhofsiedlung housing exhibition (1927)

Reich was responsible for organizing and installing an exhibition of interior furnishings in Stüttgart in 1927 that coincided with Mies' organization of the Weissenhofsiedlung prototypical housing exposition. For the exposition, Mies unveiled his MR tubular steel chair, inspired by earlier examples by Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam. Together, Reich and Mies designed the famed Barcelona chair, quite possibly the most famous furniture design of the century, which premiered inside Mies' eponymous German Pavilion at the world's fair in 1929.

A Stalling Career under Nazi Germany

Mies enjoying a puff on his ubiquitous cigar
Mies enjoying a puff on his ubiquitous cigar

Mies had been rewarded handsomely for his German Pavilion at the 1929 world's fair and received a considerable salary when he took over as director of the Bauhaus in 1930 from Hannes Meyer, who had resigned under controversy after he had been accused of Socialist political activism by the anti-leftist municipal government of Dessau, where the school was then located. Mies set out to depoliticize the environment, jettisoning the school's associations with manufacturing in order to focus solely on teaching art, architecture, and design. Upon his appointment, Mies personally interviewed each student, dismissing those he deemed uncommitted or too political. He did not change the makeup of the faculty, with the exception of adding Lily Reich to it. He began to dress the part of his newfound authority, invariably wearing suits set off by fashionable bowlers and homburg hats. Briefly he even wore a monocle. He gained weight and became a nearly-ceaseless cigar smoker, a habit which would many, many years later kill him.

Mies' naturally reserved personality, meanwhile, deepened as an educator into a kind of "magisterial aloofness," playing the part of the strong, silent type. Indeed, one friend observed that Mies habitually let others dominate a conversation until he gauged that they had spilled everything they wanted to say, then would often sneak in and make a summary pronouncement or inject something that nobody had considered yet, which gave his words a certain gravitas.

Mies as director of the Bauhaus in Dessau (1931)
Mies as director of the Bauhaus in Dessau (1931)

Mies took over the Bauhaus, but with the rise of Nazis and the continued hostility in Dessau, it became clear that even after the move to Berlin in 1932, the school was doomed. Mies invested his own money in an abandoned telephone factory on the outskirts of Berlin as the school's new home, but that was seized by the Nazis. After protracted wrangling with Hitler's underlings to allow the school to reopen, Mies received a green light, after which he and his fellow faculty closed the school on their own accord, realizing that it would not survive in the new German political order.

Move to the USA

Despite Mies' professed apolitical stance, it was clear that his professional situation in Nazi Germany had become untenable by 1937. After negotiations with several institutions, Mies finally accepted an invitation to head the architecture program at the Armour Institute of Technology (renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology a short time later). In August 1938, after some harassment by Nazi officials over his passport, Mies immigrated permanently to the USA in time for the start of the new school year.

On one trip to Chicago during these negotiations, Mies managed to get in touch with Frank Lloyd Wright, who uncharacteristically invited him to Taliesin, where the two bonded despite the fact that Mies spoke no English and Wright no German. Mies was highly impressed with Taliesin, strolling out onto the terrace overlooking the Wisconsin countryside and exclaiming, "Freedom! This is a kingdom!" At the end of a four-day visit, Wright even drove Mies back to Chicago, stopping at Racine to show him the Johnson Wax Building under construction. Once they reached Chicago, Wright also gave Mies a tour of Oak Park and the Robie House. Wright, of course, would famously introduce Mies to the architectural community in Chicago once Mies had finally settled into his new home.

Mies and Lora Marx in Chicago (1941)
Mies and Lora Marx in Chicago (1941)

Mies settled in Chicago, picking up a command of English as he went. On New Year's Eve 1940, he met Lora Marx, a sculptress recently divorced from the architect Samuel Marx. It was, according to everyone present, love at first sight, a relationship that would last, with a year's interruption between 1947-48, until Mies' death, though they would never marry, and actually never lived together. Mies would later call the years between 1941 and the temporary break in their relationship the best years of his life.

Lora helped Mies find permanent residence at 200 East Pearson Street in downtown Chicago, an apartment in a neo-Renaissance building designed in 1916-17 - hardly the modern structures he was designing himself. Mies usually had the place to himself, except for when his daughters began to visit, starting in the late 1940s. He also in the 1940s began to develop a relationship with Dirk Lohan, his grandson through Marianne. Lohan would actually train under Mies and become relatively close to his grandfather personally and professionally, to the point where he would often be called on when one of Mies' buildings needed restoration or an addition was planned.

Mies (at center) teaching students at IIT
Mies (at center) teaching students at IIT

Mies socialized widely in Chicago, both with students and friends, most of whom remember him to be quite approachable, despite his reserved nature, even going so far as to be considered a kind of father figure to many of the young men he mentored at IIT. For Mies, the dual responsibilities of teaching and professional practice did not seem difficult to balance, though as time wore on, he became less concerned with teaching.

Mies also loved to drink socially, particularly martinis, and he could hold his liquor. Lora could not, eventually admitting that she was an alcoholic in 1947, entering Alcoholics Anonymous and breaking off her relationship with Mies (for that one year apart). It is doubtful that Mies shared her alcoholism; his students, staff, and even his driver - Mies did not even own a car until the 1950s and even then only Lora drove it - virtually never saw him drunk.

It was also in 1947 that Mies enjoyed the honor of a one-man show at MoMA, attended by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. The resulting publicity and success of the show added to Mies' global renown, and that same year he met Herbert Greenwald, a Chicago real-estate developer who became one of Mies' most loyal clients (until February 1959, when Greenwald died in a plane crash). Greenwald would commission Mies to design the Promontory Apartments and Lake Shore Drive Apartments, and the Esplanade Apartments in Chicago, and the large project for Lafayette Park in Detroit.

Mies and Herbert Greenwald in Chicago examining a model of Lafayette Park for Detroit (1956)
Mies and Herbert Greenwald in Chicago examining a model of Lafayette Park for Detroit (1956)

Lafayette Park was a large redevelopment of a supposedly blighted low-income area north of downtown that fell under the umbrella category of American urban renewal of the postwar era. Unlike most urban renewal projects, however, Mies' vision - a mixed-scale and mixed-use project of high rises, town houses, schools, community centers, and commercial development completed in concert with his fellow IIT faculty member and friend, Ludwig Hilberseimer - proved relatively successful. Lafayette Park became so central to Mies' office's operations in the late 1950s that when Greenwald died, Mies was forced to lay off half his staff even though the project was substantially incomplete.

Later Life and Death

After 1960, Mies' health became progressively worse. He took much less part in the day-to-day operations of his office, though the firm still thrived, completing projects such as Toronto-Dominion Centre and the Berlin Neuenationalgalerie; the latter was opened in September 1968. Mies was too infirm to attend the dedication, but several months before he had been present when the massive coffered roof was installed, a nine-hour affair that he watched with intense interest.

Mies spent a great deal of time at home, immobilized by arthritis, though he welcomed guests on a regular basis, including Gene Summers and Dirk Lohan from his office, Phyllis Lambert (who lived in Mies' Lake Shore Drive Apartments), his daughter Marianne, and Lora Marx. He and Lora traveled some; a favorite destination was Tucson, Arizona, which undoubtedly offered relief from the frigid Chicago winters.

Mies developed wall-eye, or divergent strabismus, which left him unable to concentrate for long on words on the printed page, so Lora dutifully took up the task of reading to him. Mies' first symptoms of esophageal cancer, caused by years of smoking, appeared in 1966. His fragile health precluded any possibility of surgery, but he was treated with radiation. In early August 1969, Mies caught a cold that soon developed into pneumonia. He died after lingering in and out of consciousness for two weeks. Mies was the last of the triumvirate of the International Style to die, following Le Corbusier in 1965 and Gropius just six weeks before him. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, within sight of the graves of Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.


Legacy

By the time that Mies' health entered its definitive decline, the reaction against the International Style was in full swing. Robert Venturi's seminal attack on the rigidity of Miesian design, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, appeared in 1966, leaving no doubt of the target of its criticism. Venturi declared, "I like elements which are hybrid rather than 'pure', compromising rather than 'clean'.... I am for messy vitality over obvious unity." And finally, he turned around Mies' most famous aphorism, suggesting that "Less is a bore." But this was hardly the first shot taken at the canon of modernist architecture - Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and even Le Corbusier had already in the 1950s begun to reexamine the steel-and-glass idiom that Mies had made famous.

The sharpness with which architects and critics of the 1960s responded to the International Style's hegemony over design speaks, moreover, to the incomparable command that it - and particularly Mies - had held over the spirit of modernism in architecture in the postwar era. Advances in communication and travel had made the International Style a truly global phenomenon, adopted on every inhabited continent by thousands of architects.

Retrospective of Mies' work at the Art Institute of Chicago (1968)
Retrospective of Mies' work at the Art Institute of Chicago (1968)

At the same time as Mies' architecture began to be critiqued negatively, however, he continued to be critically appraised in various retrospectives and exhibitions, including one at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968. That same year the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Archive was established at the Museum for Modern Art in New York, which now holds about 19,000 of Mies' drawings and prints, some 1,000 of which are by Lily Reich; much of the collection can now be viewed online.

The interest in Mies has continued unabated up until the present day, with two large exhibitions concentrating on the two halves of Mies' career: Mies in Berlin and Mies in America, opening in 2001. Both premiered with lavish exhibition catalogues that included essays by leading scholars. Collections of his drawings, correspondence, and books are held at the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

20-cent US postage stamp showing Mies' Crown Hall at IIT, issued in 1982
20-cent US postage stamp showing Mies' Crown Hall at IIT, issued in 1982

Mies has been honored numerous times, both during his lifetime and posthumously. He received the RIBA's Royal Gold Medal for architecture in 1959, the AIA Gold Medal in 1960, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1982, his Crown Hall at IIT appeared on a 20-cent postage stamp issued by the US Postal Service, and upon the centenary of his birth in 1986, the West German government issued postage depicting his Neuenationalgalerie in West Berlin. The Mies van der Rohe Society, based at IIT, works to preserve Mies' buildings on the campus and promote engagement with his work, primarily in Chicago.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Interactive chart with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Bruno Paul
Peter Behrens
Hendrik Petrus BerlageHendrik Petrus Berlage

Friends

Walter GropiusWalter Gropius
Le CorbusierLe Corbusier
Frank Lloyd WrightFrank Lloyd Wright

Movements

Art NouveauArt Nouveau
National Romanticism
Deutscher Werkbund
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Years Worked: 1901 - 1969

Artists

Gordon Bunshaft
Bruce Graham
Enrique Gutierrez
Myron Goldsmith
Philip JohnsonPhilip Johnson

Friends

Ludwig Hilberseimer

Movements

The International StyleThe International Style

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition Recomended resource

By Franz Schulze, Edward Windhorst

Mies in America Recomended resource

By Phyllis Lambert

Mies van der Rohe: Mies In Berlin

By Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Barry Bergdoll, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, Mies van der Rohe

Mies

By Detlef Mertins

More Interesting Books about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Mies van der Rohe Dies at 83; Leader of Modern Architecture

By Alden Whitman
August 19, 1969

Mies and the Nazis

By Tom Dyckhoff
The Guardian
November 29, 2002

Revisiting the Work of Architect Mies van der Rohe

By Mitchell Owens
Architectural Digest
January 31, 2013

20 Things You Didn’t Know About Mies van der Rohe Recomended resource

By Pola Mora
Arch Daily
March 27, 2016

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