Progression of Art
Alois Riehl House, Potsdam-Neubabelsberg, Germany
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.
Project for a Glass Skyscraper
This was one of Mies' experimental pieces of paper architecture - unbuilt designs on paper - with the distinctly modern building type, the skyscraper, and the possibilities of industrial materials in the early 1920s, what he would soon dub "skin-and-bones architecture." This was complemented in the next few years with his horizontally-oriented projects for brick and concrete country houses, imagined as collections shifting planes for walls and roofs that barely delineated the enclosure of spaces.
Here, the undulating façade, including two elevator shafts, sheaths the building entirely in transparent glass, revealing the full structure of steel. It uses, as a result, the minimal amount of material necessary to enclose its volumes, and the choice of glass for its skin makes the building almost disappear. The skyscraper's prismatic volumes contrast starkly with the traditional multistory apartment buildings surrounding it.
Mies' Glass Skyscraper reveals the imaginative ideas of avant-garde German architects for the possibilities of industrial construction during the early years of the Weimar Republic. At that time, however, their projects could not be realized since hyperinflation severely restricted all large-scale construction. The honesty of construction of the skyscraper, which ranks among the first examples of the International Style, belies the ambiguity of its purpose, however. Like many of Mies' later buildings, its open floor plan allows for maximum flexibility in its use, such that is unclear whether it is supposed to contain offices, or apartments, or retail stores, or something else. The forms that Mies originally dreamed up here would find their ultimate realization only after he moved to America, in works such as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York.
German Pavilion, Exposicio Internacional, Barcelona, Spain
Mies and Lilly Reich together designed the German Pavilion for the 1929 World's Fair in Barcelona - a structure which now ranks among the most significant temporary structures ever built, particularly for an international exposition. Demolished after the fair, it was reconstructed from 1981-86 using the original plans, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It constitutes Mies' and Reich's most succinct statement in the reduction of a building to the minimal requirements to define space: a handful of columns elevated on a platform juxtaposed with asymmetrically-arranged opaque and transparent wall planes, supporting a flat roof. It functioned during the fair as simply a reception space for dignitaries, as the Weimar government had other space for actual exhibits.
Though there is an extreme emphasis on horizontality, the platform of travertine (a common stone used in ancient classical monuments) elevates it much like a Greek temple, with a structural clarity to match. Also common to both Mies' architecture here and the monuments of classical antiquity is the fineness of materials: the cruciform-plan steel columns are chrome-plated, and the interior is ornamented solely with a red curtain, while the colored onyx walls are cut to expose the diamond pattern - all of which recalls an attention to refinement and craftsmanship that is balanced with the building's clear machine-made qualities. It therefore exemplifies the visual form of Mies' famous dictum, "Less is more."
The construction of the Pavilion marked the apex of Mies' European career (and for some, the pinnacle of his entire oeuvre). It was, for sure, the most progressive building constructed at the exposition, contrasting sharply with the rather old-fashioned neo-Baroque structures that dominated the grounds. Mies himself was involved in the selection of the site, at one end of a long grassy promenade that provided a superb view of this long building.
Despite these qualities, the temporary nature of the structure was underscored by the fact that it was dismantled at the close of the fair and shipped back to Germany in order to be reused in other building projects.
Appropriately named for its premiere in the German Pavilion at the 1929 World's Fair, this chair is largely considered the most famous furniture design of the 20th century. The writer Tom Wolfe later highlighted its preeminence by noting how it had achieved "holy grail", cult-like status amongst aesthetes as a piece of furniture that someone might trade all of his belongings in order to afford.
The chair consists of two sets - joined by three horizontal bars - of the intersection between two curved pieces of steel: one arc of a circle crossed by a graceful S-curve. The joint between them was originally bolted, but in 1950 it was redesigned to be welded. Although upholstered with two large, wide leather cushions, the chair is not very comfortable, unlike some of Mies' other designs, most notably the MR chair.
Mies and Reich saved the chairs first produced for the Pavilion and reused them for later projects, most notably the Tugendhat House, which was the first structure in which the chairs were used after the fair. Like Mies' other furniture designs, the Barcelona Chair represents the extraordinary fruit of collaboration between him and Reich, which ended with Mies' immigration to America in 1938. Also like his other furniture, knockoffs immediately appeared after its premiere, which tied up Mies in patent litigation for much of the decade.
Despite the chair's status as a touchstone of modernism, its design contains multiple ironic twists. Though constructed from industrial materials, its manufacture actually involves a large amount of handcraft, according to Knoll, its current official producer. Furthermore, the chair's form is thought to have been extrapolated from those of Roman folding chairs, most likely the "Curule" type used by aristocracy. And while its presence within furniture ensembles helps to underscore the sleek minimalist aspect of a space, its association with elite status means that it is sometimes spotted within rather traditionally-designed interiors as well.
Welded steel, leather - Produced by Knoll
Tugendhat House, Brno, Czech Republic
Mies' first truly modern house (all his previous realized dwellings had been traditional masonry structures), the Tugendhat House is a superb example of how he used the possibilities of modern construction to blend a building with its landscape. The Tugendhats, a wealthy German Jewish couple who owned several factories in Czechoslovakia, owned this plot of land in a very fashionable suburban part of Brno, located on a hillside with a spectacular vista towards the central part of town below.
Mies' structure, which is sited on the brow of the hill, is unusually large - much larger than the Tugendhats intended originally - and uses a very open interior plan, so much so that there are few interior walls to hang items (it thus prevents clutter, a quality Grete Tugendhat valued highly). Its reinforced-concrete construction, supported on the interior with only a few chromed columns, allows for the entire back façade to be a floor-to-ceiling curtain wall that looks out over the landscape. It could be fully opened up to literally dissolve the boundary between inside and outside, a strategy that is underscored by the partially-translucent onyx wall on the interior. Other modern highlights included advanced air-conditioning and heating systems, the former a real rarity at the time, and especially in Europe, and a glass wall on the interior of the house that could retract into the basement like a car window.
Included as one of Mies' most important works in the landmark MoMA International Style exhibition staged by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932, the Tugendhat House later has the distinction of being one of the large-scale seizures of Jewish material assets by the Nazis. The Tugendhats only lived in the house for nine years before fleeing to Switzerland in 1938, the year before Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia and World War II began. During the war it was used as offices and then later as stables for the Soviet Army. Having languished in disrepair, it has undergone extensive restoration recently, and, after all these years, welcomes visitors today that can appreciate Mies' work and legacy.
S.R. Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago
Crown Hall, considered by many to be Mies' most important building, is the centerpiece of his larger campus plan for IIT, which he began developing as soon as he arrived on invitation from the school in 1938. Ultimately some 20 buildings were constructed to his designs between the 1940s and the mid-1970s, though three of the original buildings of the Armour Institute, built between 1891 and 1901, were left intact on the west edge of campus. After Mies was removed as campus architect in 1958, a number of commissions for new structures, including the main library, were given to other firms, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Crown Hall is integrated perfectly into the overall campus scheme not only by the uniformity of style, but by abiding by the exact same modular grid that Mies used for the grounds. Approached by a low staircase at the center of one of the long façades, the building employs thus a classical exterior symmetry, elevated on the basement plinth, that gives it an understated monumentality and points to the centrality of the architecture school, which it houses, within IIT's curriculum.
Crown Hall is especially significant for the way that it demonstrates the ability of industrialized construction to open up interior space. The entire structure is essentially "hung" from a super structure of four flat arches of I-beams that traverse the building from front-to-back. This eliminates the need for any interior load-bearing structures, and to reveal this facet of construction, Mies has left the entire main floor above ground as one massive open studio space. (All of the auxiliary spaces - professors' offices, the library, lecture halls - are located below in the semi-submerged basement.)
The studio space, surrounded on all four sides by a curtain wall of windows, helps to dissolve the boundary between interior and exterior, thereby framing the natural world beyond and keeping it in students' minds constantly while working. Most practically, it always admitted natural light as much as possible inside - but conversely did not make the building particularly energy-efficient. For Mies, the completely open studio design was the ultimate in utility, as the room can thus be configured and subdivided in whatever scheme that is needed for classes and critiques. However, this flexibility often proves difficult in practice, especially troublesome is reducing sound between spaces with temporary dividers.
Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois
Mies' signature postwar residence, the Farnsworth House arguably represents the ultimate in minimalist residential architecture using industrial materials. Yet its design and history are far richer than the finished product initially suggests. The house was designed as a weekend retreat for Edith Farnsworth, a physician who owned nine acres of land along the Fox River 50 miles outside Chicago near Plano.
The skin-and-bones construction is nakedly apparent in the house's I-beams and concrete-slab frame, with a simple box enclosed on all four sides by floor-to-ceiling curtain walls of glass. This strategy nearly completely dissolves the distinction between interior and exterior, thus bringing the inhabitants into constant dialogue with nature - both suspended above it and immersed in it. (To further underscore this immersion, in recent years the house has been flooded numerous times due to damming of the Fox River.) The house's white rectilinearity, perched above the ground and reached by a flight of stairs that requires a 90-degree turn to enter, invites comparison to the spiritual approach to the Athenian Akropolis, which is accented here by the use of travertine stone, a favorite of the ancients for such monuments, for the floor and terrace slabs.
Construction of the house proved more complex than the design reveals, however. While the vertical piers of the house and columnar stilts of the low terrace appear to be simply welded to the horizontal slabs (as Mies wanted), the weight they carry is so heavy that welded joints would be impossible, even with steel. Instead, these junctures are bolted together, then painstakingly ground smooth to appear as if welded, and painted over. Expense overruns, compounded by the rise in material costs due to the Korean War, led to a lawsuit filed by Mies against Farnsworth for unpaid costs, which he famously eventually won, but with significant damage to his public reputation. As a result, he and Farnsworth never spoke again.
For her part, Farnsworth never completely felt comfortable in the house, as Mies designed it to afford virtually no privacy; in effect she was almost completely on display to the natural surroundings without fully drawing the curtains, eventually installing a bronze screen on the porch (which also functioned to combat bugs). The cold materials of construction and spartan Mies-designed furnishings did little to dispel the image of a building devoid of warmth and energy-inefficiency. Nonetheless, Farnsworth owned the house and entertained visitors for 21 years until finally selling it to Lord Peter Palumbo, a renowned architecture enthusiast, who eventually sold it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois, who now operate it jointly as a house museum.
Seagram Building, Manhattan, New York
The Seagram Building constitutes Mies' definitive, realized statement on the form of the skyscraper. Though he had been working with the type since the early 1920s, the Seagram was the first office tower commission that he was able to build, and his first in New York, which in the 1950s was becoming the hub of skyscrapers-as-symbol of American corporate modernism. It also represents the close relationship between Mies and Phyllis Lambert, the architecture enthusiast and daughter of Seagram's then-CEO, who would go on to found the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. (Ironically, Seagram later sold the building and is no longer one of its tenants.) Philip Johnson, then one of Mies' disciples, received the commission to design the Four Seasons Restaurant inside.
Mies' design is somewhat understated. The Seagram's location on Park Avenue, while fashionable, happened to be almost right across the street from the already-built Lever House, designed by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which employed the curtain-wall prismatic tower form that Mies had essentially invented. As he had earlier done with the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago, Mies chose to enclose the fireproof concrete-clad steel frame in a metal casing, and then emphasize each vertical spandrel with an ornamental I-beam rising the entire height of the building and reinforcing the sense of verticality. Significantly, these I-beams and the exterior structure are made of bronze, which gives the structure both a dark tone, almost like a looming monolith.
Meanwhile, bronze, of course, is the popular material used for honorific exterior sculpture, and by setting the skyscraper back from the street behind an open plaza, Mies underlines the sense of the skyscraper-as-sculpture, reifying it as a precious, crystalline geometric form. The Seagram ultimately used a massive 1,500 tons of bronze, making it one of the most expensive skyscrapers ever built at the time.
Finally, Mies' strategy with the plaza represents a new concept of corporate modern identity, wherein the company "gives back" to the general public a useful space within its dedicated building plot that also helps open the street below to more natural light. It was, most practically, Mies' way of satisfying New York's 1916 zoning law that insisted that skyscrapers be set back from the street plane once they reached a certain height in order to allow sunlight to filter down. The continued employment of the open plaza concept with other skyscrapers in New York over the rest of the 1950s prompted a change in the law in 1961, wherein it became the city's officially-encouraged model for skyscraper design.