Mies in Americaby Phyllis Lambert, Phyllis Lambert, Whitney Museum of American Art, Werner Oechslin
This major study of one of the 20th century's greatest architects reevaluates the entire body of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's work in America. Based on considerable new research and bringing to light previously unstudied materialdrawings and collages, photographs, project documents, and oral historiesMies in America presents fresh, original, and corrective interpretations of the architect's achievements. The book includes nine essays that together offer a portrait of Mies's evolution as an artist. Packed with more than 550 illustrations, the book looks beyond Mies's most famous architectural triumphs, from the IIT campus in Chicago to the Seagram Building in New York, to probe the relationship between a seminal body of work and its cultural context.
Author Bio: Phyllis Lambert, an architect, is founding director and chair of the board of trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Werner Oechslin is a professor at the Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur in Zurich. Detlef Mertins is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. Peter Eisenman is an internationally acclaimed architect. Rem Koolhaas is the winner of the 2000 Pritzker Architecture Prize. K. Michael Hays is adjunct curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a professor at Harvard University.
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"The task was a quite unusual one for today: a building without function, or at least without apparent, tangible, or obvious function a building dedicated to representation, an empty space, and for this very reason Space-In-Itself, architecture as a free art, the expression of a spiritual commitment. That this commission has found its way into the hands of Mies van der Rohe, and that Germany is represented by a building of modern architecture, is to be welcomed." With these words, Justus Bier began his review of Mies's Barcelona Pavilion, which appeared in August 1929 in the Deutsche Werkbund journal Die Form. "Building without function," "Architecture as a free art." These are surprising expressions indeed for 1929, a time when everything still seemed subject to the unconditional demand for justification and legitimation. In fact, in 1927, in the foreword to Bau und Wohnung (Building and Dwelling), the volume that accompanied the Weissenhof exhibition in Stuttgart, Mies van der Rohe himself had emphasized the "artistic" (baukünstlerisch) nature of the architect's task, "in spite of its technical and economic aspects." Similarly, in the same concise text Mies appealed to the "creative powers," setting these in opposition to "calculative and organizational methods. To give "each individual ... the greatest possible freedom in carrying out his ideas" was Mies's declared objective at the time. This, coming scarcely ten years after the De Stijl manifesto with its declaration of war on the "predominance of the individual," in the wake of contemporary slogans about "objectivity" and "international standing," and in light of a renewed commitment to the objectives of industry, was anything but self-evident. And on top of everything else, Bier had now articulated the notion of a building "serving the purposes of representation." A phoenix rising from the ashes! Architecture reinstated to all of its traditional functions, including that of representation. Architecture had, or so it would seem, overcome its constraints, for example, that of being "merely" Industriearchitektur, and was poised to take full possession of its traditional cultural duties and privileges. In Bier's words, it was to be welcomed that the Barcelona "commission ha[d] found its way into the hands of Mies van der Rohe," and that Germany would be "represented by a building of modern architecture." Mies, Bier continued, possessed the "inner aptitude," "to say something of significance with dignity." Mies was both a "pioneer" and "an artist endowed with a noble and humane feeling of life."
Representing this inauguration of modern architecture"a pure tone," "a beginning that ... at the same time takes up a kindred tradition"was in this case neither a program nor a manifesto, but the person of Mies van der Rohe, "humane" and possessing an "inner aptitude." The Barcelona Pavilion of 1929 marked the attainment of modern architecture's mature style. Precisely when that style established itself on a broad scale is more open to interpretation. Already in 1927 at the time of the Weissenhof exhibition, Walter Curt Behrendt had proclaimed Der Sieg des neuen Baustils (The Victory of the Modern Building Style). Through long sections of his book the argument remains defensive, however, and Behrendt is at pains to distinguish this new style as a coherent phenomenon. Thus, he wrote, the new style is not a matter of "any new Ism," nor has it anything to do with the Chicago Tribune Tower, "a truly trivial imitation of some Gothic church steeple." And yet in 1932, in The International Style: Architecture since 1922, Modernism as a style would be considered "as original, as consistent, as logical, and as widely disseminated as any in the past." "Today a single new style has come into existence," Alfred Barr writes. The eclectic stylistic debate of the nineteenth century, he asserted, has finally been overcome, and it was now possible "to emulate the great styles of the past in their essence without imitating their surface." With this, the high level and standard set by the Classical concept of imitation was attained, something that had always been the precondition of any deep penetration into the essence of art, and which thus stood from the very start, or so it would at first appear, in opposition to any kind of formalism.
According to Justus Bier, the Barcelona Pavilion not only fulfilled all the external conditions leading to that "pure tone" (which one might also read as "pure style"): it was in a very special way the achievement of a "humane" architect gifted with that above-mentioned "inner aptitude," Mies van der Rohe. The Barcelona Pavilion has entered the literature as the inaugural moment of the modern architectural style, its mature result, and much more. As Arthur Drexler put it: "It is the grammar of a complete style, an ordering principle capable of generating other works of art." With this he asserted nothing more or less than that the Barcelona Pavilion was as stylistically formative as was Bramante's Tempietto for the Italian Renaissance, Borromini's San Carlino for the Baroque, or Jacques-Ange Gabriel's Petit Trianon for French Classicism. Werner Blaser continued this apotheosis of the Barcelona Pavilion when he compared Mies's constructive creation with the invention of the Doric column, concluding: "With him a new age of architecture begins."
Of even greater significance than this testimony to the style's newly achieved consummation is its description in the absolute terms of "truth and order" and "purposive beauty" an approach already taken by Blaser, who refers to Thomas Aquinas and his concept of adaequatio rei et intellectus as though the Werkbund had not also argued in terms of the "complete pervasion by the spirit," or Le Corbusier, his "architecture pure création de l'esprit." Clearly, the achievement of Mies, who defended himself systematically against claims that his work derived from current notions and requirements, seemed to be describable only in terms of universal categories lying outside the contemporary context.
Mies's "inner aptitude," his "humane" character, made it apparent that it would be more difficult to understand him than it would be to understand the "other" founding fathers of Modernism. While the authors of The International Style could state in 1932 that "Gropius made his innovations primarily in technics," and "Oud in design," a comparable judgment with regard to Mies, even given such blatant readiness to generalize, was hardly possible. Even Alfred Barr, in describing Mies's work, chose terms that at first sight seemed to lie outside of architecture in the strict sense, and thus conveyed no restrictive characterization. Comparing Mies to Le Corbusier, Gropius, and J. J. P. Oud, he simply referred to Mies as "the most luxurious and elegant."
In 1913, in an early prediction of the future shape of modern architecture, Gropius had already taken into account "the demand for beauty of the outer form," and, basing his comments on the "machine, the vehicle, and the factory building," in addition to "formal unity" and color, he spoke of the "elegance of the overall impression." In the spirit of the Werkbund, Gropius was concerned at the time to imbue "products" and "the object that is universally perfect in its technology" "with an intellectual [geistig] idea, with form." "Technical and economic perfection" were seen as "previous requirements." Beauty was to be tacked on to these in a supplementary way. This argument not only fails to attain, but even fails to make an effort to attain that liberation of architecture from the context of technology and economy which Mies hinted at in 1927, with his "in spite of its technical and economic side." On the contrary, Gropius intended to use this much sought-after context as the springboard to a new form. Such a juxtaposition of ideas can be seen even more clearly at this time in the writings of Hermann Muthesius, where the argument was directed with increasing frequency toward establishing an equation between the architect and the engineer, and strove (long before similar assertions by Hitchcock and Johnson) to articulate the "ideal of the High Gothic" in the sense of an aesthetically satisfying application of iron and glass. The "aesthetic effect of the works of the engineer" is the predominant theme here. The work of the engineer and the architect are equated insofar as both are founded on a "program of utility" as the "starting point of form," to which is added (as a corrective!) "the controlling influence of the sense of beauty." Gropius and Muthesius were in agreement at this point in demanding that the aspect of beauty play a role from the very beginning. Nonetheless, entirely in keeping with the Werkbund program, it seems to be above all a question of "ennobling," of a "controlling influence," of the attempt "to make the unharmonious harmonious, to remove the disturbing element, to add what is lacking."
This is clearly the starting point for future discussion. In 1913 the theme is still identified as "Zusammenhang des baukünstlerischen Schaffens mit der Technik" (the connection between architectural creation and technology) in a lecture by Peter Behrens. This argument was above all guided by the view that the architect, in his search for aesthetic content, had until then directed his attention to the "wealth of forms of past centuries." The remaining alternative was therefore to derive form from the nature of the new materials and from modern construction and technology. More particularly, Behrens criticized the juxtaposition of technology and art, and consistently demanded that this "dualism" be overcome. This would of necessity bring about "unity," and for Behrens it is precisely the "unified formal expression" of "the collective manifestations of spirit of a given epoch" that constituted "style." In getting to this point, however, we find in the "constructive element" merely "a characteristic capable of influencing form." Thus, Behrens seems satisfied to note that the works of the engineer "are not lacking in a certain beauty." One comes to terms with this limitation. On the other hand, even at this time in Behrens's writing one encounters the objection (directed at Semper) that artistic form is not derived from function or technology. Following Behrens's thinking, art comes into being solely as the result of the "intuition of strong individuals." What is all the more astonishing is that Behrens invokes Alois Riegl precisely on this point to counter "the mechanistic conception of Semper," only to demand (yet again) a relation of dependency, according to the dictates of the artwork's teleological nature: the work of art is "the result of a special Kunstwollen (artistic will) that is conscious of function."
The concept of Kunstwollen blurs the question of cause, and is fundamentally as incompatible with the notion of "strong individuals" as were later demands for objectivity and the overcoming of the personal will. Instead of going into more precise analysis, Behrens speaks metaphorically of processes. The Semperian elements of function, material, and technology, he asserts, do not play a "creative positive" role, "but rather a restrictive negative" one. He immediately corrects himself again, however, and while not ascribing to technology the significance of a "creative factor," in an extremely tortuous circumlocution containing two corrections, he concedes it a role "as part of a great complex of powers," as "only one determining" factor, though "as such, of great importance."
What now? Behrens's argument is imbued with history to a far greater extent than a cursory review might suggest. He makes a comparison with what existed in Goethe's day, even considering the consequences of technology, and now and then pauses in his discussion of the relation of technology and architecture to formulate the most generalized definitions of architecture: "Architecture is the forming of bodies." From this, Behrens concludes that a (technology legitimizing) reference to the "Gothic principle" is obsolete. Dissolution and the breaking up of space are only a "relative result." After all, it was precisely in the Bauhütte of the Gothic period that, "more than in any other age, the laws of artistic spatial design based on the geometric system were applied."
In the ensuing discussion, Behrens's biographer Fritz Höber criticized the one-sided alternative, "Semper or Riegl," invoking evidence for the naturalness of a unity of matter and form (returning to ancient hylomorphism), which in practice would then be viewed, according to one's preference, with either a realist or an idealist emphasis. Höber conceives of a "union of both positions." Then he too proceeds to serve up, on the basis of Broder Christiansen's Philosophie der Kunst and his concept of "mood-impressions," a series of characterizations of historical architectural styles. Classifications such as Gothic construction and Baroque massiveness (following Wölfflin) stand side by side with the observation that "only among the Classical styles" do formal impressions command the greatest importance.
What clearly emerges from these observations is the fact that the arguments of the time were influenced not only by the so-called challenge of technology and new building materials, but in almost equal measure by the discussion of their causal entanglement, in comparison with earlier periods and above all "styles." Those who sought to break free from this dependency basically had to cast everything aside: this referred only incidentally to all of the historical styles, since by around 1910, and by 1918 at the latest, these were considered long outmoded in any case. What came to be of greater importance was overcoming the newly constructed dependencies on technology and economy (in accordance with the goals of the Werkbund), and in conjunction with these, fundamental dependencies on a new formal determinism. This was the real basis for Mies to enter the discussion.
From around 1910, Mies followed the discussion from close range. His aversion to categorizations of any kind can be properly understood only with reference to this background, which had to be overcome. This is made all the more evident when we realize that it was precisely the work of Behrens that addressed, in one way or another, all those elements that Mies himself in his laconic manner and freed of all distractions and arguments to the contrary would take up and translate into pure form. The emphasis, however, had now shifted. While in 1913 Behrens had spoken of the "connection between architectural creation and technology," in 1927 Mies regarded it as "not completely pointless" to stress that the problem of the modern dwelling is "a problem of the building art, in spite of its technical and economic aspects." That even the Gothic style was not reducible to a constructive problem, but that here too geometric laws constituted the underlying basis was a lesson that Mies, with his early Classicist predilections, had learned, not only from Behrens but also from H. P. Berlage.
Right from the beginning, Mies seems to have given precedence to such universal considerations. One finds, independently of external causal contexts, fundamental discussion of the questions of derivation and determinism. In Behrens's Classicism, which to some extent influenced Mies's own early ventures into architecture, as well as in Berlage's, these considerations of principle, aside from all concrete contemporary questions of dependence and derivation, remain constant. Geometry and the question of determinism! For example, in his 1908 Zurich lectures entitled "Grundlagen und Entwicklung der Architektur (Foundations and Development of Architecture)," Berlage delimited this problem from both directions: "From the moment that architecture entered the sphere of so-called free art, it was all over." According to Berlage, however, architecture should not merely be subject to laws, but rather should "aspire to an even higher expression."
It is approximately here that Mies seems to be situated in relation to the notion of Baukunst. Later, in a groundbreaking 1951 essay, "Geometrie und Organik," Hugo Häring wrote that Mies's work served "the cult of royal geometry," adding, however, that "it lies outside its rational aspects." This latter point he explained by pointing out that Mies does not create "genuine living spaces," "although one can also live in them," and it is in this fact that he discerns the "bridge to the representational buildings." In this way, Häring's argument, like Justus Bier's before it, establishes the Barcelona Pavilion as a project "which makes visible the theme of his [Mies's] work."
Excerpted from Mies in America by . Copyright © 2001 by Canadian Centre for Architecture and Whitney Museum of American Art. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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