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“This authoritative biography of Mies van der Rohe has been updated through building records, the recollections of students and a court transcript. It's a gripping read, even if you're not a fan.”
“[A] distinguished and eloquent biography.”
“A herculean, generally successful effort to present Mies’s work in terms of both character and context. . . .This book has obviously been a long labor of love and respect for which no source has been left untouched.”
“The most comprehensive book ever written about the master designer and, by any measure, the best. . . . Because no writer has ever before probed into Mies’s life at such depth, we have here the first definitive reconstruction of the architect’s personal habits, loves, fears, triumphs, loneliness and (in his old age) agonies.”
Youth in Imperial Germany: 1886–1905
We made drawings the size of a whole quarter of a room ceiling, which we would then send on to the model makers. I did this every day for two years. Even now I can draw cartouches with my eyes closed.MIES, recalling his on-the-job education
Go to Berlin; that's where things are happening.ARCHITECT DÜLOW, advising his friend Ludwig Mies
Nothing about Mies's early life prefigures significant professional achievement. Aachen, Germany, where he was born and grew up, was and had been a provincial city for centuries. Until adulthood he never traveled more than a few miles beyond its borders. His forebears, stonemasons for generations, were proud of their calling, but only as ambitious as the trade required. His formal education was comparably limited. Any native intellectual or creative gift, even if evident, was unlikely to have been nurtured by those around him. Thus, he remained in Aachen until he was nineteen, living with his parents and following a predetermined path of long standing.
Though in reputation Aachen then ranked below a dozen other German cities, it looked back on an impressive history. Late in the eighth century, Charlemagne made it the center of his empire, the first great unified state in northern Europe, a domain that extended from the Pyrenees to Saxony and from the North Sea to Rome. Scholars of the Carolingian court generated the earliest major revival of the classical spirit in the West. Charlemagne's personal identification with the emperors of Rome, together with his passionate admiration of Roman culture—and the fateful alliance he forged with the pope—contributed seminally to the shape of the Middle Ages and the emergence of the Renaissance.
Aachen was the site of Charlemagne's long-vanished palace, which stood across a courtyard from the splendid ninth-century domed chapel that survives (fig. 1.1). Designed by Odo of Metz after the example of the Byzantine Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, it was the most sophisticated northern European building of its time, and served as the coronation hall for German kings for six hundred years. Mies knew the chapel as a boy and remembered it as a man. He had stood in awe of the powerful piers and the octagonal dome they support: "One could apprehend everything that went on. The whole space was a unity, everywhere alive with the sights and sounds of the ceremony, even the smells of it." Late in life he recalled accompanying his mother to morning Mass, where he sat in rapt silence, transfixed by the mighty stones that make up the piers and arches.
The cathedral proper, of which the chapel is a part, consists of a fifteenth-century Gothic choir surrounded by a veritable wall of glass surmounted by spidery vaults. It stands in the oldest part of town, a maze of narrow streets and medieval houses mostly of brick, intimately related to the building traditions of Holland and Belgium, the borders of which lie within walking distance of Aachen's city limits. Mies described these anonymous buildings with embracing affection: "Mostly simple, but very clear.... [They] did not belong to any epoch.... [They] had been there for a thousand years and were still impressive.... All the great styles passed, but they remained.... They were really built." This is mature Miesian sentiment as we know it from published pronouncements: affirmation of clarity and simplicity in the design and construction of buildings, especially as apparent over the reach of time, balanced by the negation of individuality and "style."
Yet there was much of "style" and clamorous change in the Aachen of Mies's youth, especially in parts he would have known better than the chapel and its environs. He was born March 27, 1886, in a house at Steinkaulstrasse 29 (fig. 1.2). His family moved several times during his childhood, but remained in the same neighborhood until he was fifteen; it is therefore likely that in the 1890s he witnessed the rebuilding of the Oppenhoffallee, a kilometer to the south. The Oppenhoffallee was and remains an elegant boulevard lined by buildings characteristic of Wilhelmine architectural decoration at its most unbridled. At the time of Mies's birth, less than a generation after unification and victory over the French in 1870, Germany had taken on a new national identity bound up with military power. National pride and confidence swelled during the eighties and nineties, and along with it ambition, abetted by the explosively swift pace of German industrialization.
Aachen fully bore out the image. In 1825 its population was 35,428. By 1886, at Mies's birth, it passed 100,000, and by 1905, when he left for good, it was 145,000. While Aachen continued to enjoy the tourist trade that had been drawn to its hot sulfur springs since Roman times (Aachen means "water" in Old German), it now witnessed a flash growth of industry. Traditionally a textile center, in the years following German unification it exploited the extensive nearby coalfields. By the 1890s, the largest and best-equipped steelworks in Germany, Aachen's Rothe Erde, employed five thousand workers.
This furious activity was reflected in institutional proliferation. The Technical Institute (Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule) was founded in 1870, eventually gaining a reputation as the most distinguished traditionally oriented architecture school in northwestern Germany. (Mies might have studied there had his family been inclined and able to send him.) A main post office was completed in 1893, in neo-Romanesque style, with a portal flanked by larger-than-life statues of Kaiser Wilhelm I and Charlemagne. Twelve years later, the new train station opened, its Jugendstil—the German equivalent of art nouveau—reflecting the latest in turn-of-the-century fashion. The municipal trolley system was electrified in 1892, and motion pictures were shown at the Kurhaus as early as 1896. The fourteenth-century Town Hall, a huge edifice built on the foundations of Charlemagne's palace and badly damaged by fire in 1883, was redesigned three years later and rebuilt by 1903, its two towers inflated to the grandiose scale beloved of the period (fig. 1.3).
* * *
Most of the little we know of Mies's family background is gleaned from records in the Aachen Stadtarchiv. As far back as can be traced—the late eighteenth century—his family on both sides were Catholics of German stock who lived close to the Dreiländereck, the "three-country corner" where Holland, Belgium, Germany, and their respective cultures meet. His father, Michael Mies, was the first of either line born in Aachen proper, in 1851. Michael's father, Jakob, born in Blankenheim in the Eifel in 1814, first appears in the 1855 Aachen address book as a marble carver. Amalie Rohe, Mies's mother, was born in Monschau, a picturesque suburb of Aachen, in 1843. She was eight years older than Michael Mies, and thirty-three when they married in 1876 (fig. 1.4).
During the 1870s, Jakob Mies shared a "marble business and atelier" with his son Carl, Michael's older brother, at Adalbertstrasse 116. Michael, who joined the business later, is listed in the 1875 address book as a marble worker. His name does not appear again until the edition of 1880, and by then his marriage to Amalie had produced a male child, Ewald Philipp, born October 13, 1877, first son, heir and Stammhalter (preserver of the line), a familial designation of considerable importance in nineteenth-century Germany.
Michael and Amalie now lived at Steinkaulstrasse 29, where their other four children were born: Carl Michael, second oldest, born May 18, 1879 (died aged two, the cause unrecorded); Anna Maria Elisabeth, born September 16, 1881; Maria Johanna Sophie, born December 30, 1883; and the youngest, Maria Ludwig Michael, who would become Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the early 1920s, when by his own lights he linked his father's and mother's surnames with the invented "van der."
The Steinkaulstrasse is outside and east of the limits of Aachen's ancient second wall (today replaced by streets), not far from the Adalbertsteinweg (a continuation of the Adalbertstrasse), where Michael, listed as a master mason by 1883, and Carl, identified as a sculptor, took over the family business after their father's death about 1888. This was the fastest-growing part of Aachen in the 1880s and 1890s. Rents were still low, and it was close to the city's cemeteries, an important factor for a business specializing in gravestones.
Within the Mies enterprise, Michael ran the studio and Carl handled sales. There were frequent trips to Paris and occasionally even as far as North African quarries. By 1893 two new cemeteries had opened on the west side of Aachen, prompting Michael to establish a branch there in 1895. By 1901 he and his eldest, the twenty-four-year-old Ewald, now also a master mason, had moved family and studio to the Vaalserstrasse, the road to the Netherlands.
Ludwig was then fifteen. His family was middle-class—more exactly craftsman/middleclass—in the preindustrial sense of the term; Michael Mies's children were at home with objects and craft rather than ideas and commerce. Uncle Carl was the salesman during the heady 1880s, but father Michael was always happiest with the tools of his trade.
* * *
The chief source of what we know of early experiences pertinent to Mies's professional destiny is a 1968 conversation with his grandson, the architect Dirk Lohan:
Lohan: When you were very young, were you obliged to help in the family atelier?
Mies: I did it for the fun of it. And always when we had vacations. I especially remember that on All Souls Day, when so many people wanted new monuments for the graves, our whole family pitched in. I did the lettering on the stones, my brother did the carving, and my sisters put the finishing touches on them, the gold leaf, and all that. I don't think we added very much to the process, but it probably was a little better for it.
Mies described his father as a craftsman reluctant to act the businessman, who collided unavoidably with changing times and values: "About the economics of capitalist speculation he understood nothing. 'To make this thing,' he would say to a customer, 'I need three weeks. And it will cost so-and-so much, to be paid when I deliver it.' That was the craftsman's way, not the merchant's. There was no room in it for flexibility, for consideration of long-term profits as opposed to short-term gains, that could carry the business over hard times." On Mies's visits home after he moved to Berlin, he listened to Ewald debate their father. "My brother would say, 'Look, we can produce such-and-such an ornament without all that fuss, especially if it is way up high on a building façade where no one can look closely at it.' My father wanted no part of that. 'You're none of you stonemasons anymore!' he would say. 'You know the finial at the top of the spire of the cathedral at Cologne? Well, you can't crawl up there and get a good look at it, but it is carved as if you could. It was made for God.'"
Despite Michael's reverence for tradition, he could not afford to live in the past; Germany's industrial revolution and the kaiser's new empire saw to that. Since the passing of the guild system, training in the crafts had moved to schools, where a dash of theory had been added to the rule of thumb. Ludwig, aged ten, was sent off from the elementary to the cathedral school, which he attended from 1896 to 1899. We surmise that he was a promising student, since the cathedral school enjoyed a substantial reputation throughout the Rhineland. Yet late in life he told an interviewer that he was "not very good," implying that his abilities were more practical than intellectual. At thirteen he might have been finished with schooling altogether, but his father sent him on—as he had Ewald—for two years at the Spenrathschule, the trade school, having secured a full-tuition scholarship for each, thereby indicating his faith in their schooling to the limits of the family's ambition and circumstances.
"The trade school," Mies recollected, "was not the same as a crafts school. It offered the kind of two-year course that would enable a graduate to get a job in an office or a workshop. Great stress was laid on drawing, because it was something everybody had to know. You understand, the curriculum was no theoretically contrived program. It was based on experience, on the sort of thing tradesmen really had to use." He added that Aachen had other technical schools "of a higher level," with four-year programs, like the machine construction and building construction schools. He also mentioned the Hochschule, which offered a theoretical curriculum. Yet his heart belonged to those practically trained: "They were flawless in their work habits. I would rather have dealt with them than with anyone from the Hochschule. They could draw expertly—a roof frame for example, that was perfect in detail. What you needed on a job, that is what they learned to do, masterfully."
Mies was eighty-two when these words were recorded, and had long since rationalized his training. That he never matriculated at the Aachen Hochschule may in part explain his sympathy with architectural education grounded in the facts of building. If he had little formal learning, he earned his calluses, and he deeply valued his experience at job sites and in shops following trade school. Signing on at fifteen, he worked for a year as an apprentice at local building sites and then, for four years, as a draftsman in several Aachen ateliers. He recalled the way houses were put up in his youth:
Someone dug the foundation and laid the mortar bed, slaked the lime and let it run down there. Then came the bricks. That's where we started. We didn't have concrete, at least not for these house foundations, which were made of brick, first laid dry, with no binder, then covered with mortar. We had to make our own mortar and carry it on shoulder boards shaped like half-cylinders. We loaded bricks and stones in them too, using one hand to hold the board pole steady, the other to help ourselves up the ladder. Whoever could carry the most was cock of the walk.
Once you were there, on the wall, it was good. You learned to work slowly, not like some wild animal that gets tired after fifteen minutes, but quietly, for hours and hours. If you were really experienced, you learned how to do corners, which was very complicated. Mostly we laid the bricks in cross bond, and now and then we'd make mistakes. The foreman would often just let us make them and carry on. Then we'd get a wall up a way and he would say, "O.K., that's wrong. Take the whole thing down." Finally, when we were finished, the carpenters would show up and we were shifted to the vital assignment of getting the water for the workmen's coffee.
We had little pots, and we could buy boiling water for them for two Pfennige. We'd put powdered coffee into the pot, pour the water over it and deliver it to the workers. We could also get sausage for five Pfennige. Or cheese. Cheese was the staple. Bread you brought from home. The Schnaps came later. At the end of the week, when people got paid, that's when you got your Schnaps, lots of it, five Pfennige a shot.
At this point in his narrative Mies was not sixteen, and had yet to collect a day's pay. It was time to end the boy's schooling, at least as supported by the family. So Ludwig asked the supervisor of the apartment house project where he was working if he could be put on wages.
Of course the boss said no. He had had me for a year for nothing: why should he give me money now?
As it happened, I had a friend, a school chum, who knew of someone in town who needed a draftsman. I could draw. I had learned it at school. And I was good at lettering, with all that work on the tombstones behind me. So I applied to be a draftsman in a stucco factory run by a man named Max Fischer.
I got the job, though they put me in the office, not the atelier, and I had to keep the books and lick the postage stamps and get on a bicycle to take the wages to the workers at the construction sites. This I did for at least half a year.
Excerpted from Mies van der Rohe by Franz Schulze, Edward Windhorst. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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List of Illustrations
1. Youth in Imperial Germany: 1886–1905
2. Apprenticeship, Marriage, and World War: 1905–18
3. Europe out of the Ashes: 1918–26
4. Weimar at High Tide: 1926–30
5. Political Crises and the End of the Bauhaus: 1930–36
6. America Beckons: 1936–38
7. Architect and Educator: 1938–49
8. A New Architectural Language: 1946–53
9. The 1940s
10. The Farnsworth Saga: 1946–55
11. American Apogee: Residential Work 1950–59
12. American Apogee: Commercial and Institutional Work 1950–59
13. Worldwide Practice: The 1960s
14. Was Less Less? 1959–69
15. Recessional: 1962–69
Appendix A: Protégés
Appendix B: Mies’s Career, in Publications and Exhibitions