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MIES VAN DER ROHE

`I had no conventional architectural education. I worked under a few good architects;  I read a few good books…and that's about it'

The German born architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) was perhaps the most influential architect of the mid-20th century and of central importance to the development of the Modern Movement. He had no formal architectural training but, following a period as a draughtsman for a manufacturer of decorative stucco, he was employed by Bruno Paul, the Berlin architect and furniture designer, and subsequently by Peter Behrens. Mies opened his own office in Berlin in 1912.

Mies was director of the Bauhaus,  the major centre of 20th century architectural Modernism, from 1930 until 1933. After leaving the Bauhaus, Mies worked mainly on conceptual projects until he moved to the United States in 1937, where, as Director of the School of Architecture for two decades at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, his career gathered momentum and the Institute became world renowned for the innovative teaching methods which he introduced. In the USA he found significant opportunities to realise and develop his architectural style in a number of large scale commissioned projects, and his many and varied buildings had an immense influence on architectural design on a worldwide basis.

DESIGN PRINCIPLES

`Reinforced concrete structures are skeletons by nature. Columns and girders eliminate bearing walls. This is skin and bone construction'

Mies resolved building programmes with two typical generic solutions, which exemplify his design principles:

The Single Storey Clear Span Pavilion.

These buildings are characterised by a cubic simplicity, unobstructed clear span envelopes providing flexible space which easily adapts to diversified demands and changing requirements, and a  precision of detail within which every section makes its own clear statement. These are qualities, which pervade all of Mies's  designs. The following three examples are representative of the restraint, austerity and quality of Mies's work in this form of building.

The German Pavilion for the International Exposition at Barcelona in 1929 was possibly Mies's most important executed project of the inter-war period. He created a long, low glass-walled building in which the interior was a sequence of free-flowing open-plan spaces defined by minimal walls of green marble on a travertine platform, partly under a thin roof, and partly outdoors, supported by chrome-plated steel structural columns.

The Tugendhat House at Brno, Czechoslovakia of 1930 was an influential design, which adopted and pioneered the open-plan principles and spatial conception of the Barcelona Pavilion for domestic use. The house takes the form of a rectangular envelope in which screen walls provided non-loadbearing and often moveable partitions. The exterior demonstrates a simple geometry of structure with large cantilevers and floor-to-ceiling windows.

In the Farnsworth House at Plano, Illinois of 1950,  Mies designed  a glass walled small country pavilion, which is considered to be the best example of his residential architecture. The building floats over its site on the eight columns, which support the roof and floor. A central core provides the bathroom; otherwise the plan is open and lightly screened into areas for sleeping and living.

The Skeleton Frame Cellular High Rise Block.

Mies's philosophy of architecture, which was to foreshadow the entire range of his work and dominate his later designs, was exemplified in his revolutionary theoretical projects of 1919-1921 for sleek, slender, vertical, and completely modern glass skyscrapers in Berlin. They were to be `new forms from the very nature of new problems'. The Friedrichstrasse building was one of the first proposals for an all steel and glass building and established the Miesian principle of `skin and bones construction'. The `Glass Skyscraper' applied this idea to a building whose transparent façade reveals the building's underlying steel structure. Both of these building designs were uncompromising in their simplicity. Few unbuilt buildings surpassed them in the variety of ideas and in their influence on the development of the architecture of the time.
The ideas underlying these glass skyscraper projects reached their first practical realisation in the Lake Shore Drive Apartments, in Chicago. Constructed between 1948 and 1951, these twin 26-storey apartment towers represent a dramatic advance in his architectural designs.   Their significance is in the pioneering use of glass curtain walling and they are forerunners to a number of similar tower blocks

The Seagram Building, Park Avenue, New York (1956-9) was the paradigm of the Miesian skyscraper, and one of the most influential buildings of the century. An elegant 37-storey bronze-and-glasss rectangular shaft standing on two-storey stilts. The walls are a homogeneous mesh of custom-made bronze I-beam mullions arranged in unbroken runs, matching spandrels in a copper alloy, and dark, amber glass. It represents the ultimate realisation of Mies's earlier conceptual projects and was the first of a new breed of skyscraper to stand alone on its site. Most high-rise offices of the time stepped back as they rose to respect daylight requirements. By isolating the tower in the centre of its own granite-paved plaza, the architects were able to achieve an uncluttered tower of great elegance. It is considered to be the last word in such buildings, in the sense that it makes it difficult to see how the concept could be developed any further.

The latter two buildings clearly show Mies's building method, which was based on a modular skeleton frame of steel beams with a glass curtain-wall or other infill. Because building codes required the fireproofing of structural steel, he sheathed the frame in concrete and steel. Non-structural I-beams were then welded to the outside edge of structural piers or made to serve as window mullions on the exterior giving a bold vertical rhythm and acting as an organising veneer.  The I-beam, as a symbol of order and technological progress, was as basic to the `steel and glass' classicism of Miesian architecture in the articulation of wall surfaces as the pilaster was to Renaissance design. Mies's skyscraper designs were revolutionary in that they stripped the form, in which the steel skeleton had previously been sheathed in masonry or terracota, freeing the windows from their heavy confinement and stretching the glass in front of the structural columns.

Mies set out to produce a refined architecture of reduction. His buildings demonstrate an elegance, which follows from a complete reliance on subtlety of proportionate relationships, concern for detail and precision of finish in which the structural elements are honestly expressed and the role of each constituent can be clearly seen.  They are masterpieces of precise engineering, but with a vitality that arises from the combination of timeless general principles with completely contemporary ideas of structure and planning.  

INFLUENCE

`Since I always apply the same principles. For me novelty has no interest, none whatsoever… I don't want to be interesting, I want to be good.'

Mies's work is original, finely proportioned and elegant. His maxim that "less is more" became the essence of mid-20th-century architecture. He acquired an enthusiastic following and attracted a great number of disciples, notably Philip Johnson. However, his indirect influence in formulating a contemporary and universally applicable architectural style was perhaps of even greater importance.

The United States in the 1950s had a faith in material and technical progress and the American building industry took up the principles of his highly rationalised building methods enthusiastically. The general appeal was the look of cleanliness, efficiency and standardisation in a well-serviced, well-packaged, functional form. It was particularly in the realm of private enterprise that Mies and his brand of Modernism left its mark on America and changed the look of its cities - what William Curtis described as the `heraldry of big-business America'.

Miesian influenced steel-and-glass buildings, which echo his design concepts, appeared  in copied or adapted forms throughout the world. His skyscrapers were replicated in countless glazed towers with plazas below, most successfully by the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which proved to be his most competent heir. His low pavilion form led to countless school buildings and shopping centres and spread itself out, in brick filled concrete or glass filled metal, for industrial complexes and commercial facilities of all kinds.

The `chillingly predictive quality `(Pawley) of his work is exemplified in his design concept of 1922 for a banded concrete and glass office building. The property development boom of the 1950s and 60s saw thousands of buildings virtually identical to this one erected in almost all major towns and cities.

These Miesian clones generally failed to grasp the delicacy of his style, his feeling for  proportion that guaranteed his mastery over form. The integrity of the Miesian tradition was for the most part diluted in its copies. Whereas Mies's consistent intention was to subtract and distill until he reached an architecture that was `almost nothing' and then to perfect the essence, his imitators strained for variety. In less talented hands, therefore, his sophisticated detailing and massing resulted in  the `glass box' commercial architecture of the 60s and 70s, which contributed to the reaction against Modernism. His work eventually came under criticism in the 1970s for rigidity, coldness and anonymity, but it was Mies's declared choice to accept the nature of the 20th-century industrial society and express it in his architecture. Mies's relevance today lies in the emphasis he placed on structure, the outstanding quality of his work and the refined use he made of industrial methods of construction.


REFERENCES

Mies van der Rohe, A. James Speyer (Art Institute of Chicago, 1968).

Mies van der Rohe, David Spaeth (Architectural Press, 1985)

Mies van der Rohe at Work, Peter Carter (Pall Mall Press, 1974)

Mies van der Rohe, Martin Pawley (Thames and Hudson, 1970)


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