German architect, furniture designer and teacher, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a leading figure in the development of modern architecture. He was born Ludwig Mies but later adopted his mother’s name, van der Rohe. The son of a master stone mason, Mies van der Rohe had no formal architectural education. He attended the Domschule in Aachen until 1900 and then the local trade school until 1902 while working on building sites for his father, from whom he acquired a respect for the nature of building materials. The town’s many fine medieval buildings stimulated his interest in architecture, and their characteristically clear and honest construction exerted a lasting influence upon his creative work. In 1905 he left for Berlin where, wishing to improve his knowledge of construction in wood, he became an apprentice to Bruno Paul. He received an independent commission to build a house for Dr Riehl, a philosopher, who first sent him for three months to Italy, where he visited Vicenza, Florence and Rome.
The Riehl House was completed in 1907, and brought him to the attention of Peter Behrens, in whose office he then worked form 1908 to 1912, and towards the end of his time there he supervised Behrens’s robust neo-classical German Embassy in St Petersburg in 1911–12 (Joedicke, 1959).In 1912 Mies van der Rohe established his own office in Berlin. During his visit to the Netherlands he saw the work of H.
P. Berlage with its clarity of structure and honest use of materials. He built three houses in the Berlin area before World War I began and from 1915 to 1918 served in the Engineers Corps of the German Army.
After the war he directed the architectural division of the Novembergruppe, helped to finance and wrote for the magazine G (Gestaltung) and prepared a remarkable series of projects in which he explored the architectural possibilities of the new building materials. Studies for glass skyscrapers, in which multi-faceted glass skins enclosed open skeletal structures, were followed by an equally prophetic seven-storey concrete office building, designed in 1922, in which the cantilevered structure is the dominant exterior element, with the windows recessed in continuous horizontal bands. In 1927, as First Vice President of the Deutscher werkbund, Mies van der Rohe directed one of the most successful of the inter-World War initiatives, the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition in Stuttgart. He invited the foremost European architects to participate, among them Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Behrens, Max Taut and Bruno Taut. (Betts, 2004, p. 26)It was not until 1929 that the ideas of the earlier experimental period were finally realized in one of the most important buildings of the Modern Movement, the German (or Barcelona) Pavilion, which was destroyed and in 1986 reconstructed again (see fig.1 and 2).
Here Mies van der Rohe used the open plan as an architectural analogy of the social and political openness to which the new German republic aspired (Schulze, 1989). Space-defining elements were dissociated from the structural columns, planning was free and open, merging interior and exterior spaces: unbroken podium and roof planes were held apart by a regular grid of slender cruciform steel columns, giving a clear field for spatial design, using opaque, translucent and transparent walls freely disposed between the columns. These ideas were crucial to all his subsequent work. The rich materials of the space-defining walls, the reflecting pools and the furniture that he designed specifically for the pavilion like the well-known Barcelona chair (see fig.3), stools and table, all added to the architectonic qualities in a building of great poetic beauty. This building and the furniture designed for it established Mies van der Rohe as an architect and furniture designer of international stature.
In 1930, at the recommendation of Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe was appointed Director of the Bauhaus, but by 1932, under political pressure from the Nazi party, he moved the school from Dessau to a disused factory in Steglitz, Berlin, where he ran it privately for one further session. Following further Nazi interference he closed the school in 1933. (Joedicke, 1959)In 1938 Mies van der Rohe settled in Chicago and took up an appointment as Director of the Architecture Department of Armour Institute, which in 1940 became the College of Architecture, Planning and Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. He also re-established his architectural practice and for the next 20 years he divided his time between it and his teaching duties. His work in both capacities, as noted by Richard Padovan, reflected a philosophy of architecture, based upon Thomas Aquinas’s proposition that “reason is the first principle of all human work” (1999, p. 201). It led him to question open speculation and personal expression as the main bases for creative architecture and to follow certain general principles that he learnt from the buildings of the great architectural epochs of the past: namely that architecture is derived from, and eventually becomes an expression of, the significant forces that combine to determine the ethos of an epoch or a civilization; that architecture’s physical realization is accomplished through the use of clear construction, elevated to a higher plane through an understanding of the art of building; that a language of architecture gradually evolves during the epoch in response to the epoch’s particular needs and means – the morphological and organic relationship of things that permeates the whole building fabric, illuminating each part as necessary and inevitable (Padovan, 1999).
At Illinois Institute of Technology he set up a curriculum based on these principles and the belief that ‘The function of education is to lead us from irresponsible opinion to truly responsible judgment; and since a building is a work and not a notion, a method of work, a way of doing should be the essence of architectural education’ (Carter, 1964, p. 141).The North American technological environment facilitated the realization of these architectural ideas. During the first ten years or so in the USA, Mies van der Rohe developed his characteristically clear, highly influential concept of architecture.
Many multi-storey urban high-rise buildings were designed by Mies van der Rohe in the following 20 years, which by virtue of their precise, almost Platonic images found worldwide emulation and placed him in the forefront of 20th-century urban design. The list of high-rise structures includes several of the best-known and most widely discussed buildings of the mid-century: 860 Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago, the Seagram Building in Park Avenue, New York, Colonnade Park in Newark and Toronto-Dominion.These buildings show clearly Mies van der Rohe’s development and refinement of a structural aesthetic based on an open flexible plan. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Mies van der Rohe profoundly questioned the concept ‘form follows function’ because he recognized that functional requirements often change (Farmer, B. & Louw, H., 1993, p. 157).
He believed that building solutions should allow for an optimum degree of flexibility in order to accommodate economically the frequent need to revise the arrangement of living and working spaces. Thus, within a concept of overall size and complexity of function taken in generalized terms, he chose to develop and work within three building types: the low-rise skeleton frame building, the high-rise skeleton frame building, and the single-storey clear-span building. In all these types those functions not requiring daylight, such as lecture theatres and law courtrooms, and the fixed core accommodating lifts, stairs, toilets and service ducts, are located within the interior spaces of the plan, leaving the peripheral areas available for the flexible arrangement of classrooms, workshops, laboratories, offices, flats or exhibition spaces as the particular building’s function required.Following a number of unrealized projects, the first built example of Mies van der Rohe’s single-storey clear-span building was the Farnsworth House in Plano, State of Illinois (see fig.4 and 5) – one of the best-known houses of the 20th century. The house, which is raised above the ground against the Fox River’s spring flooding, comprises a classically proportioned and finely crafted white steel structure with rectangular floor and roof planes cantilevering beyond externally positioned ‘I’ section columns – the space between being subdivided into interior and exterior living areas. In the interior area, enclosed by large sheets of plate-glass and paved with Roman Travertine marble, living, sleeping and kitchen spaces are subtly defined around a free-standing wood-paneled core housing bathrooms and services.
The exterior area, also paved with Travertine, forms a protected terrace, and this is connected by a flight of steps to a lower open floating terrace and similar steps to the ground. There is no suggestion of a contrived formal relationship between the house and its natural surroundings, and the building’s occurrence in the landscape would seem almost fortuitous were it not for the harmony achieved between it and the terrain. Its independence of, and at the same time interdependence with, its surroundings (see fig.
6) creates a convincing and moving image in a technological era and is prophetic of the handling of the relationships of buildings to context in many future projects. The mature work of Mies van der Rohe the Farnsworth House has all the elements of the developed clear-span single-storey building type.In many of Mies van der Rohe’s buildings his introduction of externally projecting steel, aluminium or bronze ‘I’-shaped mullions at the module reference points causes the visible elements of the building’s fireproofed structure and its glass infill to become architecturally fused – a modern interpretation of the Greek, Roman and Gothic principle of manifest structural order. As in classical buildings, the design is honed to greater perfection in each successive building by subtle improvements in proportion and detailing rather than by radical changes in overall expression. The majority of Mies van der Rohe’s buildings were designed for centrally located urban sites. Mies van der Rohe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1959, that of the American Institute of Architects next year and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. Figure 1 Figure 2Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Ludwig Mies van der RoheGerman Pavilion in Barcelona, 1929 German Pavilion in Barcelona, 1929 Figure3Ludwig Mies van der RoheBarcelona Chair, 1929 Figure 4 Figure 5Mies Van der Rohe Mies Van der RoheThe Farnsworth House, 1946 – 1951 The Farnsworth House, 1946 – 1951 Figure 6The Farnsworth House, 1946 – 1951Mies Van der RoheBibliography Betts, P.
2004. The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Carter, P. 1964. ‘Mies Interviewed’, 20th C. Spring, pp.
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1999. Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture. Spon Press, New York. Schulze, F. (ed.) 1989.
Mies van der Rohe: Critical Essays. The MIT Press, New York.