Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
German-American Architect and Designer
Aachen, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Summary of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
On November 20, 1938, the Armour Institute of Technology held a gala at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago to celebrate its new head of the architecture program. Introducing him was Frank Lloyd Wright, who admired virtually no other architect alive. But this occasion was different. Of the guest of honor, Wright intoned, "I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. Armour Institute, I give you my Mies van der Rohe. You treat him well and love him as I do. He will reward you." Wright then promptly left the stage. The rarity of publicly receiving Wright's unqualified accolades underscores the brilliance of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his vaunted place within modern architecture as one of the founders of the International Style in Germany. Mies did not disappoint his new employers, either: over the next thirty years, he helped establish the International Style as the definitive architectural language of North American postwar modernism and influenced hundreds of emulators worldwide. His steel-and-glass aesthetic became the archetype of the term "modern architecture" for decades even after his death. Mies' buildings became the prime targets for postmodernists who later attacked the International Style.
- Along with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, Mies helped pioneer the crystallization of the International Style as the core movement of modern architecture during the early 1920s. Unlike Le Corbusier and other early champions of the International Style who moved away from it, in part due to critiques of modern architecture in the 1960s, he remained completely devoted to the movement over the last four decades of his career.
- Mies first called his designs for steel-and-glass skyscrapers and horizontally-oriented houses and pavilions "skin-and-bones" architecture due to their minimal uses of industrial materials, definition of space, along with the rigidity of structure, and their transparency. His architecture promotes the dissolution between interior and exterior and the negation of feeling completely enclosed. Instead, they encourage maximum flexibility in their spatial configurations, which for Mies meant that they maximized their spatial utility.
- Mies' buildings often emphasize their own singularity relative to their surroundings, putting themselves - and through their transparency, their inhabitants - on view. This makes many of them, such as the Barcelona Pavilion, ideal for public functions, but it also makes some of them, such as the Farnsworth House, notoriously difficult to inhabit when privacy is needed.
- Having grown up around his father's stonecutting shop, Mies was very sensitive to the choices of materials in his designs, including fine stone, chrome, bronze, and even brick. Many of his buildings, especially the Tugendhat House and Seagram Building, were extremely expensive structures to build and are noted equally for their fine craftsmanship along with their industrial methods of construction.
Biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Maria Ludwig Michael Mies was born in the city of Aachen in western Germany, in the spring of 1886. Aachen, known in French as Aix-la-Chapelle, had been the capital of Charlemagne's Frankish Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. By the time of Mies' birth almost 1100 years later, however, it had become one of the numerous centers of heavy industry in the Ruhr region of the Kingdom of Prussia, the dominant state in the Wilhelmine Empire before World War I.
Important Art by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
- Philip Johnson
- Gordon Bunshaft
- Bruce Graham
- Enrique Gutierrez
- Myron Goldsmith
- Ludwig Hilberseimer
Useful Resources on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
- Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised EditionOur PickBy Franz Schulze, Edward Windhorst
- Mies in AmericaOur PickBy Phyllis Lambert
- Mies van der Rohe: Mies In BerlinBy Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Barry Bergdoll, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, Mies van der Rohe
- MiesBy Detlef Mertins
- Mies Van Der Rohe At WorkBy Peter Carter
- Mies van der Rohe Dies at 83; Leader of Modern ArchitectureBy Alden Whitman / August 19, 1969
- Mies and the NazisBy Tom Dyckhoff / The Guardian / November 29, 2002
- Revisiting the Work of Architect Mies van der RoheBy Mitchell Owens / Architectural Digest / January 31, 2013
- 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Mies van der RoheOur PickBy Pola Mora / Arch Daily / March 27, 2016