In the postmodern era, it's easy to overlook the work of Mies van der Rohe. His walls of glass, rectangular forms, and open spaces look all too familiar. When we hear the name Mies van der Rohe, we don't instantly think of his architecture or his contribution to our landscape, but instead we think of an icon, a brand, or a chair at Design Within Reach. His ideals have become ingrained into our society and its visual vocabulary. "Less is more" is often said when referring to his work and this aesthetic has proliferated our landscape since the mid-20th century. Look at an iPhone or the Apple store itself to see how designers have reduced our objects to be only what is necessary. Or flip through the pages of Dwell to see how open floor plans, modern materials, and transparency are now commonplace in contemporary homes. Mies van der Rohe's philosophy of design surrounds us. So much so, that when you walk by one of his buildings in your travels, you might not even notice it. In order to avoid missing out, let me give you a crash course in who Mies van der Rohe was and some key elements to his buildings.
Mies van der Rohe was a German-born architect that came of age in post-WWI Europe, only to retreat to America at the beginning of WWII. His legacy, at times, outshines his career, which is composed of skyscrapers, private homes, and public buildings in both Europe and North America. He's held up by many as the master of modernism, a title I believe that should be shared with his generation of architects as a whole. He was, however, a strong, opinionated voice in the chorus of individuals that redefined architecture in the mid-20th century.
From the outside, he created bold, striking structures of modern materials. The Seagram Building, designed as the American offices for the alcohol empire, expresses many of Mies van der Rohe's characteristic traits. Curtains of glass, a steel frame, and repeating geometric patterns create a boundary between itself and the rest of the city.
This boundary is heightened by the placement of the building on its site, set back from its neighbors. The outside certainly makes a visual impression, but once one enters one of his buildings, the experience becomes quite different. The next time you pass this or one of Mies' many other skyscrapers, I challenge you to do more than just say ok, lots of glass...structure is showing...check. Think about where this building sits in history. In context, the Seagram Building (1958) is quite different from its older brother, the Empire State Building (1931) and worlds away from its grandfather, the Flatiron Building (1902.) (Don't have the history of architecture in your head? For a timeline of buildings, Great Buildings Online is a great resources to start from.)
In a commission for a private home in Plano, Illinois, Mies van der Rohe created a similarly striking work with his Farnsworth House. Crisp, modern lines set against the backdrop of nature make it difficult to take a bad photograph of this dramatic juxtaposition. Farnsworth House was designed as a weekend home for Dr. Edith Farnsworth and this sort of commission allowed him a certain amount of freedom to test out his attitudes towards space and transparency. Without the burden of client demands or strict building codes, he was free to design a structure as he saw fit. And as the exposed white steel structure allows the building to hover above the ground, you can clearly see his aim of simple, straightforward design and construction. Clear structure and construction; two simple ideas that Mies van der Rohe triumphed. Ideas that may be simple in conception and expression, but in execution were anything but simple to create.
From inside of the building, boundaries between outside and in are broken with his open floor plan that allows for a spatial fluidity within the house and with walls of glass that allow the inhabitant to be simultaneously outdoors and in. An associate in Mies van der Rohe's studio, Peter Carter (who had the opportunity to stay in house on several occasions) described it has a "dialogue between the predictable architecture and the unpredictable elements of nature." Changes in daylight, weather, and seasons are the backdrop and the ever-changing décor to this consistent, modern shell.
These two examples of the work of Mies van der Rohe may have visually less to appreciate, but offer a wealth of ideas and concepts to consider the next time you're confronted with one of his works. I encourage you to seek them out in your travels, because the experience of a work of art is best found in front of (and inside of) the artist's creation.
His final work, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin is an easy site to visit (and take in a stellar modern art collection.) Additionally, Farnsworth House is open to the public, as well as a renovated Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic and a recreation of his Barcelona Pavilion in Barcelona, Spain. In addition to the Seagram Building in New York, he has many buildings in Chicago including the main campus of Illinois Institute of Technology.
ON THE WEB
Mies Society provides a great timeline of Mies van der Rohe's projects, as well as anything you might want to know about the architect and his legacy.
Arch Daily keeps up to date on all Mies van der Rohe news and noteworthy events.
Dual exhibits in 2001 produced two great works of Mies van der Rohe scholarship. Mies in Berlin at MoMA (find on Amazon or your local library) and Mies in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art (find on Amazon or at your local library) provide great insight into his career as well as a wealth of information, drawings, and photographs of his commissions.
Points on a Line, a documentary by artist Sarah Morris, features the Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson's Glass House. Currently showing at Wexner Center of the Arts in Columbus, OH and at the Glass House.