Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: a giant of modern architecture
How to sum up in a few lines the impressive career of a giant of 20th century modern architecture? For six decades, the naturalized German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe never ceased to imagine, design and build buildings of incredible allure, in tune with the industrial and technological progress of the times he lived through. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is one of the most important figures of 20th century architecture in Europe and the United States. First, I will review the major dates in his career, before looking back at his most influential architectural projects.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1967) was born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany. The son of a stonemason, he worked in the family business. He soon began designing for architectural firms, including that of Peter Behrens (1908-1912), a pioneer of industrial design in Germany. In 1912, he set up his own architectural firm.
At Behrens, Mies van der Rohe met Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, two major figures who were renewing the traditional conception of architecture. At the time, Germany was the epicentre of a new architectural culture, and its architects, theorists and thinkers were part of the Deutscher Werkbund, the largest German cultural organisation of the pre-war period. Mies van der Rohe joined it along with a new generation of German architects (Gropius, Bruno Taut, among others).
In the vanguard of the architectural revival theorised and taught at the Bauhaus School, which was itself crossed by radical movements (De Stijl, Russian constructivism), Mies van der Rohe laid the foundations of his architectural style in the 1920s by imagining five projects that were never realised, but whose radicalism marked the period. He put his ideas into practice with the German pavilion at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. The work had a worldwide impact and Mies became the leader of the modernist movement.
From 1930 to 1933, Mies van der Rohe directed the Bauhaus art school in Dessau and then in Berlin. With the arrival of the Nazi party in power, the school closed down and the architect emigrated to the United States where he enjoyed an impressive second half of his career. Until his death in 1967, Mies van der Rohe signed a series of projects that redefined American urban architecture. He imagined and designed large steel and glass buildings, the flowering of modern architecture now assimilated into the international style.
Over a career spanning some sixty years, I have selected three works that are representative of the architectural modernity inspired by Mies van der Rohe. The first is the German pavilion for the Barcelona World Fair. It puts into practice 2 concepts. Firstly, the free plan: the walls are no longer load-bearing, they become partitions that delimit a space that is now “open” to all sorts of configurations. Secondly, the fluidity of space: glass façades allow the interior and exterior to interpenetrate and merge. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed a totally transparent building in which the visitor passes from urban space to nature with great ease, transcended by the harmony of the place.
The flat roof of the structure contributes to the purity of lines that make the building a jewel of modern architecture. Destroyed after the exhibition, the building was so successful that Catalan architects rebuilt it (1983-1988). In the interior design, the architect used luxurious materials such as marble, travertine and onyx. Together with his partner and collaborator Lilly Reich, they designed the elegant Barcelona lounge chair, which has become a must-have of 20th century design. Its polished chrome-plated steel X-shaped base is reminiscent of a curule seat from ancient Rome. With the German pavilion, Mies van der Rohe achieved a modern architectural ideal: perfect symmetry, open, transparent spaces and a rigorous minimalism.
The second building I have selected projects Mies into the post-war vertical architecture of skyscrapers. In 1948, on behalf of real estate developer Herbert Greenwald, he designed Towers 860 and 800, two steel and glass apartment buildings on the northern portion of Lake Shore Drive, a highway along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. The towers are the symbol of the architect’s minimalist approach: they are covered with curtain walls, one of the architect’s trademarks, and above all are devoid of any ornamentation. These two towers embodied the international post-war style for years to come.
3rd remarkable project: the design of the Neue Nationalgalerie (“new national gallery”) in Berlin. Mies van der Roh was commissioned in 1962 to design a building to house the 20th century modern art collections. Completed in 1968, after the architect’s death, the building embraces his initiator’s long-term concern for creating fluid, open spaces. Mies designed a veritable glass temple of 2,300 m2 that is surprisingly empty. It is topped by a large black steel box roof that overhangs it. As with many of the architect’s projects, the structure rests entirely on 8 pylons. The basement houses the exhibition rooms and offices. On the west side, a large glass wall again serves a mineral garden.
The radical beauty of the building, its minimalism and the impression of lightness that emanates from it have made the Neue National Galerie one of the great masterpieces of modern architecture. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the giants of 20th century architecture along with Gropius and Le Corbusier, used to say that his architecture was “skin on bone”, the skin being glass, the bones the steel structure. He coined the expression “Less is More”, not to mean that simplicity was the best, but to designate the pursuit of a certain perfection, because it is free of all superfluous elements, which is anything but simple!