Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies (March 27, 1886 – August 17, 1969) was a German architect. He was commonly referred to and addressed by his surname, Mies. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture.
Mies, like many of his post World War I contemporaries, sought to establish a new architectural style that could represent modern times just as Classical and Gothic did for their own eras. He created an influential 20th century architectural style, stated with extreme clarity and simplicity. His mature buildings made use of modern materials such as industrial steel and plate glass to define interior spaces.
He strived towards an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of free-flowing open space. He called his buildings "skin and bones" architecture. He sought a rational approach that would guide the creative process of architectural design, and is known for his use of the aphorisms "less is more" and "God is in the details".
Mies worked in his father's stone-carving shop and at several local design firms before he moved to Berlin joining the office of interior designer Bruno Paul. He began his architectural career as an apprentice at the studio of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912, where he was exposed to the current design theories and to progressive German culture, working alongside Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.
Mies served as construction manager of the Embassy of the German Empire in Saint Petersburg under Behrens. His talent was quickly recognized and he soon began independent commissions, despite his lack of a formal college-level education. A physically imposing, deliberative, and reticent man, Ludwig Mies renamed himself as part of his rapid transformation from a tradesman's son to an architect working with Berlin's cultural elite, adding "van der" and his mother's surname "Rohe",using the Dutch, rather than the German form, presumably to avoid offending those of genuine aristocratic lineage.
He began his independent professional career designing upper class homes, joining the movement seeking a return to the purity of early 19th Century Germanic domestic styles. He admired the broad proportions, regularity of rhythmic elements, attention to the relationship of the man-made to nature, and compositions using simple cubic forms of the early 19th Century Prussian Neo-Classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. He dismissed the eclectic and cluttered classical styles so common at the turn of the 20th Century as irrelevant to the modern times.
Traditionalism to Modernism
After World War I, Mies began, while still designing traditional neoclassical homes, a parallel experimental effort. He joined his avant-garde peers in the long-running search for a new style that would be suitable for the modern industrial age. The weak points of traditional styles had been under attack by progressive theorists since the mid-nineteenth century, primarily for the contradictions of hiding modern construction technology with a facade of ornamented traditional styles.
The mounting criticism of the historical styles gained substantial cultural credibility after World War I, a disaster widely seen as a failure of the old world order of imperial leadership of Europe. The aristocratic classical revival styles were particularly reviled by many as the architectural symbol of a now-discredited and outmoded social system. Progressive thinkers called for a completely new architectural design process guided by rational problem-solving and an exterior expression of modern materials and structure rather than the superficial application of classical facades.
While continuing his traditional neoclassical design practice Mies began to develop visionary projects that, though mostly unbuilt, rocketed him to fame as an architect capable of giving form that was in harmony with the spirit of the emerging modern society. Boldly abandoning ornament altogether, Mies made a dramatic modernist debut with his stunning competition proposal for the faceted all-glass Friedrichstraße skyscraper in 1921, followed by a taller curved version in 1922 named the Glass Skyscraper.
He continued with a series of pioneering projects, culminating in his two European masterworks: the temporary German Pavilion for the Barcelona exposition (often called the Barcelona Pavilion) in 1929 (a 1986 reconstruction is now built on the original site) and the elegant Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, completed in 1930.
He joined the German avant-garde, working with the progressive design magazine G which started in July 1923. He developed prominence as architectural director of the Werkbund, organizing the influential Weissenhof Estate prototype modernist housing exhibition. He was also one of the founders of the architectural association Der Ring. He joined the avant-garde Bauhaus design school as their director of architecture, adopting and developing their functionalist application of simple geometric forms in the design of useful objects.
Like many other avant-garde architects of the day, Mies based his own architectural theories and principles on his own personal re-combination of ideas developed by many other thinkers and designers who had pondered the flaws of the traditional design styles.
Mies' modernist thinking was influenced by many of the design and art movements of the day. He selectively adopted theoretical ideas such as the aesthetic credos of Russian Constructivism with their ideology of "efficient" sculptural constructions using modern industrial materials. Mies found appeal in the use of simple rectilinear and planar forms, clean lines, pure use of color, and the extension of space around and beyond interior walls expounded by the Dutch De Stijl group. In particular, the layering of functional sub-spaces within an overall space and the distinct articulation of parts as expressed by Gerrit Rietveld appealed to Mies.
The design theories of Adolf Loos found resonance with Mies, particularly the ideas of eradication of the superficial and unnecessary, replacing elaborate applied ornament with the straightforward display of materials and forms. Loos had famously declared, in the tongue-in-cheek humor of the day, that "ornament is a crime". Mies also admired his ideas about the nobility that could be found in the anonymity of modern life.
The bold work of American architects was greatly admired by European architects. Like other architects who viewed the Wasmuth Portfolio and its associated exhibit, Mies was enthralled with the free-flowing spaces of inter-connected rooms which encompass their outdoor surroundings as demonstrated by the open floor plans of the American Prairie Style work of Frank Lloyd Wright. American engineering structures were also held up to be exemplary of the beauty possible in functional construction.
Significance and meaning
Mies pursued an ambitious lifelong mission to create a new architectural language that could be used to represent the new era of technology and production. He saw a need for an architecture expressive of and in harmony with his epoch, just as Gothic architecture was for an era of spiritualism. He applied a disciplined design process using rational thought to achieve his spiritual goals.
He believed that the configuration and arrangement of every architectural element must contribute to a unified expression. The self-educated Mies painstakingly studied the great philosophers and thinkers, past and present, to enhance his own understanding of the character and essential qualities of the technological times he lived in. More than perhaps any other practising pioneer of modernism, Mies mined the writings of philosophers and thinkers for ideas that were relevant to his architectural mission.
Mies' architecture was created at a high level of abstraction, and his own generalized descriptions of his principles intentionally leave much room for interpretation. Yet his buildings also seem very direct and simple when viewed in person. Every aspect of his architecture, from overall concept to the smallest detail, supports his effort to express the modern age. The depth of meaning conveyed by his work, beyond its aesthetic qualities, has drawn many contemporary philosophers and theoretical thinkers to continue to further explore and speculate about his architecture.
Emigration to the United States
Commission opportunities dwindled with the worldwide depression after 1929. In the early 1930s, Mies served briefly as the last Director of the faltering Bauhaus, at the request of his colleague and competitor Walter Gropius. After 1933, Nazi political pressure soon forced Mies to close the government-financed school. He built very little in these years (one built commission was Philip Johnson's New York apartment); the Nazis rejected his style as not "German" in character.
Frustrated and unhappy, he left his homeland reluctantly in 1937 as he saw his opportunity for any future building commissions vanish, accepting a residential commission in Wyoming and then an offer to head the department of architecture of the newly established Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Here he introduced a new kind of education and attitude later known as Second School of Chicago, which became very influential in the following decades in North America and Europe.
Career in the United States
Mies settled in Chicago, Illinois where he was appointed head of the architecture school at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology (later renamed Illinois Institute of Technology - IIT). One of the benefits of taking this position was that he would be commissioned to design the new buildings and master plan for the campus. All his buildings still stand there, including Alumni Hall, the Chapel, and his masterpiece the S.R. Crown Hall, built as the home of IIT's School of Architecture. Crown Hall is widely regarded as Mies' finest work, the definition of Miesian architecture.
In 1944, he became an American citizen, completing his severance from his native Germany. His 30 years as an American architect reflect a more structural, pure approach towards achieving his goal of a new architecture for the 20th century. He focused his efforts on enclosing open and adaptable "universal" spaces with clearly arranged structural frameworks, featuring prefabricated steel shapes filled in with large sheets of glass. His early projects at the IIT campus, and for developer Herb Greenwald, opened the eyes of Americans to a style that seemed a natural progression of the almost forgotten 19th Century Chicago School style.
His architecture, with origins in the German Bauhaus and western European International Style, became an accepted mode of building for American cultural and educational institutions, developers, public agencies, and large corporations.
Mies worked from his studio in downtown Chicago for his entire 31-year period in America. His significant projects in the U.S. include in Chicago and the area: the residential towers of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, the Chicago Federal Center complex, the Farnsworth House, Crown Hall and other structures at IIT; and the Seagram Building in New York. These iconic works became the prototypes for his other projects.
Mies designed modern furniture pieces using new industrial technologies that have become popular classics, such as the Barcelona chair and table, the Brno chair, and the Tugendhat chair. His furniture is known for fine craftsmanship, a mix of traditional luxurious fabrics like leather combined with modern chrome frames, and a distinct separation of the supporting structure and the supported surfaces, often employing cantilevers to enhance the feeling of lightness created by delicate structural frames. During this period, he collaborated closely with interior designer and companion Lilly Reich.
Mies played a significant role as an educator, believing his architectural language could be learned, then applied to design any type of modern building. He set up a new education at the Department of Architecture of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago replacing the old-fashioned Ecole des Beaux-Art attitude by a three-step-education beginning with crafts of building leading to planning skills and finishing with theory of architecture (compare Vitruvius: firmitas, utilitas, venustas).
He worked personally and intensively on prototype solutions, and then allowed his students, both in school and his office, to develop derivative solutions for specific projects under his guidance. Some of Mies' curriculum is still put in practice in the first and second year programs at IIT, for example the excruciating drafting of bricks in second year. But when none was able to match the genius and poetic quality of his own work, he agonized about where his educational method had gone wrong. Nevertheless his achievements for an architecture created out of modern technology survived very successfully until today by others and is known as High-tech architecture.
Mies placed great importance on education of architects who could carry on his design principles. He devoted a great deal of time and effort leading the architecture program at IIT. Mies served on the initial Advisory Board of the Graham Foundation in Chicago. His own practice was based on intensive personal involvement in design efforts to create prototype solutions for building types, then allowing his studio designers to develop derivative buildings under his supervision.
Mies's grandson Dirk Lohan and two partners led the firm after he died in 1969. Lohan, who had collaborated with Mies on the New National Gallery, continued with existing projects but soon led the firm on his own independent path. Other disciples continued his teachings for a few years, notably Gene Summers, David Haid, Myron Goldsmith, Jacques Brownson, and other architects at the firms of C.F. Murphy and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
But while Mies' work had enormous influence and critical recognition, his approach failed to sustain a creative force as a style after his death and was eclipsed by the new wave of Post Modernism by the 1980s.
He had hoped his architecture would serve as a universal model that could be easily imitated, but the aesthetic power of his best buildings proved impossible to match, instead resulting mostly in drab and uninspired structures. The failure of his followers to meet his high standard may have contributed to demise of Modernism and the rise of new competing design theories, notably Postmodernism.
Over the last twenty years of his life, Mies developed and built his vision of a monumental "skin and bones" architecture that reflected his goal to provide the individual a place to fulfill himself in the modern era. Mies sought to create free and open spaces, enclosed within a structural order with minimal presence. Mies van der Rohe died on August 17, 1969. After cremation, his ashes were buried near Chicago's other famous architects in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery. His grave is marked by a simple black slab of granite and a large Honey locust tree.
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