A little cold? A little dark? A little foreboding?
Chicago in winter? Or the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe?
I’ve been challenged by a friend to make him understand the hoopla around Mies (1886 – 1969). What I’m going to attempt to do is difficult and should not be tried at home. Not only is this difficult to do anyway, but to do this in writing and not in person is a death wish. Yet, I heed the call of my readers and it is my responsibility, nay – my calling – to shed some light on the darkness that is Mies.
Let us begin:
Let’s start somewhere in the middle with Mies attending the Bauhaus school in Germany (Gropius was running the Bauhaus at the time, SAVE GROPIUS!). The Bauhaus was a design school and it was all about shaking things up, embracing the new industrial age and most of all….simplification. Celebrate the technology, mass produce and remove context, plain and simple. Mies ran the Bauhaus from 1930-1933.
Who really hates shaking things up, embracing new ideals and democratizing art in Germany in the 1930’s? The Nazis! The Bauhaus is closed and Mies is courted by one of his “followers” into coming to Chicago where he begins teaching at IIT.
Mies begins to teach thousands of architecture students about his way of designing, his influence spreads and suddenly even tiny little towns have big, black box architecture. But of course, there’s more to it than that isn’t there? Why yes Virginia, there is.
Think of a government building. Usually we see domes and arches and columns of the ionic and doric variety. These are big white buildings with ladies holding grapes and men bearing instruments (heh). Mies and the modernist movement (scale down, celebrate technology, simplify, remove context) saw these buildings as classist, as outdated, as extremely old-fashioned. He wanted to democratize architecture. When he designed our Federal Center starting in the 1960’s, no one had seen a government building like this before, including Europe or Russia, who we were getting into it with. We wanted something strong, distinctly American, and free, in a “freedom” sense of the word.
But certainly that isn’t all that Mies gave us, there is more to it than just shedding off ornament and designing architecture that changed the way people saw their government: there is a love of order, a love of mathematics, a love of purity and simplification and a love of detail. Because of the way Mies taught at IIT, he successfully created many architectural clones that set out to design the way he did, but all it really created was a glut of copycats who didn’t really get the full picture.
Think of what buildings looked like in Chicago before Mies. Most are masonry (some kind of stone), the buildings are heavy, low to the ground, some are so decorated with stuff they almost look silly. Then along comes Mies and he begins to design in glass and steel. His buildings – although huge – are light, airy, see-through in many cases. The outside of the building is wrapped tight around the steel frame structure inside, like Nicole Kidman’s skin after the latest botox. He is a minimalist and there is truth and beauty in minimalism, no?
His buildings – this follows along with the democratization of architecture – could be used for anything. He was very big on “universal space.” Each of his buildings could be whatever you wanted it to be, almost the opposite of Sullivan’s “form follows function.” Mies wanted his buildings to be available as a government building, or an office building, or an apartment building, whatever you wanted to put in was just fine with him. Yes, he wanted to create big cities where all the buildings looked the same and that would be just awful, but so would one kind of any architecture. The diversity is what makes Chicago so fabulous.
Mies changed everything. Think of the Art Institute then think of our Federal Center….seriously.
There’s only so far I can go here, what needs to happen is anyone that does not understand Mies needs to come on a tour. It has to be seen in person to truly understand the “God is in the details” part. I can’t do that through writing or pictures.
Sometimes you have to show instead of tell, less is more.