The Emanicpation of Mies

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the modernist movement (scale down, celebrate technology, simplify, remove context) saw these buildings as classist, as outdated, as extremely old-fashioned.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.

4 thoughts on “The Emanicpation of Mies

  1. I will have to go on a tour. Give me about 40 or so degrees though. I understand what you are saying, especially given the description of the style he was rebelling against. He seems like a man that did not like clutter, and as a giant mess of a human, I find that difficult to relate to. I do see, especially in the picture above, an elegance in the geometric shapes. But it also is foreboding, impersonal. I wonder if he was the same way.

    Now I am interested in the man. What made someone so minimalist? Why such a rage against the ornamentation? I wonder if it grew out of World War I or some kind of looniness in Germany (there was plenty between the wars, as you indicate).

    In the context of Chicago, his architecture offers variety and the rationale you lay out makes it interesting. One (me) could look at it and see that maybe someone was just putting up formulaic buildings (painting by numbers, if you will). That’s why I’ve been kind of perplexed by this guy. But I see now that if this is revolutionary, I now want to know where the dude was mentally coming from. What makes someone build such cold structures?

    I am glad he did not get to build his own city. I like how the Monadnock building is right next door to Federal Plaza. You get the dose of cold artistry and then you get the warm place that has a shoe shine joint, a barber, and a tailor in the first floor. All the while, someone with a fedora could walk by and you wouldn’t notice.

  2. I don’t know too much about the man himself, but it certainly seems like what the Bauhaus and it’s other artists were doing were extremely political in nature. All the mess on the older/historic buildings represented so much to them. It represented the old way, the stone way, the “shut them up with a big dome” kind of way. Certainly minimalism is an attractive concept and not too surprising is it? Why not let the steel and glass shine through, why not do away with the old conventions and celebrate what is now?

    Plus, there is a whole school for people who are smarter and more mathematical than myself….Mies was a mathematician and ordered his buildings to some formula that occurs in the universe. So, there is also a very strict philosophy for him as to how many windows across, how many down, etc. Copycats or “the paint by numbers” folks really don’t get this part of Mies and just see a big black box…done.

    Kay, when May comes I’m giving you a tour.

  3. Thanks for this insightful look at Miesian architecture. Mies was all about order and proportion and harmony. All brilliant architects are about these same things, but how they interpret what these concepts mean makes all the difference in the finished buildings.

  4. That’s exactly what I was trying to say! Amazing to see how each architect solves his own problems of design and building. Mies just stripped it down some and that process is amazing to watch.

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