What Mies Means to Me
Google reminded me that today, March 27th, 2012, is the 126th birthday of Mies, or, as he named himself Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – congratulations!
I guess the 1,280,000 results of Google ensure that almost everything has been said about him and his masterful architecture of ascetic Modernism. Thus I’d like to share my thoughts about what his architecture means to me.
In Mies Mind Meets Matter
I believe that great artists always create in a manner that at least considers subliminally the frontiers of thinking in other fields as well. When Ludwig Mies van der Rohe developed his emblematic brick country house in 1924 he participated in artistic avant-garde circles such as De Stijl. He also had begun to accomplish his philosophical knowledge after being introduced to this subject by his first client Alois Riehl. The assumption made by historians is that Mies literally took the lines and angles of constructivist paintings, like Theo van Doesburg’s “Rhythm of a Russian Dance” from 1918, and compiled a plan of them. Although that might seem obvious, I think it doesn’t take into account Berlin’s tumultuous intellectual atmosphere in the 1920s, bursting with novelties being discussed everywhere.
Let’s look at the design of the country house more closely. This building type had been established in Berlin by Hermann Muthesius before WW 1 according to the English model with lots of different rooms designed to serve especially the particular demands of their purpose. How different is Mies’ approach; “Not rooms spread out from a secure, defined centre, but a zone of walls emanating into a perpendicular grid independent from any definition of space... Mies doesn’t use the tangible substance of walls as the perimeters of inhabitable space, but uses them to suggest different “fields of interest.”” Wolfgang Pehnt, Architektur. In “Deutsche Kunst der 20er und 30er Jahre”, Hg. Erich Steingraeber. Munich 1979, p 47.
Wolfgang Pehnt describes the superposition of a Cartesian grid by fields of interests, undetermined and only slightly designated by an intensified density of forms. This, to me, is an illustration of how Newtonian determinism was being superceded by the uncertainty of quantum theory.
By the end of 1922 both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr had received Nobel prizes for their scientific efforts on relativity and quantum mechanics. The theories of relativity had made Einstein a “pop-scientist” who was the subject of public attention and discussion. The developing dispute between Bohr and Einstein about the degree to which Newton’s deterministic classical physics was becoming obsolete occurred between 1922 and 1927, the “Golden Age of Physics”. The dispute was fought in German and discussed in the University of Berlin, “the Stronghold of Physics” as the physicist Werner Heisenberg put it. Mies was living in the context of this debate. Wolfgang Pehnt’s above description of his brick country house reads like one of the quantum atomic models. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the atom was not surrounded by electrons on determined orbits, but rather was a “cloud” that only allowed the observer to assume probable particle positions from a “plenitude of possibilities” (Heisenberg). The atom had become a “field of interest”. Einstein disagreed with this theory and refused to deviate from classical physics. He believed that “God doesn’t play dice”.
Whereas the brick country house was merely a design in an early stage, which already displayed a totally new approach to architecture, the German pavilion for the World Fair in Barcelona 1929 established it in a complete building.
The place that Mies had chosen included a passageway from the main area of the exhibition to the “Spanish village” located a short distance away. People had to pass through his pavilion but it blocks their view of the destination. People have to navigate a winding route through the building until they finally can continue their intended passage to the Spanish village. Again there are differentiated “fields of interest” such as a partly open pool with a travertine wall and a bench to rest on, or a variety of ways through the interior of the pavilion; walking around colourful marble slabs and glass walls, or moving along the introverted reflecting pool with a sculpture. Again there is a “plenitude of possibilities” of how visitors may journey through the bejeweled architectural maze. And again there is the superposition of the Cartesian grid of the columns – even more emphasised by their cruciform section – and the freely arranged partition walls and pools.
In contrast, the other exhibition building entrances were vestibules as outlined by Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand in his Nouveau précis des leçons d’architecture 1813. People would just walk straight though on a central symmetrical axis. Mies breaks free from this restriction allowing for the liberty of movement on a course of probability towards their destination.
When the Japanese couple Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) were invited to create an intervention in the Barcelona pavilion, they added a spiralling maze of blurry acrylic glass that increases the uncertainty aspect of his building even more; they had understood Mies’ message.
I think this aspect of liberation of movement was a central idea behind most of Mies’ work. Looking at his sketch of his last building, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, we see his pencil wandering around in unleashed uncertainty. Thanks for that, Mies!
- Posted March 27, 2012