Mies van der Rohe’s legacy is undisputed – from chairs to skyscrapers, this designer has left an indelible mark on the design world.
Along with Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of modernist architecture. Interestingly, Mies never studied architecture. He learnt his trade by helping his father on various construction sites, apprenticing with German architect and designer Bruno Paul and working under influential architect Peter Behrens.
Mies opened his own studio in 1913 and perfected his style in the 1920’s – his modernist approach embodying the liberal spirit of the era. He once described his architectural designs as “skin-and-bones” due to their minimalism, definition of space, rigidity of structure and transparency.
The Barcelona Pavilion.
The Barcelona Pavilion was designed by Mies and Lilly Reich for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. It also showcased the celebrated Barcelona Chair, an iconic piece that has reached cult status and remains as fresh and contemporary today as when it was released more than 90 years ago.
Mies learnt about materials from his stonemason father and his sensitivity to the beauty of combining different material palettes is perfectly expressed in the Pavilion’s design. The building makes use of four types of marble, steel, chrome, and glass and the Italian travertine that wraps the plinth and the exterior walls becomes illuminated when exposed to the sun. The goal was to create an escape from the busyness of the exhibition, “an ideal zone of tranquillity” for the weary visitor.
The Barcelona Pavilion was dismantled after the exhibition’s closure, but calls for its re-construction set a project in motion. In 1980, architects Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Cristian Cirici and Fernando Ramos began to research, design and supervise the reconstruction of the Pavilion. Work began in 1983 and the new building was opened on its original site in 1986.
The Farnsworth House.
In 1945 Dr. Edith Farnsworth chose Mies over Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright to design her weekend retreat house. Edith was a fascinating woman, an accomplished research physician in a male-dominated field, a classically trained violinist, a poet and translator, and a world traveler.
The Farnsworth House is one of the most significant of Mies’ works. Historian Maritz Vandenburg described it by saying, “every physical element has been distilled to its irreducible essence”. However, Mies and Edith disagreed over certain decisions – she wanted curtains and certain creature comforts. Mies dismissed this. The process of creation was certainly a collaboration, but the architecture is all Mies.
Much has been said about the 20th century architectural masterpiece, with the deep fascination extending to the bitter feud between Mies and Farnsworth that ensued over love, money, gender, and the very nature of art. “Broken Glass” by Alex Beam was inspired by this relationship, with the author accessing over 4000 pages of the transcript from the lawsuit that Mies filed against Dr. Farnsworth.
In the late 1990’s, the Friends of the Farnsworth House were able to purchase the property for the National Trust, with a preservation and conservation easement held by Landmarks Illinois. The site opened for public tours in 2004.
The 860-880 Lake Shore Drive.
The 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Buildings are credited with helping to define Chicago as a leader in Mid-Century Modern architecture and they encompass Mies’ “skin and bones” aesthetic.
The two 26-story apartment towers are set at right angles on a trapezoidal site to maximize views of Lake Michigan. The look is an austere one, with a steel exterior and rhythmic window bays.
It was the weather that called for a restoration in 2008, with a major restoration needed in the two lobbies and the shared plaza. The budget ran to over $8 million and required a delicate balance between historical consideration and renovation costs. Tim Tracey, the Krueck & Sexton (KS) associate principal explained, “Mies’ ideas were so simple and so pure, but also rigorous. Every move reinforces itself. They have a richness to them in their simplicity, which could be a huge benefit to today’s architecture”.
Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is one of the largest museums in the United States. The permanent collection of the museum spans more than 6,000 years of history with approximately 70,000 works from six continents
In 1953, Nina J. Cullinan gifted a building addition to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts as a memorial for her parents. She was a founding member of the Contemporary Arts Museum, the Society For Performing Arts, and the Houston Ballet Foundation. She also served on boards of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Municipal Arts Commission, the Fine Arts Advisory Council of the University of Texas, and the American Federation of Art. Cullinan funded the building of the Cullinan Hall of the Museum of Fine Arts, her only stipulation was that it had to be designed by an architect of “outstanding reputation and wide experience.”
After being selected for the commission, Mies infamously arrived in Houston on a hot summer day and outright rejected the idea of a standard open museum courtyard by remarking, “But in this climate, you cannot want an open patio”.
His eventual design was a curved, glass-enclosed space, fully visible from the street. Ann Holmes, fine arts editor of the Houston Chronicle, described it by saying, “entering Cullinan Hall was like walking from inside to the out-of-doors.” Mies rejected conventional museum design in favour of Modernism and considered the building to be the embodiment of his famous statement, “less is more.”
The Seagram Building.
The 38-story Seagram Building is located in the heart of New York City on Park Avenue and is credited with setting the standard for the modern skyscraper. Completed in 1958, it initially contained the headquarters of the Seagram Company, a Canadian distiller.
The elegant structure was Mies’ first tall office building construction and embodies his design principles. It is a notable example of the functionalist aesthetic – the building’s exterior is formed of a glass curtain wall with vertical mullions of bronze and horizontal spandrels made of Muntz metal. One of its more defining features at the time was the plaza. This set the building back from Park Avenue and created a generous pedestrian space. This design has been imitated extensively and such plazas could now be considered cliché, However, at the time, Mies was making a bold statement.
Sixty years after its completion, it is still admired and sets an example of an International Style skyscraper amidst the New York skyline.
Mies was the architect behind the first ever urban-renewal projects in the United States – Lafayette Park. Built in Detroit and completed in 1959, the 78-acre complex is perhaps one of Mies’ least known designs.
It is located on the city’s lower east side and the neighbourhood, including portions developed by other architects, has been regarded as an incubator of progressive architecture. It is composed of two superblocks, combining low- and high-density housing. Lafayette Park was the collaborative effort of Mies van der Rohe, landscape designer Alfred Caldwell, and planner Ludwig Hilberseimer. Herb Greenwald, the developer, worked with Mies previously on the apartments at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive. The architecture is decidedly Miesian, with pronounced structural elements and panels of plate glass,
Lafayette Park remains a vibrant neighbourhood more than sixty years later and is one of Detroit city’s most racially integrated and economically stable residential areas.
The Chicago Federal Centre.
In his book Chicago: In and Around the Loop, Walking Tours of Architecture and History, Gerard Wolfe refers to the Federal Centre as “the ultimate expression of the second Chicago school of architecture”. This refers to the type of skyscraper architecture which was taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) by Mies van de Rohe, and used by him in his architectural practice.
It consists of three buildings which are arranged around and define the Chicago Federal Plaza. On the eastern side of South Dearborn Street sits the 30-story Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. On the western side, the 42-story John C. Kluczynski Federal Building and the single-story Post Office define the plaza.
The complex as a whole was completed in 1974, five years after Mies’ death. It unifies two themes that he repeated throughout his career: the two high-rise blocks and the incorporation of a large, open space.
Frank Schulze describes it as encapsulating “Mies’s uncompromising devotion to principle, together with his vaunted sensitivity to proportion and detail”.
The Neue Nationalgalerie.
Opening in 1968, The Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) was designed by Mies for modern art in Berlin. It is divided into two distinct stories – the upper story serves as an entrance hall as well as the primary special exhibit gallery and the lower story serves primarily as housing for the gallery’s permanent collection, though it also includes a library, offices, and a shop and café.
The building’s design was a significant move on Mies’ part toward the alleviation of interior space by both defining and minimizing structural enclosure, joining exterior and interior space in a meaningful way. It directly relates to Mies’ conception of museum space in general, as a “defining, rather than confining space”.
In light of the closure of the Bauhaus and Mies being driven from Germany for his modernist approach to design, it was poetic that the last building completed during his lifetime would be the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin’s Museum for Modern Art. The building was a triumph, and Mies had come full circle.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
As his last building and his only library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (MLKML) is the central facility of the District of Columbia Public Library System.
On Feb. 15, 1966, Mies, who was by then 80, presented his idea for the new library. DCPL’s Peterson said, “This is the most functional, the most beautiful and most dramatic library building in the United States, if not in the world,” according to an article published in the Post the following day. The project was supposed to cost $18 million—$130 million in 2014 dollars—and be finished by January of 1970. The 400,000-square-foot steel, brick, and glass structure was completed in 1972 and is a rare example of modern architecture in Washington, D.C.
Mecanoo, with local partner OTJ Architects, recently completed a modernisation of the US capital’s landmark. Delft-based Mecanoo are experts in cultural institutions and libraries and their vision for the MLKML revolved around respect for the original architecture while updating the building to a modern library that reflects a focus on people, celebrating the exchange of knowledge, ideas and culture,’
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