Canadian Architect

Feature

Regarding Mies

Two major exhibitions on Mies van der Rohe reveal some new interpretations of his enigmatic work.

August 1, 2001
by Marco Polo

After several major exhibitions, numerous conferences, extensive scholarship and countless publications, is there anything left to say about Mies van der Rohe?

Apparently, quite a lot.

Two new exhibitions in New York–Mies in Berlin at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Mies in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art–combine to document the Modern master’s entire career. The MoMA show, curated by Terry Riley, the museum’s Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, and Barry Bergdoll, Professor of Art History at Columbia University, covers the European phase of Mies’ career up to his emigration to the U.S. in 1938.

Mies and MoMA share a long history, starting with the first U.S. showing of the architect’s work in the famous International Style exhibition of 1932–curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson–that introduced European modernism to North America. This was followed by a 1947 retrospective, also curated by Johnson, and by Arthur Drexler’s blockbuster 1986 tribute on the 100th anniversary of the architect’s birth.

Now, 15 years after that presumably definitive treatment of Mies, Riley and Bergdoll have assembled a formidably comprehensive exhibition that brings some refreshing new twists to Mies scholarship. Whereas earlier shows tended to enshrine Mies as the self-constructed maverick given to laconic aphorisms (“less is more,” “God is in the details”) promoted by the architect and chroniclers of modernism, Mies in Berlin represents a serious attempt to demystify the architect as avant-garde modernist and place him more firmly in the Berlin context in which he worked.

In order to do this, the curators and their team conducted some extraordinarily thorough research, in some cases resuscitating obscure early projects that Mies had disowned. The research team was able to retrieve drawings from municipal authorities, unearthing, in some instances, documentation of projects that the architect had tried to expunge from his body of work.

While much has already been made of the profound influence on Mies’ work of neo-classicism in general and Karl Friedrich Schinkel in particular–especially in early work like the unbuilt Krller-Muller Villa of 1912–the MoMA exhibition includes projects designed throughout the 1920s that adopt a stripped-down but discernibly classical style that parallels the austere Nordic neo-classicism of Gunnar Asplund.

Essentially a straightforward sequential chronology, the exhibition not only illustrates the progression of Mies’ work over time, but also reveals the breadth and disparity of the architect’s work at any one moment, juxtaposing the more traditional work with the famous proposals for glass towers in Berlin. Throughout the 1920s, when the young Ludwig Mies was reconstructing himself as Mies van der Rohe, he continued to build neo-classical bourgeois residences in Berlin’s suburbs like the Werner, Perls and Urbig houses–his “bread and butter” work. At the same time, he was establishing himself at the centre of an incipient architectural avant-garde with theoretical projects like his glass skyscraper for Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse.

While this may hardly seem the stuff of revelation, it appears to have eluded the curators of previous Mies exhibitions, which have tended more to the hagiographic than the critical. Describing one of the primary features of Mies in Berlin as an “insistent lack of censorship”–for instance, the unearthing of work suppressed by the architect–co-curator Barry Bergdoll argues that the exhibition attempts to get at a more accurate reading of Mies.

In addition to bringing to light little-known traditional work, Mies in Berlin also challenges a cornerstone of the Mies myth: that of the universal architectural solution with little concern for locale, site or context. A series of models reveal the architect’s careful attunement to site, particularly to landscape design. This comes across most clearly in the residences, culminating in Mies’ truly surprising first scheme for the Resor House in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, designed immediately before the architect emigrated to the U.S. in 1938 and best known from his photomontage of the house’s panoramic view of the Grand Tetons.

Rather than start with a clean slate, Mies worked with elements already in place, including a servants’ wing and a series of foundations for the main house. The model reveals a strikingly contextual solution: like Frank Lloyd Wright’s roughly contemporary Fallingwater, the house straddles a creek, albeit in much less dramatic fashion. The form is relatively simple, but incorporates materials like rubble masonry for supporting walls, fireplace and chimney and cypress wood siding throughout the house. Almost shocking in the context of a Mies exhibition, the house is capped by a subtly sloped standing seam copper roof. The project went through a subsequent series of revised designs before being abandoned altogether after a flash flood washed out the site in 1943.

The best-know version of Resor House, which Mies continued to work on after moving to Chicago, opens Mies in America, providing a fitting segu to the earlier show. Curated by Phyllis Lambert, Founding Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the exhibition brings together material generated from the time of Mies’ arrival in the U.S. until his death, some 30 years later, in 1969.

While Mies in America is quite different from the MoMA exhibition, it deals with some of the same themes, most notably questions of site and context. In a design approach that has become familiar in the CCA’s Montreal galleries, the exhibition is divided into discrete rooms, organized by theme rather than chronology. These include Space and Structure, Clear Span, and High Rise, documenting many familiar projects. One gallery, whose theme is Learning a Language, includes a series of full scale line drawings of details for new buildings at Chicago’s Armour (later Illinois) Institute of Technology, documenting the architect’s painstaking exploration of how to bring together masonry, steel and glass.

In addition to documenting the work, Mies in America also includes peripheral material that sets a larger context for Mies’ oeuvre. A sampling of Mies’ art collection includes work by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Kurt Schwitters, ensconcing the architect in a resolutely modern milieu. A gallery dedicated to photographs of Mies’ built work examines the role of photography in establishing an architectural canon and a particular editorial spin on the work, isolating it from context and inhabitation. A large video projection of the lobby of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin provides an otherworldly, immersive experience of the starkly surreal and elegant space.

Compared with the MoMA exhibition, the Whitney show is less sharply focused but has greater breadth, the curatorial approach more lateral than linear. Where the MoMA show is more intensely scholarly, Mies in America straddles the didactic and the experiential. At the analytical end of the spectrum, comparative site plan drawings trace the evolution of Mies’ urban design thinking across several of his tower complexes–the Lakeshore Drive Apartments and Federal Centre in Chicago, the Seagram Building in New York, the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto and Westmount Square in Montreal. Similarly, elevation study models of the Promontory and Lakeshore Drive Apartments and the Seagram Building examine his increasingly sophisticated approach to curtain wall design. Both instances illustrate a subtle but unmistakable relationship to locale, such as the Promontory Apartment’s exposed concrete frame with brick infill panels–reminiscent of Chicago warehouses and unthinkable in Mies’ European work–and in the careful siting of the towers in response to the surrounding fabric. In several cases this has been lost due to subsequent development of neighbouring sites, but is captured beautifully in an Ezra Stoller photograph of McKim, Mead and White’s Beaux-Arts palazzo for the New York Racquet and Tennis Club as seen from the lobby of the Seagram Building across Par
k Avenue.

What Mies in America lacks in sequential and didactic clarity compared with Mies in Berlin is more than made up for with evocative gems like the Stoller photos and others instances of visual and experiential richness. Strikingly graphic collages of the unbuilt Chicago Convention Hall and the Museum for a Small City, the fetishistic bronze model of the Seagram Building and meticulous ink drawings of full scale details all bring to life a more tactile, physical and accessible Mies than does the more austere scholarship of the MoMA show. This is no doubt a function of Mme. Lambert’s personal connection to the architect, abetted by several of Mies’ younger associates–George Danforth, Gene Summers, and Peter Pran–who contributed oral histories as part of the research. If the Whitney show rests more within the hagiographic tradition of Mies scholarship than the harder-nosed MoMa exhibition, in the end it presents the Modern master less as a Teutonic god and more as a complex, dialectical and sometimes self-contradictory human being.

While the two exhibitions are quite different in tone and attitude, they dovetail very convincingly as complementary set pieces that offer different readings of Mies. Unfortunately, they can be seen together only in New York: the MoMA show will travel, fittingly, first to Berlin, then on to Barcelona, while the Whitney show will go on to the institution that spawned it, the CCA in Montreal. They each stand up well on their own, but the combination is particularly powerful, encompassing Mies’ entire career and tempering Berlin’s didactic agenda with America’s experiential richness.

Both shows are supported by beautifully illustrated catalogues. Formidable projects in themselves, they are rich with thoughtful essays that further the curatorial and thematic arguments put forward in the exhibitions.

Finally, where do these exhibitions fit within the Mies industry? Can they and their attendant catalogues be looked upon as the definitive statements on Mies? Considering the new material and insights they put forward, they are more likely to raise many questions. Long established in the architectural pantheon as the archetypal reductive modernist, Mies serves as a portal into the larger sphere of Modern architecture. In this context, to reconsider Mies is to reconsider modernism, and this project is far from complete.

Mies in Berlin closes on September 11. Mies in America closes on September 23 and opens at the CCA in Montreal on October 17.