Mies en Valeur

TEXT Hans Ibelings

At first glance, the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe seems to perfectly exemplify Alberti’s famous definition of beauty as “that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse.” It is often assumed that the elegance of his “almost nothing” is violated by any distraction from its transparency, openness and refined detailing. 

This may be the reason why the temporary 1:1 scale model of an unexecuted project for a 1930 golf clubhouse in the German city of Krefeld looks so convincingly like a Mies building: precisely because it is nothing more than a representation of a building. Belgian architects Robbrecht and Daem created the model based on archived drawings, on the site intended to house the original competition design. On display until the end of October, it contains over 2,000 square metres of pure space, with two references to the material sophistication this architecture could have acquired if actually built: shiny steel columns and plywood walls, whose patterning alludes to the bookmatched Tinos verde antico marble of the 1929/1986 German pavilion in Barcelona.

Last winter, architect Andrés Jaque created an exhibition in the Barcelona pavilion that deliberately spoiled its Albertian beauty. He displayed everything that was stored in the cellar under the building: pieces of stone, furniture, glass panels, parts of previous exhibitions and the cleaning tools used to keep this replica building in its purest state. Jaque’s installation offered an aesthetic appeal to what otherwise might have been perceived as clutter. But it hinted at the resilience of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture: contrary to what one would expect, the installation actually highlighted the spatial and material power of the pavilion. 

Like any good architecture, there is no doubt that Mies’s structures are best off if Alberti’s maxim of not adding, taking away, or altering anything is taken as prescription. Case in point: the Seagram Building in New York, the subject of a new book written by Phyllis Lambert. Lambert is the insider par excellence, as the client’s daughter who persuaded her father to hire Mies van der Rohe, as the director of planning during the building process, and as the patroness of the Seagram Building ever since. She is able to recount the story of the building like nobody else could. One great merit of the history she presents is that it does not end with the completion of the building–but goes on to describe the project’s life since 1958. 

Lambert emerges from this book not only as its author, but also as one of the actors. There is no false modesty in this regard: the author’s name is included in the index, and is among the most cited, together with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Seagram, Four Seasons Restaurant, Plaza of Seagram Building and Philip Johnson. These are the protagonists in an exceptional story. What is missing from the index but receives quite some attention in this book is a major player that entered the life of the Seagram Building in 1979, some two decades after its completion: Article 26 of the agreement of purchase and sale between Seagram and the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA). Article 26 defined the architectural integrity of the Seagram Building and Plaza and prescribed how much (or how little, in fact) was allowed in the first 10 feet of office space behind the transparent façades. The basic message of Article 26 to the new owner was: the building is all yours, but don’t touch it. Due to the assertiveness of Seagram (and TIAA’s willingness to accept these conditions) the untainted life of the Seagram Building was secured, well before it received official landmark designation nearly a decade later.

Although total preservation keeps Mies’s architecture at its Miesian best, its does not necessarily lose its dignity when this isn’t the case. None of Mies’s Canadian projects–three in Montreal and one in Toronto–have been treated with a similar uncompromising respect for the original as the Seagram Building, yet each has turned out to possess a rather robust beauty.

 The four Canadian projects, for which Mies van der Rohe was officially only the consulting architect, cover the spectrum from changing for the worse (Westmount Square), to not doing much at all (Nuns’ Island apartment buildings), to carrying on a legacy (TD Centre), to reinventing Mies. The last holds true for the Nuns’ Island gas station, recently turned into a community centre. Les Architectes FABG’s transformation takes the original very seriously (see pages 22-25) and the architects have kept an admirably low profile, but did not freeze the former gas station in the rigor mortis of monumentalization. 

The three nearby apartment buildings are among the most run-of-the-mill projects of Mies’s career, and have never been treated as venerable masterpieces. Today they look like most 50-year-old buildings; just a bit worn. The overdue maintenance enhances the impression that this is the closest a Mies building gets to ordinariness, a quality not always fully appreciated in his architecture. 

The two largest Canadian projects–the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto and Westmount Square in Montreal–reveal contrasting approaches. Bregman and Hamann (now B+H Architects), who collaborated with Mies on the original TD Centre together with John B. Parkin Associates, have remained involved up to the present. Between 1974 and 1991 they designed three additional office towers on the same block, complementing Mies’s original two towers, low bank building, plaza and concourse. And for the past three years, they’ve been active on the exemplary revitalization of the TD Centre, along with Michael McClelland of E.R.A. Architects. 

When the first part of the TD Centre was built in the late 1960s, it boasted a state-of-the-art HVAC system, but standards have changed since the pre-energy-crisis era. Aside from equipment upgrades, the recent renovation includes replacement of the original single-pane windows with thermal double-pane windows that will reduce heat loss by 50 percent. B+H has taken great pains to ensure that all interventions remain true to the original designs of Mies, yet they took certain liberties to make the complex more sustainable, such as adding a neatly gridded green roof on top of the TD Bank Pavilion. 

Westmount Square’s renovation, undertaken in the late 1980s, only 20 years after the building’s completion, was done with less care. Part of the explanation might be a difference of sensibility and talent, but it also has to do with timing. The Austrian writer Karl Kraus once said of his own work that it would become timeless as soon as it started to appear outdated. In architecture though, it usually takes even longer for buildings to become classics. As soon as the glamour of novelty wears off, after a decade or so, they enter a dangerous period of being unfashionable. If they manage to endure this, they may eventually acquire the aura of timelessness. TD’s renovation started only after it was widely considered untouchable. The renovation of Westmount Square came too early in this respect. The replacement of travertine with a much duller granite in the outdoor spaces (purportedly for better resistance to winter conditions) and the addition of skylights to the shopping concourse have certainly not improved the complex. In addition to the three towers and a low box, a new fourth tower was simultaneously constructed–which, while anticipated in the original plans, did not exactly match Mies’s Modernism in its execution. 

This apartment tower, an example of watered-down Postmodernism, was designed by French architect Henri Colombani, who describes apologetically but without any real explanation on hi
s website that it was conceived “within the limits set by the architect, without the possibility of a copy.” Just as the transformation of Westmount Square came too soon for some to be convinced of its timeless quality, after just 25 years it might be too early to pass final judgement on Colombani’s intervention. It would not be too daring, though, to contend that it will never be able to compete with the power that Mies’s original Westmount Square retains despite its renovation. 

Of all four Canadian projects, Westmount Square is definitely the worst off. Contrary to Jaque’s installation in which the clutter actually underlines the beauty of the architecture, here the changes are disturbingly present. But no matter how much Mies’s ensemble is robbed of its purity, it is still beautiful in its fulfillment of his ideal of stark, dark towers in the city. Maybe it is first and foremost this compelling darkness that has saved Westmount Square, and which proves how much Mies’s architecture can handle, such that almost nothing can bring it down. CA

Hans Ibelings is an architectural historian based in Montreal. Until 2012 he was the editor of A10 New European Architecture, which he founded in 2004 together with graphic designer Arjan Groot. Currently, he is the editor and publisher of The Architecture Observer. His forthcoming book sheds light on the little-known work of Dutch architect Gert Boon (1921-2009).