The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Mies

Detlef Mertins (Phaidon, 512pp, £100)

Reviewed by Henrietta Billings

To his admirers, Mies van der Rohe was the vision of progress and modernity, the inventor of the glass skyscraper and the curtain wall. To his detractors, he was the architect of cold technology, destroyer of familiar traditions, anti-historical and the creator of faceless ‘glass boxes’. But from any angle, he was undeniably one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. His career spanned 60 years, two continents and two world wars, and his works and his legacy of ‘skin and bone’ architecture have been scrutinised and debated for decades.

Ten years in production, this beautiful new monograph is a comprehensive appraisal of his life and work. Packed with original drawings and photographs, it explores Mies’ intense interest in philosophy which fed into his evolving design ideas as his reputation grew and he moved from his native Germany to America.

The son of a second-generation master stonemason, Mies was proud to be a ‘self-created’ architect who did not go to university but, in effect, learnt his trade on the job. His first commission, aged 20 in 1907, was a weekend house in a leafy Berlin suburb for the Austrian philosopher Alois Riehl. This was an unusual client-architect relationship, as the Riehls treated Mies as their son, introducing him to philosophy and the writings of Kant and Nietzsche, and the avant-garde thinkers flourishing in Berlin at the turn of the century.

Over the next twenty years, Mies would work with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, and join the ranks of Europe’s cultural elite. He associated himself with the most influential and progressive artists, architects and social thinkers in Berlin, rising to become Director of the Bauhaus in 1930. When he left for America in 1937, he took books not only on architecture, urban design and art history, but also on cosmology, theology, botany and physics. The research of philosopher Raoul Heinrich France into the ‘technical achievements of plants’ informed his intense interest in structure and form, and he learnt from St Thomas Aquinas that beauty is a holy trinity of integrity, proportion and clarity.

Mertins describes how Mies cultivated his identity as his horizons broadened and his architectural style developed. In 1921, shortly before he submitted his first ever skyscraper designs for a Berlin competition, Ludwig Mies left his wife and three daughters and changed his name to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, adopting his mother’s maiden name and inserting the Dutch ‘van der’ which, although not a noble title like ‘von’ in German, was deliberately intended to give him an aristocratic and sophisticated air.

His skyscrapers were the first buildings to be attributed to the new Mies, and it marked the beginning of a new life for the architect. In America, he settled in Chicago where he was appointed Director of the Illinois Institute of Technology. The buildings he designed for the campus between 1942–1955 are still there, including his masterpiece, the widely acclaimed SR Crown Hall (1956). The two-storey building was designed to be column-free, and so totally flexible inside, with four steel plate girders welded to eight H-columns. The girders suspend the roof in a single span and form a primary structure of the building. At the opening, Mies declared it ‘the clearest structure we have done, the best to express our philosophy’.

On a larger scale, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments tower blocks (1951) were designed on a pared-back grid system of steel and glass curtain walls with very minimal ornamentation. They appear ordinary at first glance – unsurprising, as skyscrapers have become so commonplace in our modern urban landscapes. Yet as Mertins points out, Mies was the first architect to intentionally expose the structure of the building – the steel skeleton – which had previously been hidden from view as a matter of course. This new approach would later influence a generation of ‘high- tech’ architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.

Mies had hoped that his architectural style would be imitated and used as the modern C20 symbol of architecture, but after his death in 1969 aged 83, the aesthetic power and quality of the best of his buildings were not matched by later architects. ‘Miesian lines’ were eclipsed by post-modernism by the 1980s, but now, in the 21st century, Mies is celebrated once again as the architect who arguably defined modernism.