“One must know that this world is formed and that this form matters.”
Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, 1932.
In the Reichsbank project of 1933 the tenets of modernism espoused by Mies Van Der Rohe’s Avant Garde work of the 1920’s were subsumed by monumental form and strict symmetry. The “free columns” in this instance are bound closely to the skin, weakening the dialectical autonomy between structure and form (fig. 1). The freedom of the plan is hemmed in by overall axial symmetry, which is further controlled by radial symmetry. In his second competition for the Nazis, the Brussels Pavilion competition project of 1934, Mies flips this scenario and apparently returns to his earlier method of spatial configuration (fig. 2). The monumental and symmetrical are suppressed within an overall centrifugally oriented free plan. As in earlier projects, such as the Barcelona Pavilion and the Villa Tugendhat, there is clear autonomy between structural columns and walls. Along with freestanding walls, the plan accommodates 3 playful geometries – circle, rectangle, and square – These closed shapes weave freely through the regularized column grid. However, this sense of independence between components is only the initial impression.
The extant project drawings oscillate between differentiated and unclear readings of the building. The most refined surviving exterior rendering contradicts the impression of freedom in the floor plan (fig.3). Instead, this sketch emphasizes monumentalized symmetry, with the main entrance as axial focus (similar to the front façade of the Reichsbank). The still visible construction lines reinforce this; the vanishing point is directly on center with the front entry, and is further framed by the two large flagpoles. A reluctantly drawn diminutive Nazi eagle (required in the competition brief) completes the hierarchy (fig. 4). Peripheral asymmetrical elements are visible, but do little in changing this initial symmetrical, monumental reading.*
The furthest resolved surviving interior sketch plays a similar game (fig. 5). The view looks towards an internal courtyard, The Hall of Honor. There is an overwhelming impression of stripped down monumental symmetrical space, reminiscent of the gloomy interior rendering of the New Wache (fig. 6). There is little indication this is a moment within a Barcelona Pavilion style free plan. Upon further examination this foreboding dynamically empty space is alleviated by the delicate detailing of the cruciform columns as they stop short of the ceiling. We are left with the impression that the roof is at risk of floating away. **
At first glance the three farthest walls appear to be composed of rectangular panels of stone, again, shaded in a similar fashion as the New Wache Memorial drawing. These are actually glass walls, which reveal certain asymmetrical forms in heavy shadow beyond. Off to the right the back glass wall exposes a view to the outside. This evolving and modified reading demonstrates the attempt by Mies to marry the modern with the monumental in a different way than in the Reichsbank. Here he is attempting a simultaneous and shifting rhetoric.
Decorative elements and furniture in this space are tentatively classical. Hidden in plain sight is a massive swastika on the marble wall to the right. The uncommon ninety-degree orientation of the tines makes it hard to spot despite its size. The ceremonial table near the left wall is a razor thin pane of (black?) glass resting upon squashed, fat, Ionic columns. These legs are heavily over-proportioned, crushed by the weight of gravity, as if submerged in the deep ocean and compressed to maximum density. This dense proportion is oddly countered by the thin black table-top floating above the legs. They do not engage or inform one another. This dialogue becomes a compact metaphor for the whole project, but is it an attempted synthesis between monumental and modern or an openly unresolved duality?
Returning to the surviving floor plan – keeping the simultaneity of closed monumentality and open lightness presented in the renderings in mind – doubts about the free plan begin to emerge. The façade fenestration as seen in the plan incorporates both open corners of glass (which dematerialize the edge) and closed “traditional” windows bound on both sides by brick walls. Furthermore, the closed windows are divided by vertical mullions into 3 bays, while the open cornered windows are always divided in two: Three refers to classical completion, two refers to modernist open-ended seriality. Once again this demonstrates simultaneous rhetoric: a synthesis between strategies demonstrated most clearly in the corners of the AEG Turbine Factory by Peter Behrens and the Fagus Factory by Walter Gropius (fig 7,8).
The relationship of the slender walls to the columns are similar to the Hubbe House; the walls slide past columns, reinforcing their autonomy from structure, yet they are usually symmetrically oriented between columns. In all but one wall in the Brussels Pavilion the midpoint of the wall is at the midpoint between two columns. The square, rectangular and circular geometry enclosures mentioned earlier are simultaneously autonomous yet bound by the column grid in the same fashion as the “free” walls: The center of the circular room lands at a column, the square room is equally inset from a 9 square column grid, and the rectangular program behaves similarly (fig. 9).
The project has both a textually free and bound-plan, both open and closed form, both classical and modern language, both monumental and ethereal rhetoric.
Ultimately we are faced with several provocative questions: Is this an attempt to create simultaneity, or is this a failure to synthesize a consistent architectural stance? Through curated images of the exterior entrance and interior hall of honor was Mies attempting to exaggerate the monumental and symmetrical portions of the building while downplaying the moments of openness afforded by the free plan elsewhere in the building? Was this a strategic way to win the project, and curry favor with the strict Fascists while slyly adhering to his modernist roots? Does it demonstrate this difference or merely propose an alternate rhetoric for Fascist classicized monumentality?
Or, does this project become a metaphor for his otherness from the Nazis; a daring presentation of modernism to a group hostile to what it represents? Is Mies stubbornly ignoring the politics altogether and continuing his subversive explorations of the free plan a-la the Hubbe and Lange House projects (losing himself in the architectural projects regardless of politics)?
In the spirit of the project, the truth lies somewhere in-between.
In the context of the budding tyrannical political landscape under which this project gestated these questions have an important ethical component: Mies risks looking complacent in the face of overwhelming immorality. But, as Franz Schulze points out,*** Mies’ willingness to create architecture for any government or movement demonstrates his allegiance to only one thing: Architecture. Mies was trying to survive in difficult financial times (even in America at this time Wright was struggling for commissions), while attempting to maintain his influence on the German architectural landscape. He was reluctant to emigrate from a country he loved, even if it now betrayed the values of human decency. This conflict is laid bare and expressed in this chimerical project, which constantly oscillates between resolution and tension.
I find some potent parallels between this project and the situation we are facing in America today, particularly with the call for proposals of a border wall (fig.10,11). When faced with a government that uses the poor, foreign born, minority religions and race as scapegoats is one expected to reject any and all commissions of this administration? I’m inclined to say yes, but is this situation different than it was for Mies; we are not in the midst of a Great Depression. Mies’ participation in these competition projects are an important lesson of history. We must decide for ourselves if this is the course we would take in a difficult situation.
Hitler vehemently rejected Mies’ entry for the Brussels Exposition Pavilion, reportedly throwing it over his chair and stepping on it while reviewing other proposals. The original competition boards have vanished. Mies never tried to work on civic projects for Hitler’s Reich again. His proposal for open, universal, space – that countered lightness with monumentality – had no place in Fascist architecture. The Reich required massive imposing forms to legitimize their cause while subjugating and intimidating the masses.