The Crisis of Monumentality Part II: Mies’ Brussels Pavilion.

“One must know that this world is formed and that this form matters.”
Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, 1932.


01- Reichsbank Project Plan. MVDR, 1933

01- Reichsbank Project Plan. MVDR, 1933

02- Brussels Pavilion Plan. MVDR, 1934.

02- Brussels Pavilion Plan. MVDR, 1934

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.

03- Brussels Pavilion Front Entrance

03- Brussels Pavilion Front Entrance

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04- Entrance Detail.

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.*

05-Brussels Interior sketch -2.jpg

05- Interior Rendering.

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. **

06-New Wache.jpg

06-New Wache Project. Berlin, 1930.  An interior proposal inside the Pavilion by K.F. Schinkel. Note how the ceiling in this space resembles the open sky of the Brussels project interior rendering.

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).

09-brussels plan diagram-1.jpg

09- Brussels Diagram of Free and Bound Objects.  Blue components are “free,” red components are “bound.” Column grid in black.  Diagram by Andrew Ryan Gleeson.

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.


10- Penna Groups Proposal for the Mexican Border Wall as seen from the U.S. Side.

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.

11-PennaGroup BorderWall 03.jpg

11- Penna Group Proposal for the Mexican Border Wall as seen from the Mexican side.


*This drawing and the interior view discussed later has several studies in the archive, demonstrating the importance of these views to Mies. It is also worth assuming that these were the views used in the now vanished presentation drawings.
** In the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat house, the chrome clad cruciform column negates the load bearing conception of the column, by reversing it’s logic into immateriality (similar to the mass-alleviation-through-bundling found in late Gothic cathedrals). This results in the impression that the columns are in tension, which directly contradicts the primary compressive load patterning expected of columns. The pause at the capital (this negative space could also be considered an anti-capital) in the Brussels Pavilion project takes this even further, reinforcing an illusion of tethering and load subversion. Robin Evans, speaking about the only surviving sketch by Mies of the Barcelona Pavilion, notes: “…two vertical lines that indicate a column are drawn so close together that they look more like a stretched cord than a compressed column – wherein lies the clue.”
Evans, Robin:
*** “This was, after all, a man who within eight years’ time had designed a monument to a pair of Communist martyrs, a throne for a Spanish king, a pavilion for a moderate socialist government, and another for a militantly right-wing totalitarian state!”          Page 201. Schulze, Klaus. Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1985
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The Front and the Back: Mies,The Reichsbank, and the Crisis of Monumentality


Figure 1. The Reichsbank “back.”

The Reichsbank project of 1933 (fig. 1) is an attempt by Mies Van Der Rohe to synthesize both monumental and modernist rhetoric. This competition, during the first year of the Third Reich’s power, attempts to resolve and enfold both pragmatic and political schemas. There is both a monumental classicist front façade (fig. 2) where one enters the public bank, and a functionalist modernist office façade on the backside (towards the Spree Canal). The front has classical hierarchy: entrance in the center, imposing facade proportions, and overall symmetry. The elevation resembles the hierarchical insistence and imposing frontality of the Palazzo Farnese (Fig. 3) On the backside symmetry is replaced by non-hierarchical seriality. Instead of the grand Schinkelesque front entry facade one reads the insistent wrap-around ribbon windows. These express the repetitive function of office work. The spacing of the bar buildings correspond to daylighting needs, while the ribbon windows are a throwback to both the Concrete Office Building project of 1923, and Mendelsohn’s Schocken Department Store in Chemitz of 1929 (fig 4, 5). A former employee of Mies, Sergius Ruegenberg, recalls Mies inquiring from Mendelsohn the window proportions of the Schocken store during the Reichsbank competition.1

Figure 2: Reichsbank Elevation

Figure 3: Palazzo Farnese

In effect, the Reichsbank Project attempts to reconcile the civic agenda of the new Reich and Mies’ agenda to advance modernism by creating a classical and a modernist façade (one could argue that the side facades are a transition between these two, but I won’t go into that just yet). However, upon further study, there isn’t a clear separation between the two potentially discordant rhetorical approaches. The modern infects the monumental front façade as the ribbon windows wrap around the upper levels (fig. 2). The symmetrically located clerestory windows undermine the heavy rootedness of the large blocks of brick that bookend the grand window of the large banking hall lobby. Thus, the imposing monumental heaviness of the opaque wall surface is literally undercut by the subtractive clerestories. Brick and glass (not stone) subverts the tectonic expectations of monumentalist architecture, particularly when considering Speer’s later meditations on Ruin Value.2 To the Fascists a brick and glass façade on a civic building would look unfinished.

At the back façade, the threat of infection by the serialized bar buildings suggests a possible alternative monumentality: one that reflects the Regimes goal of permanence conquest and control, but without the expected tectonic or classical motifs.

Figure 4: Concrete Office Building Project

Figure 5: Erich Mendelsohn. Schocken Dept. Store, 1929.

At this early stage in the Nazi Germany the groundwork for an architectural rhetoric was not yet fully established (the competition was actually begun before the Nazis took power), which explains why several modernists such as Mies, Gropius, and Taut participated. Soon Mies would discover that his brand of modernism was not deemed appropriate for Nazi civic architecture. Modernism was synonymous with functionalism and economy, with temporary factory buildings that did not need to propagandize the imposing presence of the National Socialist movement: in short, the Nazis needed an architecture that subjugated and dwarfed the individual, and the tenets of Modernism could not meet these requirements.

Did Mies’ mixture of modernist and monumentalist expression propose an alternate path for the rhetorically liberating effects of modernism to enfold into the totalitarian project of the new regime? Was it, conversely, a subtle critique or expression of frustration at the incongruity of a modernist and Fascist union?

This reminds me of the somewhat later villas of Hans Scharoun, particularly the Baensch House of 1935 built during the Nazi Regime.3 (fig. 6,7) For political reasons Scharoun was obligated to express a traditional vernacular on the front facade, but on the backside – where supposedly the government wasn’t looking – Scharoun broke open the façade with sheets of glass maintaining a truly modernist relationship between inside and outside. Just as in the Reichsbank, there is a well-behaved closed front, and a liberated open backside that serves the real needs of the occupants – untethered by political rhetoric or control.

Hans Scharoun: Baensch House, 1935.

Figure 7: Baensch Back

Further back in time this recalls the Winslow House of 1894 by Frank Lloyd Wright (fig.8,9). Although stripped down and un-Victorian by the standards of the day, the front façade looks ordered, symmetrical, and carefully proportioned, while on the backside there is a certain geometrical and non-hierarchical playfulness. These two approaches to the facades have less to do with hiding or reconciling a political agenda. Instead, the “wild” façade is hidden purely for decorum. The shock of the new would have been too much for the average citizen walking down the street to handle. Frank Lloyd Wright would have to wait a bit longer to unleash his fully formed prairie style. Both of these examples demonstrate the challenges of architectural conception, particularly when there are competing agendas.

Figure 8: FLLW, Winslow House, 1894. Front side.

Figure 9: Winslow House Back side.

In short, it is difficult to read the Reichsbank as a clearly monumentalist classical building or as a purely lightweight modernist one. The motivations that led Mies to this final direction remain ambiguous and conflicted. When a modernist is expected to advance a new agenda that is in most ways antithetical and malevolent to the modernist project a tension arises. This irresolution leads to an ambiguity of intentions on Mies’ part: Either the building was a compromise towards monumentality, in order to stay employed as an architect in Germany under a new regime, or it was a way forward that suggested a synthesis between the monumental and the modern. Both of these options would be considered a failure, not only because Mies lost the competition and failed to show the Nazis an alternative to neoclassical bombast, but because he did not resolve the antipodal philosophies. If neither of these is the true motivation perhaps the duality between modern and monumental remained intentionally unresolved, possibly as a stubborn yet subtle critique of the capricious Reich. Detlef Mertins perceives this trepidation within the menacing shadows of the final project charcoal renderings (fig. 10):

“Perhaps Mies did seek to express the character of the new National Socialist state: not the character conveyed by its propaganda but rather its true character – soulless, empty and inhuman.”4

Figure 10: Reichsbank.

1. Page 120.

Pommer, Richard. MVDR and The Political Ideology of the Modern Movement in Architecture. From, Mies Van Der Rohe Critical Essays edited by Franz Shulze. New York, NY: MOMA, 1989.

2. “This idea of buildings or stones as capable of speaking, and doing so

across time, was shared by Speer, who drew up what he called a ‘Theory

of Ruin Value’ (Speer, 1995: 97). This was based upon consideration of

how buildings from Classical Antiquity had decayed over time yet

retained a capacity to impress and generate feelings of awe over the

centuries. His theory thus aimed to take into account the ways in which

buildings would decay and to set out principles that would ensure that

even as they did so they would remain capable of acting as ‘bridges of

tradition’ (Speer, 1995). That is, that they would retain sufficient of their

shape and qualities even as they fell into ruin to remain able to ‘speak’.

Not only, then, was there an intention that the structures as built would

be capable of effects, calculations were made about how agency might

be made to continue into the distant future.”

From, Macdonald, Sharon. Words In Stone?: Agency and Identity in a Nazi Landscape.

Page 10:

3. See my earlier post for further insight on these 2 projects: 216.

4. Mertins, Detlef. MIES. New York, NY:Phaidon, 2014.

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GSD Thesis


Sketch by MvdR of a theater project.

I’m pleased to include the link to my thesis book for anyone interested in getting a copy.  It is the culmination of everything I explored in this blog.  This book is an investigation of duality present in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe.   The title, Resolution and Tension, draws attention to a strange duality within the concept of duality itself  (stick with me).  

A classical approach to  duality  attempts to  resolve contradictions, creating a sense of completion.  In postmodernity the opposite –an exploitation of unresolved duality–consciously occurs.  This irresolution leads to dynamic tension, which is the opposite of classical repose.  

The investigation of Mies van der Rohe stunningly reveals that he exploited both types of duality, because he understood that not all contradictions within architecture could be solved.  


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‘The Lie that Reveals Truth.”

To illustrate one of the concepts in my blog concerning expressive rationalism I have doctored up an image of Mies’ unbuilt 50X50 house.  The sequence demonstrates the attenuating power of honesty in architecture. Honesty can obscure the clear diagram of a built work.  One must work through a building according to its functional demands, but beyond that, and in order to create architecture, one must go a step further and create poetry out of it.  One way this is accomplished is through distillation. Effectively then, the “true” work is revealed in reverse of this sequence; when excessive rationalities are hidden to reveal a truth about the work that is more spiritually honest.


I: 50X50 House by Mies Van Der Rohe. 1950-51 (Project model photo collage.)


II: The addition of edge columns give further support to the roof and facade.  They
also define and confine the rectangular volume.


III: The addition of shear truss members further supports the roof and columns. They
also obscure the view and introduce the diagonal, which does violence to the atmosphere
of the space.


IV: The final step is the addition of a hipped rood (actually taken from Frank Lloyd
Wright’s Winslow House) to protect from rainwater.  The house is now a silly parody
of itself, but it is also hyper rationalized.  I could perhaps go one step further and add
sunshades, or better yet, plaster the walls and insert regualr double hung windows.

The architect works through this push and pull between rational and spiritual directives.  This push and pull comes internally, with our competing desires for honesty and beauty.  The push is also external.  The weight of gravity and the necessity of program and clients needs are an obstactle pushing against our own desires.  The internal and external duality will be explored further in a later post.

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The Apollonian and Dionysian in Architecture.

Architecture is the synthesis between the real and the spiritual.  The real is the body of elements that influence a building towards its practical function; it is the rationalist necessity or the objective aims of built works.  The spiritual is that in a  building which is unrelated to, and unsupported by, necessity.  The spiritual is borne of a desire to create something that transcends the laws of practical reality. It is the will to create beauty; to satisfy a deep unknowable longing.  In theory the real is objective and the subjective is spiritual, however, the objective is continuously tempered by the bias of the individual. Conversely, when subjectivity resonates with an almost universal approval, or is validated in time with age value, the notion of total subjectivity can blur.  The purely pragmatic is merely shelter; the purely aesthetic is merely sculpture. 

 The aesthetic, spiritual element in architecture can be self-reflexive, taking cues from methods previously thought of as objective, rational and appropriate. On the other hand, aesthetics can run counter to the practicalities of built work. These a-tectonic gestures seek to divorce the pragmatic aims of a built work from its aesthetic aims.  Objectivist aesthetics can be found in the expressive rationalism of Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers or the pure structural diagram of Crown Hall by Mies Van Der Rohe, while Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein tower or Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Museum represent blatantly subjective aims. 

 With expressive rationalism, aesthetics take on an Apollonian desire towards discipline and restraint.  The work seeks a rhythm in accordance with its own demands; it rests within its own framed completion.  Expressionist architecture respects the Dionysian; it desires play, and a break from discipline: freedom of unadulterated expression removed from the demands of corporeal constraints (structure, program, gravity, client, budget).

 Nietzsche writes that the Apollonian seeks out truth and regards its expression as symbolic of that truth.  It seeks to eliminate contradiction and is thus inflexible: it is catholic.  The Apollonian does not acknowledge its temporary nature.  Instead it often whole-heartedly mistakes itself for an expression of timelessness.   Its aims are thus purely spiritual even if they poetically echo the diagram of the pragmatic work (late Mies Van Der Rohe). 

 The Dionysian is aware of the subjective nature of aesthetic expression.  It is open to its openness of interpretation.  It is nebulous and aware that its perception will change with time.  It acknowledges time and may chose to celebrate temporality and the torrid nature of perception.  Building materials are thus made with weathering in mind. The building is not suspended in an ideal state: it has an intended lifespan.  This very duality between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is denied by the former and embraced by the latter.

 Regardless of whether aesthetics are Apollonian or Dionysian, they are always in contrast to the true demands of the built work.  Pragmatic reality is constantly an opposing force against the creative will to order or make poetry of the raw necessities of shelter. Once the work is actually projected onto clients, budgets, and regulations, each of the architect’s careful fantasies is sifted through the filter of realistic demands.  Thus there is the duality between the pragmatic and the aesthetic. As stated above, there is also an additional, nested duality in this paradigm between an aesthetics of pragmatism and an aesthetics of pure art. 

 Architecture itself is an expression of this very duality.  It is a manifestation of the frustration between the purity of artistic thought and the constraints of reality.  The acknowledgement of duality itself is thus the foundation and tension found in great works of architecture.


More on that later….

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MVDR: Seagram Building. 1954-1958 Axiality and plaza.

Forty-two years after his death many people still have misconceptions about the architecture of Mies Van Der Rohe.  Below I will list a few elements of Mies’ architecture that may have been lost in the broad definition of his work.  Mies is branded as a minimalist and a rationalist. He is relegated to his famous phrase “Less is More” but with none of the subtle contradictions that this saying implies.  A closer study of his work reveals that he did not shun the complexities of architecture lightly, but tried to find a way to reconcile spiritual ambition within the context of built reality.

1.  Mies was indifferent to context:

Contrary to assumption about his work and its disconnect with the surrounding environment, Mies Van Der Rohe was probably one of the true innovators of contextuality within an urban fabric! At first glance, his tightly packaged skyscrapers may look unsympathetic to the site, but Mies spent countless hours in quiet contemplation overlooking models of his buildings in a site model.  He would crouch down and look at them from the angle of the street and carefully study their proportions in relation to the surrounding buildings until he arrived at a solution that was right for the site.  Not only that, but in almost all of his skyscraper work, he truly innovated by introducing a plaza element that would break up the monotonous wall of buildings within a city. These plazas were almost always successful meeting grounds for city inhabitants.  They also became the precedent for countless other successful plazas like the Daley Plaza in Chicago.

The clearest example of this is the Seagram Building in New York City, a building that is very much a part of its context. Considering how expensive real estate in New York is, Mies did something crazy by proposing to set the building back from the street to create a public plaza.  This kind of innovative thinking allowed him to create a moment of repose in the constant shuffle of the city.  If Mies had truly been a rationalist and a minimalist he would have maximized the site for the most efficient and money making building footprint.  It is also worth imagining that his ego might have enjoyed the idea that people would actually be able to see his building from the street without having to crick their necks!  By pulling it back he made the Seagram Building photogenic. (And fortuitously his plaza also gave Ezra Stoller the chance to take that famous photo of the Lever building across the street!)  Another obvious acknowledgement to the site is the axiality of the main entrance with the Beaux Arts Building across the street.  This was an obvious and carefully planned classicist move that is further proof that Mies was fully aware of his surroundings and his buildings made important enriching contributions to their context.  Of course there are countless other examples of sympathetic contextuality in his other works but I will move along for now.  (but do see this post that further elaborates:  ).

 2. Mies was a pure rationalist: 

The clarity of Mies’ built work has led many to mislabel him a pure rationalist, but in truth his buildings were major aesthetic refinements of the rationalist problems at hand.  They were distillations of function not pure function.  They were decorative in service to the idealism of a clear structure.  Had he been a pure rationalist it is doubtful he would have used symmetry to accommodate functional requirements.  Inherently, program is complex and there are many different needs a building must offer.  Symmetry becomes an ordered/willed refinement of program.  That is not to say that a symmetrical building cannot function as well as a non-symmetrical building; it is dependent on how rigorous the demands of program are (for example the demands of a hospital are much more rigorous than the demands of a small museum) and the diligence of the architect in planning the building.

Furthermore, had Mies been a pure rationalist he probably would have expressed the shear triangulation in his skyscrapers instead of hiding it behind walls in his cores.  The repression of triangulation is a distillation of a clear structure.  It is ideological honesty that avoids the overt complexity of the actual situation.

Most famously, and without too much elaboration here, Mies’ decorative use of the I-Beam is not a move a pure rationalist would take.  Mies used the I-Beam to express the hidden steel structure of his skyscrapers.  This is a gesture of expressionism, not rationalism, but it is done with such ease and refinement it appears logical, rational, and precisely the way that it should be.  Herein lies the genius of Mies; he cloaked aesthetic will in such a refined way that it appears rationalist!

Barcelona Pavilion colors.

 3. Mies did not use color: 

Before the restoration of the Barcelona Pavilion, many have been led to believe that Mies only really worked with very drab colors; black, white, gray and tan.  But upon closer inspection the work of Mies Van Der Rohe is populated with luxuriant colors and textures.  In the Barcelona Pavilion he used a large variety of different colored marble each with their own boldness.  He used tinted glass and red velvet curtains.  These all combined in a kaleidoscope of color that offsets the abstract planarity of the rest of the building.  Colors contribute to the dynamic shifts of the plan, it gives the experience vitality.  As the years went on Mies’ color palette became subtler but I would argue no less delightful.  In the buildings at IIT, the tan bricks and tinted windows offset with the gray painted steel create a very subtle and magical color scheme that I personally find to be one of the saving graces of these otherwise slightly clumsy early American examples of his work.  The Seagram building of course is clad in rich bronze and the windows are similarly tinted in a rich dark color, which contrasts beautifully with the coolness of the travertine floor and cores.  Colors here express the luxury of the client, they express decadence.

MVDR: Courtyard House. 1934

4. Mies never used organic forms: 

Mies is usually thought of as a maker of rectangular volumes in architecture.  His forms are generally linked to very rigid orthographic typologies.  This is not a concrete rule however.  Mies deviated from these forms in ideology and necessity on occasion.   His two early avant-garde skyscraper projects of the early 20’s were responses to a complex wedge shaped site as well as a considered reaction to the reflective materiality of glass.   These early projects were a revolutionary approach to design at the time, reflecting a break from the past rather than a progression.  In America Mies would find a way to acknowledge the past and build for his time.

The little seen floor plan for one of Mies’ proposed court houses is a rectangular enclosure with interior walls composed of gently curving walls.  The rhythm of the curves are very atypical of his work but seem to have the same De Stilj-like spatial relationship of the planar walls in his other court house projects and the Barcelona Pavilion.  The Barcelona Pavilion is equally famous for the chair that Mies designed for it.   The very non-orthogonal Barcelona Chair (as opposed to Rietveld’s chair) is a simple form of slightly curving criss-crossed steel member that converge in the middle. Above the crossing is the seat and back, below the crossing are the four legs. This is a clear and important reminder that Mies had concern for human comfort in ways that Frank Lloyd Wright and other contemporaries did not.  It also makes an important distinction between the decorum of furniture and building.    A building need not be ergonomic, while a chair requires itself to respond to the immediate experience of its user.  Mies is making a clear distinction here.

Reichsbank site plan. Mies being contextual.

Museum of Fine Arts. Houston. 1954. (photo by Ezra Stoller)

Other more pragmatic examples of a gentle curve find themselves in the proposal for the massive unbuilt Reichsbank and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. Both of these buildings use gentle curves as responses to site context.  They disprove the notion that Mies was rigid in his insistence on orthogonal space.

One could argue Mies' unencumbered views of nature have more in common with nature than the confused mimesis of FLLW.

5. Mies was anti-nature:

With his industrial aesthetic and material coldness Mies has been accused of shunning nature.  However, the Farnsworth house has an intimate relationship with nature.  One could argue that one is closer to nature in this house than ever with a Frank Lloyd Wright house. FLLW blends the building with nature, which confuses the transition.  But Mies frames nature without fuss, he brings it in and makes it an overwhelming part of the experience of the house.  By not imitating nature, he heightens the “nature-ness” of nature and in turn heightening the “manmade-ness” of the building.  The white absorbs and bounces all the colors of the natural world.  In fall the building has a completely different tone than in winter.  The house is like tofu: it absorbs the characteristics of its surroundings.

Bacardi Building. 1957. Concrete structure.

6.  Mies never reacted to environment:

Because Mies’ work was concerned in the refinement over time of general problems of architecture, he has been accused of having no sympathy towards his immediate environment or the reality of the situation.  This can be true to a certain extent, but looking at his work more closely one finds that many of his decisions were based on the environment he built in.  This is distinct from his reactions to context, this point is about his reaction to environmental and natural conditions.

When designing the Bacardi Office in Cuba he proposed a concrete structure because the humid environment would have quickly rusted one made of steel.  This is a consideration made in response to the problem at hand; it is not Mies’ arbitrary will to create a building that has no relationship with reality. Problem dictates approach.   Similarly Mies used tinted glass in all of his later skyscraper projects as an acknowledgment to the real world factors of climate.  Also, as a general rule, Mies colored his urban and rural buildings in different fashions.  Dark colors were used in the dense cities perhaps pragmatically to conceal the smog of car emissions.  White was used in rural settings to absorb more warmly the desired colors of nature.   Of course, I would not be so bold as to say that Mies was positively sympathetic to his environment in the ways that current issues of sustainability are requiring.  I’m merely saying that Mies buildings did acknowledge real needs and did so in a subtle fashion.

Mies Van Der Rohe was no slouch; he spent much of his adult life carefully considering the problems of architecture.  The very subtlety of his work can lead people to believe his solutions unconsidered. This is a paradox. Hmmm perhaps I should explore the duality of careful attention creating an unwilling perception of carelessness!

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1+1=1: The Nagging Tooth of Architecture.

The Oculus of the Pantheon. Rome, Italy (Photo by Argitect)

Finally, after putting it off for years, I had my wisdom teeth removed last week.  Over the next couple of days the effects of the surgery were pervasive.  It affected the way I breathed *, it affected how I ate and drank.  The pain was steady enough to be noticeable.  The absence of my teeth became my fundamental identity for this recovery weekend.  I could manage minor but brief diversions watching epic movies and sleeping, but the consciousness of my circumstance was never more than an inch from my thoughts.

In this half awake pain pill fueled stupor I had a minor epiphany:  “The aching in my mouth is the dominant theme of my life at this moment.  It is the one thing that really identifies me right now.  It puts everything in simple concentrated focus.”    Here’s the leap:  There are certain buildings that also have this concentrated focus, this one element that identifies every inch of the building.  There are certain structures where one centralizing element has such magnetic force it informs and influences all other parts of the design.

The prime example of this is the Pantheon in Rome.  The oculus at the top of the dome is the nucleus of the whole design.   Every element is in service to and seems to have force directed towards the oculus. Even though the structure is bringing load downward, it appears that the entire interior facade is thrusting towards the apex.  The coffers in the domes bend radially and are stretched as if in exaggerated perspective towards the oculus. The pediments point towards it. The columns, pilasters and niches all seem to be spiritually informed or tugged by the oculus. This is a very elusive and vague thing to describe, but for some reason this potent force, almost intangible, is felt in this place. It leaves an impression that taints the view of every element of the structure.  Part to whole is in complete unity.   Even outside one is seared with the memory of the oculus (and perhaps even literally has a blind spot in there eye from looking into it for too long!)  The oculus stays with you and blinds all your memories of the place. The Pantheon IS the oculus, and nothing else!

This is a kind of element in design I would  call the Dominant Father.  A young child, growing up with an overbearing disciplinarian father, will constantly live in fear of his father. All decisions and actions are framed in relationships to the consequence of his father’s reaction to it.  Life becomes about one thing only. This constant obsessive thought taints everything.  Perhaps the metaphor is not ideal in that it suggests hostility, but the metaphor works in the sense that it describes a concept of one germinating element that informs all other components.  This can also be found in literature: The search for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, or the White Whale in Moby Dick are constant looming thoughts in the respective novels.

This does not happen in that many buildings, and quite frankly it is something I am less comfortable in assigning because it is such an intangible, spiritual, feeling.  Nevertheless, I will cite several examples I think may fit the Dominant Father concept in architecture.

A courtyard in a Pompeian Villa. Photo by Argitect.

-The Pompeian Villa:  The central courtyard in a typical Pompeian villa, open to the sunshine and in a central location to the house, is the dominant life force of the house. It is the spoke in which functions surround.  It is pervasive, and is not far from the dwellers mind even if they are in a room where they do not see the courtyard directly.

A golden section diagram of Palladio's Villa Rotunda.

-Villa Rotunda: Similar to the Villas of Pompeii, but perhaps more refined, the Villa Rotunda by Andrea Palladio is a buildings whose rigorous proportioning are informed and tainted by the impression of the centralized dome.  It affects every element of design with its spiritual exhalations.

Barcelona Pavilion. Kolbe Sculture. I like to call her the BarPa Water Lady!

-Barcelona Pavilion:  The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe is a rare modernist example of this idea although the dominant element is not even architectural. The Kolbe Sculpture in the water at the far end of the Pavilion is the entire heart of the design. It is impossible to see the building as complete without it. It counterpoints and gives heart to the abstract planes that gently envelope it.  One is struck by its singular gravity, and it forms a place in your mind that sticks with you even when you can’t see it.  The sculpture becomes the one thought of the building!

Salk Institute. Louis Kahn. Basically the only photograph necessary.

-The Salk Institute:  The dominant element in the Salk Institute by Louis Kahn is also not technically architectural. Instead of being the building it is the void between the buildings.  The courtyard puts every element of the design into laser focus.  More specifically, the narrow channel of water down the center of the courtyard is the nucleus of the whole building, the spiritual center of the space.  Bays in the building seem to thrust toward it in response like sunflowers facing the sunshine.  To a certain degree the focusing courtyard also reaches out to the distant landscape. The water and the horizon are brought in and framed by the courtyard.  Horizon is also part of this dominant element.   In the windowless laboratories one may still feel the presence of this space.

These examples all seem to have this intangible dominant nucleus space that informs the design. It can simply be a skylight, a void, a sculpture or any other building component.   It’s like the nagging pain of a pulled tooth, or the manipulation of a dominant father.  Unlike my previous posts concerning the dual nature of architecture this is a concept of holistic unity. This unity, however, cannot be achieved without a masterful meeting between the pragmatic reality of built form and its aesthetic expression. All elements of construction can conform to the single idea.  The purely willed and distilled artistic filtration of these pragmatic concerns can heighten the potency of this dominant vision better than mere rationalism.   So in the end, the dual nature of architecture must be acknowledged in creating an architecture of singular unity.  How’s that for a paradox?

*It’s like that great line in Chinatown. Yellburton: You ought to be more careful. That must really smart.  Jack Nicholson: “Only when I breath.”

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