“Just as Sullivan , over half a century earlier, had adjusted appearances to express an idea of structure, so Mies ‘lied in order to tell the truth’ about the steel frame.
William J. R. Curtis- Modern Architecture Since 1900
The architect and his confused motives can clearly be seen in the skyscrapers of Mies Van Der Rohe, whom on the surface appears to be the epitome of the Rationalist thinking architect. Indeed, Mies’ buildings, and particularly the ones he created in America, appear to flow from concepts of construction and program. But Louis Kahn was famous in pointing out that in the Seagram Building by Mies and Phillip Johnson, the shear supports, which appear in diagonals, are hidden in the core walls of the skyscraper. No diagonal lines are to be found in the Seagram Building, or any other of his skyscrapers. Louis Kahn was essentially saying that Mies was being dishonest about the structure of his building. In truth what Mies chose to do was suppress the diagonal to reinforce the clarity of his construction. He lied to tell the truth. This is something he does in almost all of his projects. To enhance the clarity and rationality and logic of his pristine boxes, he hides the components of design that confuse the logic of the building. Unfortunately Louis Kahn’s rebuttal skyscraper proposal looked singularly clumsy and confusing; a tangled web of diagonal pieces that looked like a tinker toy model. On the whole, Kahn’s work showed a great deal of clarity, this skyscraper is not one of those occasions. Louis Kahn seeks clarity of structure differently than Mies. One could argue Louis Kahn was more honest, and thusly even more rational than Mies, but his buildings in general did not portray the same crystallization of execution that a Mies building did. I am not saying that one of these architects is superior to the other; their motives were fundamentally different.
Lake Shore Drive Apartments Corner. (photo by Andrew Ryan Gleeson)
So, the paradox of the architect is most clear with Mies: Hide the truth to heighten the truth. The most famous example of this, and in my opinions one of the cleverest ideas in the history of architecture, was the way Mies used the I-Beam in his skyscrapers for decoration. Compelled by the purity of the skeletal frame of an unfinished skyscraper and frustrated by the stringent demands of fireproofing that required the I-beams that supported the building to be covered in concrete, Mies had the epiphany to clad the exterior of the concrete column with an I-beam. This served to evoke the true structure of the building because in reality the truth was superceded by the demands of fireproofing. He then used the I-beams all across the facade as mullions between glass bays. With this masterstroke, Mies was able to evoke the image of a building still under construction. A purity of structure is heightened with a decorative element! It is the funniest joke in Modern Architecture, masterminded by the architect most people consider to be the most sobering of them all. This is the case for Mies as a Spiritualist in Rationalists clothing. He used the Spiritualist idiom to evoke Ultra-Rationalist spaces. He distilled in order to create idealized structures that seemed to convey honesty further than what the bare truth would express. The line between a Spiritualist and a Rationalist blurs considerably. Mies sought to uncover true ideas about architecture. He sought to discover the will of the epoch he was living in in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. It is a testament to the Rational part of his methodology, that instead of constantly trying new directions and shapes for skyscrapers, he perfected and distilled the vocabulary he began in the first two Lake Shore Towers. A comparison between these first skyscrapers and one of his last, like the IBM Building, shows that he succeeded tremendously in perfecting his craft of pristine skyscraper architecture. It’s like watching, in microcosm, the evolution of the Greek temple from the Basilica at Paestum to the Parthenon.
Louis Kahn was more dogged by Rationalist honesty, he sought to use construction methods in an honest way to evoke an ancient and timeless aesthetic vocabulary. Mies sought to discover the will of the epoch, and Louis Kahn sought to discover the will of eternity, but that topic is for another time…..