Material Spirituality

Top: Luxury at the Barcelona Pavilion Bottom: Velvet and Silk Cafe, 1927. Enveloping Luxury.

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space; living, changing, new.” Mies Van Der Rohe

In the previous post comparing Mies’ architecture to the Trump Tower you may be asking me; “But Andrew, where was the paradox in this essay?” The paradox lies in the fact that although Mies achieved a rational, epoch defining space, he did it originally for clients with the same aims as a developer like Donald Trump: to evoke a rhetoric of strength and luxury. IBM is a brand name; the rhetoric of the building shows strength and luxury. Strength is found in it’s bold, no nonsense volume, and it’s pristine detailing. This gives the impression of an indomitable spirit. Luxury is found in its sumptuous materiality. Travertine, dark tinted glass, and gold painted Barcelona Chairs are among the opulent materials. Similarly, the Seagram building in New York by Mies uses even more luxuriant materials. The building is clad in bronze. So, no matter how the IBM Building and the Trump Tower fare for posterity, they were still built for the same aims.

The paradox of Mies lies in the idea of using finely wrought materials to create a space of almost nothing. What Mies had to do in architecture was to create spiritual space out of the corporeal. One would think that if an architect was interested in making architecture that had an ethereal nature that materials wouldn’t matter much. One would think that the thinnest and least obtrusive materials would be all that is necessary. Of course the prominent material in all of Mies’ work is glass, which is the definition of a material with almost no materiality, but this is contrasted with finely wrought stone of the most expensive kind filled with pattern and texture. These are the opposite of ethereal materials. They do something in regards to grounding the spiritual flight of his column free glass volumes. Mies used his perfectly chosen stonework on the floors and cores of his buildings. These were opaque out of utility, and contrasted in total completion to the surrounding free open spaces.

How interesting that an architect who grew up the son of a stonemason, indebted to stonework his whole life, would come to conclusions about architecture in his maturity regarding the negation of solidity: The negation of the grounded building! Indeed in the Farnsworth house we find the building floating on columns, removed off the ground by about 4 feet. This has a rational and spiritual motive. Rationally Mies justified this by acknowledging that the house lie in a flood plain, although frequent flooding inside the house over the years has shown he did not raise it high enough. Spiritually it’s an expression of flotation, a removal of the building from the solid earth. The Farnsworth House is spiritually disconnected from reality. It is a ghost! Materiality is suppressed more so in this building than any other of his buildings, and this is done literally by using muted colors and large expanses of glass. Glass is the dominant material, and the panes are so large that when inside they do not seem to exist at all. The only evidence the building is not enclosed is in the sound barrier that the glass provides from the outside. Steel is painted white and thus disappears. The bathroom/utility core is clad in light wood. The only stonework is the travertine floor, texturally rich, but pale in color. Nevertheless, Mies was adamant about getting the stone perfectly placed. He oversaw the laying of the stonework and handpicked individual pieces. Mies expended great effort in making sure the material manifestations of his spiritual spaces were executed perfectly.

Whether Mies was making a dwelling or a corporate office space, he chose to define the physical manifestations of his work with expensive and beautiful materials. This is not a rationalist approach, and indeed he got flack from his peers when he used such luxuriant materials for the Barcelona Pavilion. Is this a contradiction on his part that his buildings that expressed the idea of essentiality were clad in such worldly riches? Or are we missing something in this interpretation? Mies was a Rationalist in the sense that he used rationality to express spiritual ideas. Rationality for him was an idea of rationality, and not true rationality. I call this Expressive Rationality. True rationality is left in the hands of the engineer. Expressive rationality as a phrase seems to be an oxymoron, a contradiction of two wildly opposite spectrums of thought. But this is what Mies was about. Mies was looking for the spirit of his epoch, but the spirit has to be expressed in reality. This brings me to the question that plagues all artists, sculptors and architects in search for ideas of truth: How does one express an idea of the spiritual with physical means?

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