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: https://thelyingtruthofarchitecture.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/reactions-to-context-the-duality-of-the-circumstantial-and-the-willed-2/ ).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!