How would you describe Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in one word? A question for followers on the Bauhaus Movement Instagram page. Less, modernism, tutto, clarity, balance, poet, elegant, master, style, stunning, precise, objective, simple, icon, sharp, professor, synthesis, finesse, details, visionary, tasteful, minimal, beautiful, crafter, magnificent, timeless, revolutionary, brilliant, transcendental… These were only some of the answers. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was all that. And much more.
Less is more. Although this phrase was first written by Robert Browning in his 1855 poem Andrea del Sarto, German–American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took credit for its global popularization. That was the principle that he firmly stuck to and became remembered for, and thus for his minimalist approach to design.
The Star of Avant-garde and Modernism
When he was chosen to be the Bauhaus director, replacing architect Hannes Meyer in 1930, this excellent connoisseur of form was already recognized by Architecture and Design community in Germany and worldwide. That position only strengthened his status of being a star of the avant-garde architecture and modern design.
Mies van der Rohe met Walter Gropius, an architect and founder of Bauhaus School in 1908 while working in Peter Behrens’ Design Studio. As stated in his biography on Buahaus 100 Portal, Mies already had a successfully finished project behind. It was the Reihl House in Potsdam, a private house in Art-Nouveau style. Soon after, he constructed the Perls’ House in Berlin and the neo-classicalVilla Urbig followed.
After fighting in World War One, Miles van der Rohe turned to unconventional principles, alternative scene and modern art. That reflected his architectural solutions to become more progressive, more expressive and more robust.
As a member of the Association of German Architects (BDA) Miles van der Rohe founded controversial collective Der Ring in 1924. Soon the German Work Federation invited him to became their Vice President. Not so long after Le Corbusier invited him to attend the founding session of Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM).
After that, he commenced one of his most famous projects. For the World Exhibition in Barcelona in 1929, Miles van der Rohe designed and projected Barcelona Pavillion presenting the movement of Architectural Modernism to the world.
Firm Hand of Bauhaus
The following year already, Walter Gropius invited him to become a director of Bauhaus. It was his first engagement as a professor of Architecture. Gropius founded Bauhaus in 1919 in Weimar. Six years after, school moved to Dessau and then to Berlin until the closure in 1933 because of the National Socialist regime’s pressure.
Mies van der Rohe organized the Bauhaus‘ move to Berlin after City Council took premises in Dessau. He was also the one who decided that it was unacceptable for Bauhaus to continue to work under political potentate’s conditions after police invaded the premises in Berlin, arresting 32 students for their “radical behavior”. He preferred closing the school.
However, despite turmoil and change of locations, the basic Bauhaus principle from the beginning till the end didn’t change: the form follows the function. The usable value of objects always came first.
Bauhaus united applied arts, design and architecture under one roof. It encouraged experimental approach, innovation and the use of new technologies. That was the school that grew into one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century. It was also a surrounding where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe could express his creativity and achieve full potential collaborating with some of the most creative minds of the time. His dedication to the idea of functionality and structure above decorating dates back to that period.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in USA
After closing Bauhaus, Ludwig Miles van der Rohe went to America, to City of Chicago. It was not only him but a vast number of professors from this school. Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, Lászlo Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Walter Peterhans and Herbert Bayer also migrated. Lászlo Mohoy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937.
All of them successfully continued with their careers, Ludwig Miles van der Rohe more than anyone. He became one of the most influential architects in the USA over a couple of following decades. Famous American architect and designer Eero Saarinen highlighted during 1950’s that Miles van der Rohe was one of three artists in Chicago world of architecture, together with architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1960, Miles won the AIA Gold Medal, the highest recognition given by American Association of Architects. Three years later, President Lyndon Johnson gave him the highest national order – the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Miles van der Rohe became the director of Architecture Department at Armour Institute in Chicago where he stayed for the following 20 years. As stated on Mies van der Rohe Society site, his first assignment was to rationalize curriculum for architects. That’s why Miles immediately decided that they should have gone back to basics, teaching students how to draw first, then to acquaint them with materials in details and in the end to elaborate fundamental principles of the design and construction.
The IIT Campus
When Armour Institute and Lewis Institute merged creating Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), new assignment for Miles followed. He got the task to project new campus on 120 acres of land.
His plan anticipated two groups of buildings mutually, symmetrically balanced. Materials that he used were the embodiment of modern design – constructions made of steel and concrete with facades from bricks and glass. Although it was much different from traditional students’ campuses, soon many people felt the harmony that such an approach brought. New campus became oasis in the middle of chaotic and noisy city.
The Seagram Building
It was a revolutionary move in construction business. Soon Miles was in charge of projecting some of the most famous skyscrapers in Chicago – Lake Shore Drive Apartments, S.R. Crown Hall and many others. At the same time he was active in New York as well, where he projected Seagram Building.
Phyllis Lambert herself chose him for this project. She was The Seagram Company owner’s daughter and Company’s director at the time. She alone showed interest in architecture so Mies became her mentor and included her actively into the process of projecting the building. Later she gained an architecture diploma at IIT and practiced it for decades.
Mies van der Rohe got an unlimited budget and freedom to express all his ideas. Like many buildings from that period, Seagram Building was made of steel frame with glass walls. He wanted the whole structure to be visible from the outside, but because of the fire-protecting regulations it couldn’t be done. That was the reason why the steel was covered with concrete, but Miles found a way to make the structure visible by using H-beams made of bronze environing glass surface. To construct this building with 38 floors, 1.500 tons of bronze were used. It was unusual solution at the time, but the usage of internal reinforced concrete shell which supported bigger, unstructured one became usual way of constructing.
Beauty is in simplicity
German modernism heritage and comprehending architecture through Bauhaus style undoubtedly influenced the whole career of Ludwig Miesa van de Rohe a lot. His approach was always rational, putting objects’ functionality first and liberating them from excessive decoration.
As you can hear on the audio recording of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s conversation from Bauhaus Reviewed 1919-1933 collection, available on Open Culture portal in the part where he spoke about architecture as a language, Mies said:
„I am working on architecture as a language. You have to know the grammar in order to know the language. You can use it for normal purposes and you’ll speak in prose. If you are good at that, you’ll speak in wonderful prose, and if you are really good – you can be a poet. And I think it is the same in architecture. You can make a garage, or you can make a cathedral, with the same means and methods. Architecture belongs to the epoch, not even to the time as they say, but to the real epoch. It is the essence of the epoch. Once I understood that, I would not be for fashion in architecture, I would look for more profound principles. (…) I often throw things out which I like very much, which are dear to my heart. But when I have a better conviction, better idea, a clearer idea, than I follow it. So, after a while, I find the Washington Bridge to be the most beautiful and the best building in New York. Maybe, in the beginning, I wouldn’t. At first, I had to conquer the idea, and later I appreciated it as a beauty. Thomas Aquinas said ’Reason is the first principle of our human worth’. So, I would throw everything out when it’s not reasonable. I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.“
Beauty is in simplicity. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was always aware of that, which was especially significant at the time when boundaries didn’t seem to exist and when people exaggerated in everything. He emphasized forma and the essence thus by reducing everything to basic elements and by removing distractions.
Featured Image: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe by Werner Rohde, [Public domain]