Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture. Mies, like many of his post WW I contemporaries, sought to establish a new architectural style that could represent modern times just as Classical and Gothic did for their own eras. He created an influential Twentieth-Century architectural style, stated with extreme clarity and simplicity. His mature buildings made use of modern materials such as industrial steel and plate glass to define austere but elegant spaces. He developed the use of exposed steel structure and glass to enclose and define space, striving for an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of open space. He called his buildings "skin and bones" architecture. He sought a rational approach that would guide the creative process of architectural design, and is known for his use of the aphorisms “Less is more” and "God is in the details".
Learn more about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his buildings by visiting an online exhibition hosted free by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Art.
Mies worked in his father's stone-carving shop and at several local design firms before he moved to Berlin joining the office of interior designer Bruno Paul. He began his architectural career as an apprentice at the studio of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912, where he was exposed to the current design theories and to progressive German culture. His talent was quickly recognized and he soon began independent commissions, despite his lack of a formal college-level education. A physically imposing, deliberative, and reticent man, Ludwig Mies renamed himself as part of his rapid transformation from a tradesman's son to an architect working with Berlin's cultural elite, adding the more aristocratic surname "van der Rohe". He began his independent professional career designing upper class homes in traditional Germanic domestic styles. He admired the broad proportions, regularity of rhythmic elements, attention to the relationship of the manmade to nature, and compositions using simple cubic volumes of the early nineteenth century Prussian Neo-Classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, while dismissing the eclectic and cluttered classical so common at the turn of the century.
Transition from Traditionalism to Modernism
But after World War I, Mies began, while still designing traditional custom homes, a parallel experimental effort in modernist design, joining his avant-garde peers in the long-running search for a new style for a new industrial democracy. The traditional styles were under attack by progressive theorists since the mid-nineteenth century, primarily for attaching ornament unrelated to a modern structure's underlying construction. Their criticism gained substantial cultural credibility after the disaster of WW I, widely seen as a failure of the imperial leadership of Europe. The classical revival styles were particularly reviled by many as the architectural symbol of a now-discredited aristocratic system. Boldly abandoning ornament altogether, Mies made a dramatic debut with his stunning competition proposal for the faceted all-glass Friedrichstrasse skyscraper in 1921, followed by a curved version in 1922. He continued with a series of brilliant pioneering projects, culminating in his two European masterworks: the temporary German Pavilion for the Barcelona exposition in 1929 (a reproduction is now built on the original site) and the elegant Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, completed in 1930.
While continuing his traditional design practice Mies began to work with the progressive design magazine G which started in July 1923. He developed prominence as architectural director of the Werkbund, organizing the influential Weissenhof prototype modernist housing exhibition. He was also one of the founders of the architectural association Der Ring.
His modernist thinking was influenced by the aesthetic credos of Russian Constructivism with their ideology of "efficient" sculptural constructions using modern industrial materials. Mies found appeal in the use of simple rectilinear and planar forms, clean lines, pure use of color, and the extension of space around and beyond interiors expounded by the Dutch De Stijl group. In particular, the layering of functions in space and the clear articulation of parts as expressed by Gerrit Rietveld appealed to Mies. Like other architects in Europe, Mies was enthralled by the free-flowing spaces which encompass their outdoor surroundings and the open floor plans of the American Prairie Style work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The theories of Adolf Loos found resonance with Mies, particularly the ideas of eradication of ornament and the casting off of the superficial, the use of unadorned but rich materials, the nobility of anonymity, and an admiration for the unfettered pragmatism of America. He joined the avant-garde Bauhaus design school as their director of architecture, adopting and developing their application of simple geometric forms in the design of useful objects.
Mies designed modern furniture pieces using new industrial technologies that have become popular classics, such as the Barcelona chair and table, and the Brno chair. His furniture is known for fine craftsmanship, a mix of traditional luxurious fabrics like leather combined with modern chrome frames, and a distinct separation of the supporting structure and the supported surfaces, often employing cantilevers to enhance the feeling of lightness created by delicate structural frames. During this period, he collaborated closely with interior designer and companion Lilly Reich.
Significance and Meaning
The self-educated Mies painstakingly studied the great philosophers and thinkers of the past and of the day. He adopted an ambitious lifelong mission to create not only a new style, but also a solid intellectual foundation for a new architectural language that could be used to represent the new era of technological invention and production. He saw a need for an architecture expressive of and in harmony with his epoch, just as Gothic architecture was for an era of spiritualism. He applied a disciplined design process using rational thought to achieve his goal. He believed that architecture communicated the meaning and significance of the culture in which it exists. More than perhaps any other practicing pioneer of modernism, Mies used philosophy as a basis for his work.
Emigration to the United States
Opportunities for commissions dwindled with the worldwide depression after 1929. In the early 1930s, Mies served briefly as the last Director of the faltering Bauhaus, at the request of his friend and competitor Walter Gropius. After 1933, Nazi political pressure soon forced Mies to close the government-financed school, a victim of its previous association with socialism, communism, and other progressive ideologies. He built very little in these years (one built commission was Philip Johnson's New York apartment); his style was rejected by the Nazis as not "German" in character. Frustrated and unhappy, he left his homeland reluctantly in 1937 as he saw his opportunity for any future building commissions vanish, accepting a residential commission in Wyoming and then an offer to head an architectural school in Chicago. When the refugee from the heavy-handed and constricting order of the Nazi government arrived in the United States after 30 years of practice in Germany, his reputation as a pioneer of modern architecture was already established by American promoters of the international style. His architecture struck a harmonious note with a progressive American sub-culture, and Frank Lloyd Wright now had a serious competitor to his position as America's greatest living architect.
Career in the United States
Mies settled in Chicago, Illinois where he was appointed as head of the architecture school at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology (later renamed Illinois Institute of Technology - IIT). One of his conditions for taking this position was that he would be commissioned to design the new buildings of the campus. Some of his most famous buildings still stand there, including Alumni Hall and S.R. Crown Hall, the home of IIT's School of Architecture. In 1944, he became an American citizen, completing his severance from his native Germany. His 30 years as an American architect reflect a more consistent and mature approach towards achieving his goal of a new architecture for the 20th Century. He focused his efforts on the idea of enclosing large open "universal" spaces with clearly ordered structural frameworks, featuring manufactured steel shapes infilled with glass. His early projects at the IIT campus and for developer Herb Greenwald opened the eyes of Americans to a style that culturally resonated as a natural progression of the almost forgotten 19th century Chicago School style. His architecture, with origins in the socialist International style became an accepted mode of building for large American corporations.
The Second Chicago School
His most significant projects in the US include the residential towers of 860-880 Lake Shore Dr, the Farnsworth House, Crown Hall and other structures at IIT, all in and around Chicago, and the Seagram Building in New York. These iconic works became the prototypes for his other projects.
Between 1946 and 1951 Mies van der Rohe designed and built the Farnsworth House, a weekend retreat for an independent professional woman, Dr. Edith Farnsworth outside of Chicago. Here, Mies explored the relationship between the individual, his shelter, and nature. This masterpiece showed the world that exposed industrial structural steel and glass were materials capable of great architecture. The glass pavilion is raised five feet above a floodplain next to the Fox River, surrounded by forest and rural prairies. The highly crafted pristine white structural frame and all-glass walls define a simple rectangular interior space, letting nature and light envelop the interior space. A wood paneled core (housing mechanical equipment, kitchen, fireplace, and toilets) is positioned within the open space to define the living, dining and sleeping spaces without using actual walls or rooms. No partitions touch the surrounding glass enclosure. Full height draperies on a perimeter track provide shading and privacy when and where desired. The house has been described as sublime, a temple hovering between heaven and earth, a poem, a work of art. The Farnsworth House and its 60 acre wooded site was purchased at auction for US$7.5 million by preservation groups in 2004 and is now operated by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois as a public museum. The influential building spawned hundreds of modernist glass houses, most notably the Glass House by Philip Johnson, located near New York City and now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The iconic Farnsworth House is considered among Mies's greatest works. The house is an embodiment of Mies' mature vision of modern architecture: a minimal "skin and bones" framework provides an enclosure with a clearly understandable order, counter-balanced by free-flowing open space to suggest freedom of use, elegantly stated with clarity and simplicity, and using materials that represent our times.
In 1958 Mies van der Rohe designed what has been regarded as the pinnacle of the modern high-rise architecture, the Seagram Building in New York. Mies was chosen by the daughter of the client, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, who has become a noted architectural figure and patron in her own right. The Seagram Building has become an icon of the growing power of that defining institution of the 20th Century, the corporation. In a bold and innovative move, the architect chose to set the tower back from the property line to create a forecourt plaza and fountain on Park Avenue. Although now acclaimed and widely influential as an urban design feature, Mies had to convince Bronfman's bankers that a taller tower with significant "wasted" open space was a viable idea. Mies design included a bronze curtain wall with external H-shaped mullions that were exaggerated in depth beyond what is structurally necessary, touching off a conversation among some of his more zealous followers about whether Mies had or had not committed Adolf Loos' "crime of ornamentation". Philip Johnson had a role in interior materials selections and the plaza, and he designed the sumptuous Four Seasons restaurant. The Seagram Building is said to be an early example of the innovative "fast-track" construction process, where design and construction are done concurrently. Using the Seagram as a prototype, Mies' office designed a number of modern high-rise office towers, notably the Chicago Federal Center, which includes the Dirksen and Klusinski Federal Buildings and Post Office (1959) and the IBM Plaza in Chicago, the Toronto-Dominion Centre in 1967 in Toronto, Ontario, and Westmount Square in Montreal.
Mies also designed a series of four middle-income high-rise apartment buildings for developer Herb Greenwald (and his successor firms after his untimely death in a plane crash), the 860/880 and 900/910 Lake Shore Drive towers on Chicago's Lakefront. These towers, with facades of steel and glass, were radical departures from the typical residential brick apartment buildings of the time (interestingly, Mies found their unit sizes too small for himself, choosing instead to continue living in a spacious traditional luxury apartment a few blocks away). Again, these towers became the prototype for many more apartment tower blocks across the country designed by Mies' office.
During 1951-1952, Mies' designed the steel, glass and brick McCormick House, located in Elmhurst, Illinois (15 miles west of the Chicago Loop), for real-estate developer Robert Hall McCormick Jr. A one story adaptation of the exterior curtain wall of his famous 860-880 Lake Shore Drive towers, it served as a prototype for an unbuilt series of speculative houses to be constructed in Melrose Park, Illinois. The house exists today as a part of the Elmhurst Art Museum.
Mies last work was the Neue Nationalgalerie art museum in Berlin. Considered one of the most perfect statements of his architectural approach, the upper pavilion is a precise steel framework with a glass enclosure, a simple pavilion that is a powerful expression of his ideas about flexible interior space, open and unencumbered by the external structural order.
Mies as Educator
Mies played a significant role as an educator, believing his architectural language could be learned, then applied to design any type of modern building. He worked personally and intensively on prototype solutions, and then allowed his students, both in school and his office, to develop derivative solutions for specific projects under his guidance. But when none were able to match the genius and poetic quality of his own work, he agonized about where his educational method had gone wrong.
Famous for his poetic aphorisms "Less is More" and "God is in the details", Mies sought to create free and open spaces, enclosed within a structural order with minimal presence. Over the last twenty years of his life, Mies achieved built his vision of a monumental "skin and bones" architecture that reflected his goal to provide the individual a place to fulfill himself in the modern era.
Mies placed great importance on education of architects who could carry on his design principles. He devoted a great deal of time and effort leading the architecture program at IIT. His own practice was based on intensive personal involvement in design efforts to create prototype solutions for building types (860 Lake Shore Dr, the Farnsworth, Seagram, S.R. Crown Hall, The New National Gallery), then allowing his studio designers to develop derivative buildings under his supervision. Mies's grandson Dirk Lohan and two partners led the firm after he died in 1969. Lohan, who had collaborated with Mies on the New National Gallery, continued with existing projects but soon led the firm on his own independent path. Other disciples continued his teachings for a few years, notably Gene Summers, David Haid, Myron Goldsmith, Jaques Brownsom, Helmut Jahn, and other architects at the firms of C.F. Murphy and Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
But while Mies' work had enormous influence and critical recognition, his approach failed to sustain a creative force as a style after his death and was eclipsed by the new wave of Post Modernism by the 1980s. He had hoped his architecture would serve as a universal model that could be easily imitated, but the aesthetic power of his best buildings proved impossible to match, instead resulting mostly in drab and uninspired structures. The failure of his followers to create architectural masterpieces equal to his own soon led to a demise of modernism and the rise of new competing design theories, notably Postmodernism.
Mies van der Rohe is buried near Chicago's other famous architects in Uptown's Graceland Cemetery.