It is hard to visualise what the skyline of Chicago might look like sans the mid-century modern architecture style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Born in Germany in 1886, Mies who broke new ground with his design vocabulary, had actually started out as a draftsman and worked with his stonemason father, before striking out later, on his own. After serving in the German army during World War I, he became a well-known architect in Germany, creating such structures as the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. Subsequently, Mies emigrated to the United States creating such well-known Modernist works as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments and the Seagram Building. He died in 1969.
For Mies, more than the design or a particular style, the philosophy came first; the external look of a building was just an expression of its era and its materials. To quote Mies, ‘I am not interested in the history of civilization. I am interested in our civilization. We are living it. Because I really believe, after a long time of working and thinking and studying that architecture...can only express this civilization we are in and nothing else.’
The professional pedigree of Mies was remarkable having begun his career in the influential studio of Peter Behrens working along with two other titans of modernism, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Very few know that the phrase, ‘Less is More’ is attributed to Mies' minimalist style, which is still widely used, even by those who are unaware of its origins. His blending of the functionalist industrial concerns of his modernist contemporaries and an aesthetic drive toward minimal intersecting planes was evident in his 1929 German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition or Barcelona Pavilion.
After a brief but successful tenure as director of the Bahaus, he was forced to move to the US due to the Nazi movement, where he settled in Chicago and became the head of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Here Mies was credited with creating the ‘the second Chicago School of Architecture,’ a style of simplified, rectilinear high-rise buildings which manifested in buildings such as Lakeshore Drive and Seagram Building.
But in tandem with the skyscraper typology, Mies continued to design his low-slung, pavilion typology that he first tested in projects like the Barcelona Pavilion—with his entirely transparent Farnsworth House. And occasionally he combined both of these typologies into one composition, as he did in the three-building complex of Chicago Federal Center.
While the mentorship and influence of Mies was seen in a great number of his disciples, what was more significant was his indirect influence; because he emerged as the only modern architect who formulated a genuinely contemporary and universally applicable architectural canon, here his concepts were echoed in office buildings all over the world. When his work was criticized in the 1970s for rigidity, coldness and anonymity, others knew that Mies’ declared choice was to accept the nature of 20th century industrial society, and express it in his architecture.
Due to the minimal use of industrial materials, Mies referred to his designs for steel-and-glass skyscrapers and horizontally-oriented houses and pavilions "skin-and-bones" architecture. No wonder most of his buildings emphasize their own singularity relative to their surroundings. Probably this had something to do with his childhood influences having worked in his father's stone cutting shop, which made Mies sensitive to the choices of materials in his designs, including fine stone, chrome, bronze, and even brick. Thus his buildings such as Tugendhat House and Seagram Building, though being very expensive structures to build were also known for their fine craftsmanship along with their industrial methods of construction.
The creator of the iconic Barcelona Chair and his legendary ‘less-for-more’ glass and metal creations, Mies will remain one of the 20th century’s greatest architects. His work was the cornerstone for the Museum of Modern Art's 1932 exhibition, ‘The International Style’—curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock—which brought the modernist movement to a wider audience and solidified his role as a leader.
Besides the projects already mentioned earlier Mies will also be remembered for Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Lafayette ParkCullinan Hall at Museum of Fine Arts, Neue Nationalgalerie…among others.
A long bout of cancer was the reason for his death in 1969 in his adopted hometown of Chicago. His stunning creations even today, wow visitors with their innovative design. Perhaps what has made his work so enduring was his progressive design philosophy. ‘I have tried to make an architecture for a technological society,’ he told the New York Times. ‘I wanted to keep everything reasonable and clear—to have an architecture that anybody can do.’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect with experience in practicing & teaching architecture, and co-founder of SIDART Photography.