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Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

Updated Monday, 26th November 2001

Bringing a simple approach to modernism, despite never having had formal training in architecture.

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Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

(1886 - 1969)



Famous Buildings:
The German Pavilion, Barcelona
Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago
The Seagram Building, New York

Glass Boxes

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, along with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, is one of the twentieth century's most influential architects. Despite having no architectural training, his influence can be seen in cities the world over, from Anchorage to Adelaide, and the term 'Miesian' is now used to compliment the simplest, most elegant examples of Modernist architecture.

Mies was born the son of a stonemason in Aachen, Germany. As a teenager, he worked on construction sites with his father, before going on to design furniture with Bruno Paul. From 1908 until 1911, Mies worked in the office of architect Peter Behrens, who specialised in building modern industrial buildings. In Behren's office were Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, later to become director of the Bauhaus. After the First World War, all three would shape the emerging Modern Movement.

In 1921, Mies produced his Glass Skyscraper proposal, which although never built, shows how he was already formulating the techniques of 'glass box' buildings which he would perfect after his relocation to the United States in 1937. The steel frame of the building in his proposal would be visible through acres of glass, like a skeleton barely concealed by a taut layer of skin.

This emerging love of purity of form can also be seen in Mies' seminal German Pavilion, commissioned as Germany's 'stall' at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. Here, a marble roof appears to float above a collection of travertine and marble slabs. Using subtle steel columns to support the roof, Mies was able to connect roof and ground with expansive glass 'walls'.

The whole effect is a building zen-like in its simplicity, an astonishing contrast to the ornate architecture of the time.

The New World

Mies left Germany when it became clear that, unlike their Italian counterparts, the German fascists would never wholeheartedly embrace Modernist architecture. He had succeeded Walter Gropius as Bauhaus director, but the Nazis had closed the school for good in 1933.

He settled in Chicago where, as director of the city's School of Architecture, he was to perfect the art of building minimalist, elegant, and often expensive homes for wealthy patrons and corporate clients. His famous phrase "less is more" perfectly captured his steadfast devotion to pure Modernist design, and encapsulated the Modernists' search for rational solutions to the complicated problems of urban existence.

After becoming an American citizen in 1944, Mies' first major project in the US was at the Illinois Institute of Technology campus (1939-1956). His work here is a classic example of his "glass box" design. Simple cubes, framed in steel and covered in glass, became the homes for various Institute faculties.

His Farnsworth House of 1951 (a private commission for a wealthy doctor), saw the lessons of Barcelona translated into a living home. And his stunning twin Lake Shore Drive Apartment blocks in Chicago remain the ultimate expression in luxury high-rise living.

Corporate Modernism

By now, corporate America was keen to offer Mies the opportunity to build his pure glass cuboids on their expensive slices of real estate. The most celebrated example was the headquarters for the whisky company Seagram. Completed in 1958, this 38-storey masterpiece was clad in bronze, with its own plaza keeping the rest of New York at arm's length. The effect is an incredibly elegant addition to Manhattan's jumble of towers, and the Seagram Building remains the epitome of 20th century corporate Modernism.

The simplicity of Mies' buildings was deceptive however. It took a lot of effort to make skyscrapers like the Seagram building look uncomplicated, and the forest of inferior imitations which sprang up across the globe in the 1960s and 1970s did much to undermine Modernism's reputation. Nevertheless, Mies' ability to create simple, refined modern monuments is appreciated, even by critics of Modernism, to this day.

The Modernist architects


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