A pioneer of Modernist architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is known for his role as director of the Bauhaus, his pithy maxims such as “less is more”, and the Barcelona Pavilion unveiled in 1929. Although German born, he became an American citizen in the 1940s and went on to change the face of American architecture.
“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space; living, changing, new. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, only today can be given form. Only this kind of building will be creative.”
— Mies van der Rohe
Spotlight on Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies was born in Aachen, Germany on March 27 1886. He was known as Mies for most of his life, but added the van der Rohe later, worried that the German word mies (meaning “bad” or “poor”) might stunt his career.
Mies worked helping out at his father’s stone-cutting shop, becoming a student at a local trade school at 13, where he refined his drawing skills as a draftsman.
In 1905, Mies moved to Berlin to work in different architecture firms. By 1913 he had designed a range of domestic buildings, and served in World War I as an engineer overseeing the construction of bridges, roads and civil structures for the German military.
Mies van der Rohe along with Lilly Reich, presented what is now known as the Barcelona Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. It is one of the most important buildings in modern architecture, using extravagant materials in a simple minimalist style. It went on to inspire many other buildings.
The building was torn down in 1930, as it was only intended to be a temporary exhibit. But a group of architects from Catalonia reconstructed the building in the 1980s.
From 1930 to 1933 Mies was the director of Bauhaus, the German art school until it was closed by the Nazi regime who considered it too un-German. Although established in his field, Mies found few job opportunities given the political climate. He reluctantly emigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago and becoming an American citizen in 1944. From 1939 to 1958 he served as the head of the architecture department of Illinois Institute of Technology.
During Mies van der Rohe’s time in the USA, his building style became a popular and recognized style featuring plenty of glass and steel. His most notable projects include the residential homes of Lake Shore Drive, the Farnsworth House, Crown Hall and the Chicago Federal Center complex. His final work was for the Berlin National Gallery, which opened in 1968.
Key Points of Note
Mies van der Rohe was also a furniture designer, often working with close collaborator Lilly Reich to create pieces for architectural projects. Together they created the C-shaped Brno Chair, a cantilevered chair that became a modern classic. They also designed the famous Barcelona Chair for the pavilion.
“Skin and Bones”
Seagram heiress Phyllis Lambert hired Mies to create a skyscraper, offering an unlimited budget. At $41 million, at the time of its construction in 1958, the Seagram Building was the world’s most expensive skyscraper thanks in part to its use of bronze and marble. Mies centered his design around the idea of showing the form and structure, wishing to make it clear externally how it works internally. This type of architecture became known as “skin and bones” architecture, showcasing an unencumbered space in which you could easily recognize the core form. During this time he also became known for his aphorisms such as “God is in the details” and “less is more.”
In 1951, construction finished on the Farnsworth House. The 1,500-square-foot one-bedroom home was a vacation house for prominent Chicago doctor Edith Farnsworth. It featured a steel from and completely glass walls. While considered a masterpiece of International Style design, Farnsworth felt uncomfortable in the home. “The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless,” she said.
Many of Mies’ buildings were typified as International Style, the structures that spread after World War II and became most common until the 1970s, with lots of glass and flat surfaces. For some, it is considered great, while critics argue it is totalitarian and did not adapt sufficiently to a location’s history.
At the age of 83, fighting against esophageal cancer and arthritis, Mies van der Rohe caught a cold that developed into pneumonia and died at Chicago’s Wesley Memorial Hospital on August 17, 1969. He was cremated, with his ashes buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.