Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
“Architecture epitomises the human being’s spatial confrontation with his environment; it expresses how he asserts himself in it and how he manages to master it.” (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe)
The leading German avant-garde architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the third and last Bauhaus director. Appointed by the founding director of the school, Walter Gropius, he replaced the previous director Hannes Meyer, who was dismissed for political reasons in 1930. Both the school and the city of Dessau had hoped that Mies van der Rohe’s authority would have a calming influence on the school’s radicalised student body. However, because of the balance of power in Dessau, which was dominated by the National Socialists, even Mies van der Rohe was unable to maintain the school’s location. He attempted to continue the school’s teaching activities in Berlin until its enforced closure in 1932.
Like Walter Gropius before him, who was the dominant German avant-garde architect when appointed as the founding director of the Bauhaus in 1919, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the leading architect in Germany when he became the third director of the Bauhaus in 1930. A year earlier, his architectural designs for the spectacular Barcelona Pavilion successfully represented the achievements of the Weimar Republic at the World Exhibition in the Spanish metropolis. He did not need the school in order to make a name for himself or to win commissions. Instead, Mies van der Rohe took on his first academic teaching post at the Bauhaus. He had been recommended, just like his predecessor Hannes Meyer, by Walter Gropius, who had retired from his directorial post in 1928. After Meyer’s dismissal by the city of Dessau, which Gropius had backed to prevent further Communist radicalisation among the Bauhaus’s students, the members of the Bauhaus masters’ council and Dessau’s municipal council believed that a person of Mies van der Rohe’s authority would have a stabilising effect on the school.
Mies was born in Aachen to a Catholic family of stonemasons. After completing an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, he was quickly recommended to various architecture offices due to his extraordinary drawing talent. He worked for the prestigious architects John Martens and Bruno Paul in Berlin before starting work with the architect and AEG designer Peter Behrens in 1908. Here, he met Walter Gropius, likewise an employee, for the first time. Mies had already built his first house, the art nouveau-influenced Riehl House in Potsdam-Babelsberg, one year before. In 1911, he built the Perls’ House in Berlin-Zehlendorf. The Villa Urbig, which he constructed in 1917 in the neoclassic Schinkel style, is now known as the Churchill Villa. These first buildings tended to follow more conventional role models.
In autumn of 1915, Mies was conscripted into the army and commanded to serve in various construction units in Frankfurt am Main, Berlin and Eastern Europe. In early 1919, he returned to Berlin. With the revolution of November 1918, some artists had come together in Berlin to discuss their concepts of modern art and wanted to stimulate the public’s interest with exhibitions. They founded the so-called November Group and organised meetings on a regular basis where they discussed and played music. These evenings were known as the November Group Evenings. Mies van der Rohe joined the group in 1921, and until 1925, he organised the group’s architectural entries for the annual Große Berliner Kunstausstellung (great Berlin art exhibition).
In 1921, Mies van der Rohe also participated in a competition for a high-rise office building on Friedrichstraße in Berlin. His unusual – and promptly rejected – design for the block was probably intended as a programmatic study, which he presented to the public at this opportunity. From the current perspective, the design is visionary because, for first time, all of the main floor space was designed for flexible use and the façade was completely glazed. It is the first example of Mies van der Rohe’s “skin-and-bones” architecture that was to dominate his later designs.
In 1922, Mies changed his last name with the addition of “van der” and the maiden name of his mother to “Mies van der Rohe”.
In 1923, Mies van der Rohe constructed his first building using the modern formal vocabulary: The Ryder House in Wiesbaden is a cubic residence with light-coloured plaster and a flat roof, which comes close to the Bauhaus in terms of style. His most extensive project to date followed in 1927 when Mies realised four multi-family dwellings on the Afrikanische Straße in Berlin-Wedding. Here, he used prefabricated standard components to lower construction costs and, with the open grouping of the buildings, attempted to ensure good illumination and ventilation for the apartments. As a member of the Association of German Architects (BDA) Mies van der Rohe founded the progressive and thoroughly controversial collective, Der Ring, in 1924. That same year, he was invited to join the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation). Two years later, he was appointed as its vice president. In this function, he directed the Werkbund’s exhibition Die Wohnung (the flat) held in Stuttgart in 1927, which resulted, among other projects, in the Weißenhof Estate. At this juncture, Le Corbusier, who in collaboration with his brother had designed two buildings for the estate, invited Mies van der Rohe to the founding congress of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne). A separate part of the exhibition was displayed in Stuttgart’s city centre and dealt with modern furnishings. This was curated by the interior designer Lilly Reich.
In mid-1928, Mies van der Rohe and Reich were commissioned as artistic directors of the German section of the World Exhibition in Barcelona. This was probably mainly due to the great success of the Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart. Here too, they jointly designed a number of exhibition areas. Mies van der Rohe also designed an official reception building for the exhibition – the Barcelona Pavilion. The Barcelona Pavilion, which was demolished after the 1929 World Exhibition, was not reconstructed until 1986.
In late 1928, Mies van der Rohe began to work on the design for the Tugendhat House in the Czech city of Brno, which was completed in 1930. In 2001, it became a designated UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site as an outstanding major work of modern architecture in the International Style. Although Mies van der Rohe had realised his ideal of “less is more” here, this “less” was in fact a luxury. Alongside the exorbitant original construction costs of 1930, just as the impact of the world economic crisis was starting to be felt, the most recent restoration of this “little” world heritage site consumed more than 3.5 million euros. In the same year, Mies van der Rohe also built the Lange House in Krefeld and the neighbouring Esters House.
In 1930, Mies van der Rohe became the director of the Bauhaus Dessau and began his academic teaching activities. In his brief period at the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe was compelled to make more and more concessions to the political circumstances: Pressured by the risk of closure, the curriculum became more conventional, the experimental work was reduced, the workshops were combined and the preliminary course was eliminated. The duration of the studies was shortened and the tuition fees increased. The students’ studios remained closed and the Bauhaus GmbH was dissolved.
The Bauhaus Dessau was closed in 1932 by a newly elected city council with a National Socialist majority. After complex negotiations in relation to the dissolution of the city of Dessau’s financial obligations towards the Bauhaus and its personnel – including the accrued revenues for licensing contracts such as those with the Kandem lamp company and the Rasch wallpaper factory – Mies van der Rohe attempted to continue to lead the school as a private institute, based in an empty telephone factory in Berlin-Steglitz. The former School of Design now called itself the "Freies Lehr- und Forschungsinstitut" (independent institute of teaching and research). However, the increasing repressions of the new National Socialist government ultimately caused the institute to capitulate. The National Socialists were unwilling to tolerate the Bauhaus because of its “Bolshevist orientation”; above all however, they generally rejected the Bauhaus’s cultural concept. After a search of the premises, the Bauhaus was closed in April 1933. In July, the masters’ council headed by Mies van der Rohe decided not to reopen the school under the conditions outlined by the National Socialists, due to the many and sometimes politically desperate compromises of the past years. On 10th August 1933, the Bauhaus was dissolved.
The last residence designed by Mies van der Rohe in Germany at the time was completed in the year that the Bauhaus closed: the Lemke House in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, which is now known as Mies van der Rohe House. Like many of his Bauhaus colleagues, Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the United States.
Mies van der Rohe settled permanently in the United States in 1938. He became an American citizen in 1944 and continued his academic teaching activities at the Armour Institute. He also invited two former Bauhaus colleagues to join his faculty: Walter Peterhans from New York, who developed the seminar for visual training, and Ludwig Hilberseimer, who emigrated from Germany and took over the field of urban development.
A retrospective of Mies van der Rohe‘s work was shown as early as 1947 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From 1948, he designed the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. In 1951, he built the world-famous Farnsworth House. Mies van der Rohe received the commission to design his first high-rise office building, the Seagram Building in New York of 1958, three years later. It is also considered to be one of his masterpieces.
In the early 1960s, Mies van der Rohe received an offer from the senate of West Berlin to design the New National Gallery, part of the Kulturforum (culture forum) on Kemperplatz. It was completed according to his designs in 1968.
Mies van der Rohe died in Chicago in 1969. The political circumstances in early 1930s Germany made it impossible for him to save the Bauhaus. Both Meyer’s course of political confrontation and Mies’s of occasionally currying favour with the National Socialist had little chance of success. Ultimately, Mies van der Rohe remained faithful to his aesthetics. Not for him, to reconcile building to meet political and social requirements and his own concept of architecture as the art of building.
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