Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies; March 27, 1886 – August 19, 1969) was a German-American architect.
He is commonly referred to and was addressed as Mies, his surname.
He is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture.
Mies, like many of his post-World War 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 materials such as marble, industrial steel, bronze and plate glass to define interior spaces.
He strove toward an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of free-flowing open space.
He called his buildings "skin and bones" architecture.
He sought a rational approach that would guide the creative process of architectural design, but he was always concerned with expressing the spirit of the modern era.
He is often associated with his quotation of the aphorisms, "less is more" and "God is in the details".

Early Career

Mies was born in Aachen, Germany.
He worked in his father's stone-carving shop, and at several local design firms before he moved to Berlin, where he joined 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, working alongside Walter Gropius, who was later also involved in the development of the Bauhaus.
Mies served as construction manager of the Embassy of the German Empire in Saint Petersburg under Behrens.
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 "van der" and his mother's surname "Rohe", using the Dutch "van der", rather than the German form "von" which was legally restricted to those of genuine aristocratic lineage.
He began his independent professional career designing upper-class homes, joining the movement seeking a return to the purity of early nineteenth-century Germanic domestic styles. 
He admired the broad proportions, regularity of rhythmic elements, attention to the relationship of the man-made to nature, and compositions using simple cubic forms of the early nineteenth century Prussian Neo-Classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
He rejected the eclectic and cluttered classical styles so common at the turn of the twentieth century as irrelevant to the modern times.

Traditionalism and Modernism

After World War I, Mies began, while still designing traditional neoclassical homes, a parallel experimental effort.
He joined his avant-garde peers in the long-running search for a new style that would be suitable for the modern industrial age.
The weak points of traditional styles had been under attack by progressive theorists since the mid-nineteenth century, primarily for the contradictions of hiding modern construction technology with a façade of ornamented traditional styles.
The mounting criticism of the historical styles gained substantial cultural credibility after World War I, a disaster widely seen as a failure of the old world order of imperial leadership of Europe.
The aristocratic classical revival styles were particularly reviled by many as the architectural symbol of a now-discredited and outmoded social system.
Progressive thinkers called for a completely new architectural design process guided by rational problem-solving and an exterior expression of modern materials and structure rather than, what they considered, the superficial application of classical facades.
While continuing his traditional neoclassical design practice Mies began to develop visionary projects that, though mostly unbuilt, rocketed him to fame as an architect capable of giving form that was in harmony with the spirit of the emerging modern society.
Boldly abandoning ornament altogether, Mies made a dramatic modernist debut with his stunning competition proposal for the faceted all-glass Friedrichstraße skyscraper in 1921, followed by a taller curved version in 1922 named the Glass Skyscraper.

German Pavilion - Barcelona
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2014
He continued with a series of pioneering projects, culminating in his two European masterworks: the temporary German Pavilion for the Barcelona exposition (often called the Barcelona Pavilion) in 1929 and the elegant Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, completed in 1930.
He joined the German avant-garde, working with the progressive design magazine G which started in July 1923.
He developed prominence as architectural director of the Werkbund, organizing the influential Weissenhof Estate prototype modernist housing exhibition.
He was also one of the founders of the architectural association Der Ring.
He joined the avant-garde Bauhaus design school as their director of architecture, adopting and developing their functionalist application of simple geometric forms in the design of useful objects.
Like many other avant-garde architects of the day, Mies based his architectural mission and principles on his understanding and interpretation of ideas developed by theorists and critics who pondered the declining relevance of the traditional design styles.
He selectively adopted theoretical ideas such as the aesthetic credos of Russian Constructivism with their ideology of "efficient" sculptural assembly of 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 interior walls, the layering of functional sub-spaces within an overall space and the distinct articulation of parts appealed to Mies.
The design theories of Adolf Loos found resonance with Mies, particularly the ideas of replacing elaborate applied artistic ornament with the straightforward display of innate visual qualities of materials and forms.
Mies also admired his ideas about the nobility that could be found in the anonymity of modern life.

Significance and Meaning

Mies pursued an ambitious lifelong mission to create a new architectural language that could be used to represent the new era of technology 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 spiritual goals. He believed that the configuration and arrangement of every architectural element, particularly including the character of enclosed space, must contribute to a unified expression.
The self-educated Mies painstakingly studied the great philosophers and thinkers, past and present, to enhance his own understanding of the character and essential qualities of the technological times he lived in.
More than perhaps any other practising pioneer of modernism, Mies mined the writings of philosophers and thinkers for ideas that were relevant to his architectural mission.
Mies' architecture was guided by principles at a high level of abstraction, and his own generalized descriptions of those principles intentionally leave much room for interpretation.
Yet his buildings are executed as objects of beauty and craftsmanship, and seem very direct and simple when viewed in person.
Every aspect of his architecture, from overall concept to the smallest detail, supports his effort to express the modern age.
The depth of meaning conveyed by his work, beyond its aesthetic qualities, has drawn many contemporary philosophers and theoretical thinkers to continue to further explore and speculate about his architecture.

The Farnsworth House 

The Farnsworth House was designed and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945-51.
It is a one-room weekend retreat in a once-rural setting, located 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Chicago's down-town on a 60-acre (24 ha) estate site, adjoining the Fox River, south of the city of Plano, Illinois.
The steel and glass house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago nephrologist, as a place where she could engage in her hobbies: playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature.
Mies created a 1,500-square-foot (140 m2) house that is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece of architecture.


The essential characteristics of the house are immediately apparent.
The extensive use of clear floor-to-ceiling glass opens the interior to its natural surroundings to an extreme degree.
Two distinctly expressed horizontal slabs, which form the roof and the floor, sandwich an open space for living.
The slab edges are defined by exposed steel structural members painted pure white.
The house is elevated 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) above a flood plain by eight wide flange steel columns which are attached to the sides of the floor and ceiling slabs.
The slabs' ends extend beyond the column supports, creating cantilevers.
A third floating slab, an attached terrace, acts as a transition between the living area and the ground.

The house is accessed by two sets of wide steps connecting ground to terrace and then to porch.
Mies found the large open exhibit halls of the turn of the century to be very much in character with his sense of the industrial era.
Here he applied the concept of an unobstructed space that is flexible for use by people.
The interior appears to be a single open room, its space ebbing and flowing around two wood blocks; one a wardrobe cabinet and the other a kitchen, toilet, and fireplace block (the "core"). 
The larger fireplace-kitchen core seems like a separate house nesting within the larger glass house.

The building is essentially one large room filled with free-standing elements that provide subtle differentiations within an open space, implied but not dictated, zones for sleeping, cooking, dressing, eating, and sitting.
Very private areas such as toilets, and mechanical rooms are enclosed within the core. 
Drawings recently made public indicate that the architect provided ceiling details that allows for the addition of curtain tracks that would allow privacy separations of the open spaces into three "rooms".
Mies applied this space concept, with variations, to his later buildings, most notably at Crown Hall, his IIT campus masterpiece.
The notion of a single room that can be freely used or zoned in any way, with flexibility to accommodate changing uses, free of interior supports, enclosed in glass and supported by a minimum of structural framing located at the exterior, is the architectural ideal that defines Mies' career.
The Farnsworth House is significant as his first complete realization of this ideal, a prototype for his vision of what modern architecture in an era of technology should be.
Architecture as an Expression of the Times

The Farnsworth House addresses basic issues about the relationship between the individual and his society.
Mies viewed the technology-driven modern era in which an ordinary individual exists as largely beyond his control.
But he believed the individual can and should exist in harmony with the culture of his time to successfully fulfill himself.
His career was a long and patient search for an architecture that would be a true expression of the essential soul of his epoch, the Holy Grail of German Modernism.
He perceived our epoch as the era of industrial mass production, a civilization shaped by the forces of rapid technological development.
Mies wanted to use architecture as a tool to help reconcile the individual spirit with the new mass society in which he exists.
His answer to the issue is to accept the need for an orderly framework as necessary for existence, while making space for the freedom needed by the individual human spirit to flourish. 
He created buildings with free and open space within a minimal framework, using expressed structural columns.
He did not believe in the use of architecture for social engineering of human behaviour as many other modernists did, but his architecture does represent ideals and aspirations.
His mature design work is a physical expression of his understanding of the modern epoch.
He provides the occupants of his buildings flexible and unobstructed space in which to fulfill themselves as individuals, despite their anonymous condition in the modern industrial culture. 
The materials of his buildings, industrial manufactured products like mill-formed steel and plate glass, certainly represent the character of the modern era, but he counterbalances these with traditional luxuries such as Roman travertine and exotic wood veneers as valid parts of modern life.
Mies accepted the problems of industrial society as facts to be dealt with, and offered his idealized vision of how technology can be made beautiful and can support the individual.
He suggests that the downsides of technology decried by late 19th century critics such as John Ruskin, can be solved with human creativity, and shows us how in the architecture of this house.
Reconnecting the individual with nature is one of the great challenges of an urbanized society. The 60-acre (240,000 m2) rural site offered Mies an opportunity to bring man's relationship to nature into the forefront.
Here he highlights the individual's connection to nature through the medium of a man-made shelter.
Mies said: "We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity".
Glass walls and open interior space are the features that create an intense connection with the outdoor environment, while providing a framework reduces opaque exterior walls to a minimum.
The careful site design and integration of the exterior environment represents a concerted effort to achieve an architecture wedded to its natural context.
Mies conceived the building as an indoor-outdoor architectural shelter simultaneously independent of and intertwined with the domain of nature.
Mies did not build on the flood-free upland portions of the site, choosing instead to tempt the dangerous forces nature by building directly on the flood plain near the rivers edge.
Philip Johnson referred to this type of experience of nature as "safe danger".
The enclosed space and a screened porch are elevated five feet on a raised floor platform.
The house has a distinctly independent personality, yet also evokes strong feelings of a connection to the land.
The levels of the platforms restate the multiple levels of the site, in a kind of poetic architectural rhyme.
The house is anchored to the site in the cooling shadow of a large and majestic black maple tree.
As Mies often did, the entrance is located on the sunny side, facing the river instead of the street, moving visitors around corners and revealing views of the house and site from various angles as they approach the front door.
The simple elongated cubic form of the house is parallel to the flow of the river, and the terrace platform is slipped downstream in relation to the elevated porch and living platform.
Outdoor living spaces are extensions of the indoor space, with a screened porch (screens now gone) and open terrace.
Yet the man made always remains clearly distinct from the natural by its geometric forms, highlighted by the choice of white as its primary color.