The Enduring Legacy of a Modern Master
The newest and—according to its publisher, Phaidon—“most definitive” monograph on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe weighs 6½ pounds, has 542 pages, and 600 illustrations, and, at a size of 12 by 9 3/8 inches, will fit only horizontally into most bookshelves. It is a monument to the architect's enduring legacy and appeal, but also a fitting tribute to its author Detlef Mertins, eminent Mies scholar, former chair and professor at the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, who sadly passed away in January 2011 at the age of 56. Several of his friends and colleagues, among them Barry Bergdoll, Ed Dimendberg, and Felicity D. Scott, together with his partner Keller Easterling, helped to see the manuscript through to publication.
The elegantly produced volume traces the arc of Mies's work from conventional suburban villas in Berlin to his visionary designs and few executed European buildings in the 1920s, and then the North American work in Chicago and New York in the postwar era. Each of the book's 21 chapters centers on one of Mies's projects or buildings as the starting point for an exploration of broader themes and related structures. It introduces us to his early work and first encounters with philosophy via the Riehl House, offers a view of the Weimar Republic's art and architecture through his unrealized skyscraper and office building projects in a chapter called “New Beginnings,” and uses the Barcelona Pavilion as an example in “Spiritualizing Technology.” We hear about IIT in the chapter “Open Campus,” Chicago's Lake Shore Drive Apartments in “High Rise,” Detroit's Lafayette Park in “City Landscape,” and finally the “Event Space” of the National Gallery in Berlin—all of them among the most influential building projects of the 20th century. Numerous drawings from MoMA's vast holdings are published here for the first time, and even the well-known illustrations look fresh and immediate, thanks to their size and quality of reproduction.
Despite its many images, this is a text-heavy book with a clear agenda. While Mertins conceded that “Mies was by no means a philosopher or even a writer,” he stayed “close to Mies's own preoccupations with philosophical and cultural issues” and drew “more extensively than previous monographs” on what Mies read.
Mies did indeed leave a substantial and eclectic library of 800 volumes at the time of his death—not just books on architecture (15 on Le Corbusier, much fewer—three—on Gropius, and many on urban planning), but rich holdings in philosophy, religious studies, and the complete 42-volume works of long-forgotten Hungarian botanist, biologist, and philosopher Raoul Heinrich Franc', whose inquiries into the “technical achievements of plants” dovetailed with Mies's interest in the relationship between structure and form. The most heavily used and annotated book is Catholic priest and philosopher Romano Guardini's Letters from Lake Como, which provided Mies with compelling thoughts on modernity, technology, and abstraction. Mertins carefully studied these books, and his detailed analyses of Mies's projects are interspersed with erudite and often lengthy sections on philosophers such as Riehl, Spranger, Guardini, Adorno, and many others. Speculative, provocative, and far-ranging, these excursions are well worth the patience they require.
But they also raise important questions about architectural agency and the nature of the design process. Mies said and wrote so little that it is hard to know how deeply he engaged with what he read and marked and if it, consciously or not, influenced his design decisions. It is easy to underestimate the complexities of architectural production—the legal, financial, collaborative constraints that, often invisibly, force an architect's hand and limit his freedom. While Mies would, occasionally, quote Thomas Aquinas, and his terse statements might echo Guardini, he styled himself a builder-craftsman, not an intellectual. He cared deeply about materials, structures, and their assemblage (“Architecture starts when you put two bricks together”) and had a keen eye for proportions and spatial sequences. He also nonchalantly ignored blatant contradictions between his buildings and writings: for example, as soon as he had declared, in 1923, “Form is not the goal but the result of our work” and “all formalism we reject,” he went on to become the most stubborn and glorious formalist of the 20th century. His longtime associate Joseph Fujikawa speculated that Mies read in order “to confirm ideas which he himself had ... it reinforced his own convictions”—which might help explain the single-mindedness and radicalism of his pursuits.
While this magisterial volume would have profited from a final, bilingual proofreading by the editor (the number of misspelled words, names, and abbreviations is astonishing—I stopped counting at 100), this is a minor point given the enormous breadth and scale of this achievement. It rivals that of the two multi-author volumes Mies in Berlin (edited by Barry Bergdoll) and Mies in America (edited by Phyllis Lambert) from 2001 that accompanied exhibitions at MoMA and the Whitney. It also complements the recent, more frugally illustrated but cheerfully nonhagiographic Mies van der Rohe by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst.
Mies stated in 1964 that “true architecture is always objective and is the expression of the inner structure of our time...” He was disappointed toward the end of his life that his architecture and its level of quality had not become the time's standard: “We showed them what to do. What the hell went wrong?” Whatever Mies had in mind as the “inner structure” of his time, that structure surely must have changed since. His work though, as this volume demonstrates, is as appealing, timely, and thought-provoking as ever.