MIES VAN DER ROHE Mies in Berlin

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | JUNE 21 - SEPTEMBER 11, 2001


Mies in Berlin, the exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art until September 11 and organized by Barry Bergdoll and Terence Riley, presents 50 projects done by the Berlin office of Mies van der Rohe prior to his relocation to Chicago in the summer of 1938. The show is characteristically enormous—plan on spending some time here—and meticulously describes the evolution of one of the seminal voices of 20th century architecture. MOMA has succeeded in compiling an astounding continuum of powerful drawings, photographs, and models that together form an indelible image of the architect during his productive tenure in Berlin.

Photo: Hedrick Blessing.

A series of enticing images by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Peter Behrens—with whom Mies apprenticed—greet the visitor, followed by Mies’s first built project, the Riehl house in Potsdam (1907). The house, evocative of the vernacular in this area of Germany, is not exceptional. As the first work of a 21-year-old still apprenticed with Behrens, why should it be? One element of the design however, commands our attention: the prominent wall. The wall is long, unbroken—it runs almost the full width of the site, and completely free of decorative elements. The gable end of the house is set on the same plane as the wall surface, a compositional move which simultaneously abstracts and unifies these two otherwise disparate elements. The wall also functions to divide the site into two distinct landscapes, a strategy elaborated on repeatedly in Mies’s later residential work.
A progression of Prussian-style residential projects follow, taking the viewer into the 1920s. With the Kröller-Möller Villa Project of 1913, in the Netherlands, we sense a transformation. Although the influence of Schinkel can be clearly felt in the understated cornice detail for example, the asymmetrical massing of the components and their articulation as autonomous objects, the flat roofs, and the use of the architectural components to make larger connections to the landscape all suggest Mies’s later preoccupations.

By 1921, the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper in Berlin-Mitte appears; a crystalline effigy in stark contrast to the pall of postwar Berlin. (The common misconception that Mies singlehandedly destroyed American urban architecture by introducing us to the unarticulated glass box loses credibility in view of these precedents.) In fact a succession of related projects for high-rise buildings—the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922 and the Friedrichstrasse Office Building of 1929—each exhibit the same highly differentiated perimeter contours and dynamically asymmetrical floor plans: mass-produced materials used inventively transcend their limitations and animate the urban condition.

Other notable projects include the unbuilt Brick Country House of 1924, the first project where the open plan really asserts itself, the Wolf House of 1925 - 1927, where a succession of three contiguous living spaces deftly balances more conventional served spaces, the Barcelona Pavilion, and the Tugendhat House of 1928 – 1930 in Brno. Also exhibited are drawings of the Weissenhofseidlung, the matter-of-fact, impeccably balanced project for a Bank and Office Building in Stuttgart of 1927 (note the elegance with which the curved component aligns itself with its context), and the Neue Wache War Memorial Project. In short, every significant European project defining Mies’s position as a visionary architect of the 20th century is included here.

The exhibition is complemented by works of artists who worked contemporaneously with Mies—black and white Hans Arp photographs and Richter’s “Fugue in red and green,” with its suggestion of an abstract urban space growing larger incrementally. The quality of these pieces is undeniable—but their connection to the work of Mies van der Rohe seems peripheral, particularly given that the work of van Doesburg, Mondrian, and Malevich might have been more immediately accessible in this context.

The power of the images in and of themselves is often beyond description; charcoal drawings jump from the page (one is reminded of Louis Kahn’s “Acropolis” pastels), photo-montages—a technique Mies often relied on—pit the new world against the old, and a collection of models serve a premonitory role as reflections of a new urbanity (a computer walkthrough of the Riehl House seems out of place, however, particularly given the nature of the house and the proximity of the computer monitor to so many mouth-watering examples of pre-computer age renderings).

Unlike its pale counterpart at the Whitney, which covers a limited selection of Mies’s work during his time in America, this exhibition is astonishing, both in its breadth and in the quality of its imagery. The maturation of the architect is plainly in evidence, his growing sense of confidence palpable as the drawings become increasingly forceful and self-assured. Even those for whom the work of Mies van der Rohe is still inaccessible will appreciate the extreme aesthetic contrasts as the evolutionary spectacle unfolds. Mies van der Rohe, frequently associated with his later American work, is seen here as an inspired architect enjoying the best of a rising career, producing sensuous, enthusiastic work that continues to invigorate architectural discourse.

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Phillipe Baumann

Baumann is the founder of Baumann Architecutre, 2000.