Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a German-American architect. He is commonly referred to and was addressed as Mies, his surname. Along with Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and Frank Lloyd Wright, 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 modern materials such as industrial steel 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".
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 and Le Corbusier, who were 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.
In 1913, Mies married Adele Auguste (Ada) Bruhn (1885-1951), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. The couple separated in 1918, but had three daughters: Dorothea (1914-2008), an actress and dancer who was known as Georgia, Marianne (1915-2003), and Waltraut (1917-1959), who was a research scholar and curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. During his military service in 1917, Mies fathered a son out of wedlock. In 1925 Mies began a relationship with designer Lilly Reich that ended when he moved to the United States; from 1940 until his death, artist Lora Marx (1900-1989) was his primary companion. Mies carried on a romantic relationship with sculptor and art collector Mary Callery for whom he designed an artist's studio in Huntington, Long Island, New York. He also was rumored to have a brief relationship with Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned his work for the Farnsworth House. Marianne's son Dirk Lohan (b. 1938) studied under, and later worked for, Mies.
Traditionalism to 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 facade 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.
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 (a 1986 reconstruction is now built on the original site) 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. He served as its last director.
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 expounded by the Dutch De Stijl group. In particular, the layering of functional sub-spaces within an overall space and the distinct articulation of parts as expressed by Gerrit Rietveld 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. Loos had proposed that art and crafts should be entirely independent of architecture, that the architect should no longer control those cultural elements as the Beaux Arts principles had dictated. Mies also admired his ideas about the nobility that could be found in the anonymity of modern life.
The bold work of American architects was greatly admired by European architects. Like other architects who viewed the exhibitions of Frank Lloyd Wright's Wasmuth Portfolio, Mies was enthralled with the free-flowing spaces of inter-connected rooms which encompass their outdoor surroundings as demonstrated by the open floor plans of the Wright's American Prairie Style. American engineering structures were also held up to be exemplary of the beauty possible in functional construction, and its skyscrapers were greatly admired.
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.
Emigration to the United States
Commission opportunities dwindled with the worldwide depression after 1929. Starting in 1930, Mies served as the last director of the faltering Bauhaus, at the request of his colleague and competitor Walter Gropius. In 1932, Nazi political pressure forced the state-supported school to leave its campus in Dessau, and Mies moved it to an abandoned telephone factory in Berlin. By 1933, however, the continued operation of the school was untenable (it was raided by the Gestapo in April), and in July of that year, Mies and the faculty voted to close the Bauhaus. He built very little in these years (one built commission was Philip Johnson's New York apartment); the Nazis rejected his style as not "German" in character.
Frustrated and unhappy, he left his homeland reluctantly in 1937 as he saw his opportunity for any future building commissions vanish, accepting a residential commission in Wyoming and then an offer to head the department of architecture of the newly established Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. There he introduced a new kind of education and attitude later known as Second Chicago School, which became very influential in the following decades in North America and Europe.
Career in the United States
Mies settled in Chicago, Illinois where he was appointed head of the architecture school at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology (later renamed Illinois Institute of Technology). One of the benefits of taking this position was that he would be commissioned to design the new buildings and master plan for the campus. All his buildings still stand there, including Alumni Hall, the Chapel, and his masterpiece the S.R. Crown Hall, built as the home of IIT's School of Architecture. Crown Hall is widely regarded as Mies' finest work, the definition of Miesian architecture.
In 1944, he became an American citizen, completing his severance from his native Germany. His thirty years as an American architect reflect a more structural, pure approach toward achieving his goal of a new architecture for the twentieth century. He focused his efforts on enclosing open and adaptable "universal" spaces with clearly arranged structural frameworks, featuring prefabricated steel shapes filled in with large sheets of glass.
His early projects at the IIT campus, and for developer Herb Greenwald, presented to Americans a style that seemed a natural progression of the almost forgotten nineteenth century Chicago School style. His architecture, with origins in the German Bauhaus and western European International Style, became an accepted mode of building for American cultural and educational institutions, developers, public agencies, and large corporations.
Mies worked from his studio in downtown Chicago for his entire 31-year period in America. His significant projects in the U.S. include in Chicago and the area: the residential towers of 860–880 Lake Shore Dr, the Chicago Federal Center complex, the Farnsworth House, Crown Hall and other structures at IIT; and the Seagram Building in New York. These iconic works became the prototypes for his other projects. He also built homes for wealthy clients.
Between 1946 and 1951, Mies van der Rohe designed and built the Farnsworth House, a weekend retreat outside Chicago for an independent professional woman, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Here, Mies explored the relationship between people, shelter, and nature. The glass pavilion is raised six feet above a floodplain next to the Fox River, surrounded by forest and rural prairies.
The highly-crafted pristine white structural frame and all-glass walls define a simple rectilinear interior space, allowing nature and light to envelop the interior space. A wood-panelled fireplace (also housing mechanical equipment, kitchen, and toilets) is positioned within the open space to suggest living, dining and sleeping spaces without using walls. No partitions touch the surrounding all-glass enclosure. Without solid exterior walls, full-height draperies on a perimeter track allow freedom to provide full or partial privacy when and where desired. The house has been described as sublime, a temple hovering between heaven and earth, a poem, a work of art.
The Farnsworth House and its 60-acre (240,000 m2) wooded site was purchased at auction for US$7.5 million by preservation groups in 2004 and is now owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a public museum. The building influenced the creation of hundreds of modernist glass houses, most notably the Glass House by Philip Johnson, located near New York City and also now owned by the National Trust.
The house is an embodiment of Mies' mature vision of modern architecture for the new technological age: a single unencumbered space within a minimal "skin and bones" framework, a clearly understandable arrangement of architectural parts. His ideas are stated with clarity and simplicity, using materials that are configured to express their own individual character.
860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois
Mies designed a series of four middle-income high-rise apartment buildings for developer Herb Greenwald: the 860–880 (which was built between 1949 and 1951) and 900–910 Lake Shore Drive towers on Chicago's Lakefront. These towers, with façades of steel and glass, were radical departures from the typical residential brick apartment buildings of the time. Mies found their unit sizes too small for him, choosing instead to continue living in a spacious traditional luxury apartment a few blocks away. The towers were simple rectangular boxes with a non-hierarchical wall enclosure, raised on stilts above a glass-enclosed lobby.
The lobby is set back from the perimeter columns, which were exposed around the perimeter of the building above, creating a modern arcade not unlike those of the Greek temples. This configuration created a feeling of light, openness, and freedom of movement at the ground level that became the prototype for countless new towers designed both by Mies's office and his followers. Some historians argue that this new approach is an expression of the American spirit and the boundless open space of the frontier, which German culture so admired.
Once Mies had established his basic design concept for the general form and details of his tower buildings, he applied those solutions (with evolving refinements) to his later high-rise building projects. The architecture of his towers appears to be similar, but each project represents new ideas about the formation of highly sophisticated urban space at ground level. He delighted in the composition of multiple towers arranged in a seemingly casual non-hierarchical relation to each other.
Just as with his interiors, he created free flowing spaces and flat surfaces that represented the idea of an oasis of uncluttered clarity and calm within the chaos of the city. He included nature by leaving openings in the pavement, through which plants seem to grow unfettered by urbanization, just as in the pre-settlement environment.
In 1958, Mies van der Rohe designed what is often regarded as the pinnacle of the modernist high-rise architecture, the Seagram Building in New York City. Mies was chosen by the daughter of the client, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, who has become a noted architectural figure and patron in her own right. The Seagram Building has become an icon of the growing power of the corporation, that defining institution of the twentieth century. In a bold and innovative move, the architect chose to set the tower back from the property line to create a forecourt plaza and fountain on Park Avenue.
Although now acclaimed and widely influential as an urban design feature, Mies had to convince Bronfman's bankers that a taller tower with significant "unused" open space at ground level would enhance the presence and prestige of the building. Mies' design included a bronze curtain wall with external H-shaped mullions that were exaggerated in depth beyond what was structurally necessary. Detractors criticized it as having committed Adolf Loos's "crime of ornamentation". Philip Johnson had a role in interior materials selections, and he designed the sumptuous Four Seasons Restaurant, which has endured un-remodeled to today. The Seagram Building is said to be an early example of the innovative "fast-track" construction process, where design documentation and construction are done concurrently.
Using the Seagram as a prototype, Mies' office designed a number of modern high-rise office towers, notably the Chicago Federal Center, which includes the Dirksen and Kluczynski Federal Buildings and Post Office (1959) and the IBM Plaza in Chicago; the Westmount Square in Montreal, and the Toronto-Dominion Centre in 1967. Each project applies the prototype rectangular form on stilts and ever-more refined enclosure wall systems, but each creates a unique set of exterior spaces that are an essential aspect of his creative efforts.
During 1951–1952, Mies' designed the steel, glass, and brick McCormick House, located in Elmhurst, Illinois (15 miles west of the Chicago Loop), for real-estate developer Robert Hall McCormick, Jr. A one-story adaptation of the exterior curtain wall of his famous 860–880 Lake Shore Drive towers, it served as a prototype for an unbuilt series of speculative houses to be constructed in Melrose Park, Illinois. The house has been moved and reconfigured as a part of the public Elmhurst Art Museum. He also built a residence for John M. van Beuren on a family estate near Morristown, New Jersey.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Mies designed two buildings for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) as additions to the Caroline Weiss Law Building. In 1953, the MFAH commissioned Mies van der Rohe to create a master plan for the institution. He designed two additions to the building—Cullinan Hall, completed in 1958, and the Brown Pavilion, completed in 1974. A renowned example of the International Style, these portions of the Caroline Wiess Law Building comprise one of only two Mies-designed museums in the world.
National Gallery, Berlin
Mies's last work was the Neue Nationalgalerie art museum, the New National Gallery for the Berlin National Gallery. Considered one of the most perfect statements of his architectural approach, the upper pavilion is a precise composition of monumental steel columns and a cantilevered (overhanging) roof plane with a glass enclosure. The simple square glass pavilion is a powerful expression of his ideas about flexible interior space, defined by transparent walls and supported by an external structural frame.
The glass pavilion is a relatively small portion of the overall building, serving as a symbolic architectural entry point and monumental gallery for temporary exhibits. A large podium building below the pavilion accommodates most of the museum's total built area in windowless spaces for galleries and support functions.
Mies designed modern furniture pieces using new industrial technologies that have become popular classics, such as the Barcelona chair and table, the Brno chair, and the Tugendhat chair. His furniture is known for fine craftsmanship, a mix of traditional luxurious fabrics like leather combined with modern chrome frames, and a distinct separation of the supporting structure and the supported surfaces, often employing cantilevers to enhance the feeling of lightness created by delicate structural frames. During this period, he collaborated closely with interior designer and companion Lilly Reich.
Mies served as the last director of Berlin's Bauhaus, and then headed the department of architecture, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he developed the Second Chicago School. He played a significant role as an educator, believing his architectural language could be learned, then applied to design any type of modern building. He set up a new education at the department of architecture of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago replacing the traditional Ecole des Beaux-Art curriculum by a three-step-education beginning with crafts of drawing and construction leading to planning skills and finishing with theory of architecture (compare Vitruvius: firmitas, utilitas, venustas). He worked personally and intensively on prototype solutions, and then allowed his students, both in school and his office, to develop derivative solutions for specific projects under his guidance.
Some of Mies' curriculum is still put in practice in the first and second year programs at IIT, including the precise drafting of brick construction details so unpopular with aspiring student architects. When none was able to match the quality of his own work, he agonized about where his educational method had gone wrong. Nevertheless his achievements in creating a teachable architecture language that can be used to express the modern technological era survives until today.
Mies placed great importance on education of architects who could carry on his design principles. He devoted a great deal of time and effort leading the architecture program at IIT. Mies served on the initial Advisory Board of the Graham Foundation in Chicago. His own practice was based on intensive personal involvement in design efforts to create prototype solutions for building types (860 Lake Shore Drive, the Farnsworth House, Seagram Building, S. R. Crown Hall, The New National Gallery), then allowing his studio designers to develop derivative buildings under his supervision.
Mies's grandson Dirk Lohan and two partners led the firm after he died in 1969. Lohan, who had collaborated with Mies on the New National Gallery, continued with existing projects but soon led the firm on his own independent path. Other disciples continued Mies's architectural language for years, notably Gene Summers, David Haid, Myron Goldsmith, Y.C. Wong, Jacques Brownson, and other architects at the firms of C.F. Murphy and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
But while Mies' work had enormous influence and critical recognition, his approach failed to sustain a creative force as a style after his death and was eclipsed by the new wave of Post Modernism by the 1980s. Proponents of the Post Modern style attacked the Modernism with clever statements such as "less is a bore" and with captivating images such as Crown Hall sinking in Lake Michigan. Mies had hoped his architecture would serve as a universal model that could be easily imitated, but the aesthetic power of his best buildings proved impossible to match, instead resulting mostly in drab and uninspired structures rejected by the general public. The failure of his followers to meet his high standard may have contributed to demise of Modernism and the rise of new competing design theories following his death.
Over the last twenty years of his life, Mies developed and built his vision of a monumental "skin and bones" architecture that reflected his goal to provide the individual a place to fulfill himself in the modern era. Mies sought to create free and open spaces, enclosed within a structural order with minimal presence. Mies van der Rohe died on August 17, 1969. After cremation, his ashes were buried near Chicago's other famous architects in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery. His grave is marked by a simple black slab of granite and a large Honey locust tree.
The Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Archive, an administratively independent section of the Museum of Modern Art's department of architecture and design, was established in 1968 by the museum's trustees. It was founded in response to the architect's desire to bequeath his entire work to the museum. The archive consists of about nineteen thousand drawings and prints, one thousand of which are by the designer and architect Lilly Reich (1885–1947), Mies van der Rohe's close collaborator from 1927 to 1937; of written documents (primarily, the business correspondence) covering nearly the entire career of the architect; of photographs of buildings, models, and furniture; and of audiotapes, books, and periodicals.
Archival materials are also held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Collection, 1929–1969 (bulk 1948–1960) includes correspondence, articles, and materials related to his association with the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Metropolitan Structures Collection, 1961–1969, includes scrapbooks and photographs documenting Chicago projects.
Other archives are held at the University of Illinois at Chicago (personal book collection), the Canadian Center for Architecture (drawings and photos) in Montreal, the Newberry Library in Chicago (personal correspondence), and at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. (professional correspondence).