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Mies in the Details

Published: 3/27/2012

Visionary architect Mies van der Rohe was born 126 years ago today. Phyllis Tuchman considers how he changed the face of the modern building. Originally published March 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.

We live in Mies’ world. Architect Mies van der Rohe’s towers, museums, and private residences set the tone for urban life from New York to Berlin, Chicago to Barcelona. With exacting standards, this German émigré who called the Windy City home for three decades designed the consummate International Style buildings, not to mention the elegant furniture for their interiors. His Seagram Building on Manhattan’s Park Avenue is the most beautiful office tower of the 20th century; 860-880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago are its most beautiful apartment houses; and Brno’s Tugendhat Villa, its most beautiful private home.
 

860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago (Wikimedia Commons/JeremyA)

860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago (Wikimedia Commons/JeremyA)

 

 

At Illinois Institute of Technology’s Crown Hall on March 28, dinner guests celebrated what would have been Mies’ 125th birthday. During the 1940s and ’50s, while running ITT’s architecture school, he designed the master plan for the 120-acre campus on the Southside of Chicago as well as 20 of its buildings.

It didn’t matter that Mies never studied architecture. Nor that he never graduated from high school. They toasted the man who made flat roofs, floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, open floor-plan interiors, and white-walled exteriors unimaginably opulent and luxurious. Then, too, when you’re inside many of his buildings, you think you’re outdoors because, looking through vast expanses of glass, you’re still enveloped by greenswards and blue skies.

Ludwig Mies was born on March 28, 1886, in Aachen, the seat of Charlemagne’s court a thousand years earlier. The son of a stonemason, the young boy attended morning mass in the Holy Roman Emperor’s former chapel with his mother, Amalie Rohe. During vacations, Ludwig, the youngest of four siblings, helped make grave monuments. Decades later, he recalled, “I did the lettering on the stones, my brother did the carving, and my sisters put the finishing touches on them, the gold leaf, and all that.”

Fifteen-year-old Ludwig apprenticed to local builders. A year later, he was a paid employee in a stucco factory’s drafting room. “Even now,” the renowned architect declared in 1968, “I can draw cartouches with my eyes closed.”

At 19, Ludwig Mies began his odyssey to become a master builder. He went to Berlin where he got a job drawing ornamentation for the neo-Gothic Town Hall. Conscripted into the army, he was discharged a few months later when he was taken ill.

Back in Berlin, Mies next worked for two talented architects who both began their careers as furniture designers. But it was as a freelancer that the 21-year-old got the chance to design the home of philosopher Alois Riehl and his wife. They’d wanted to gamble on a talented newcomer and were so pleased with the outcome, they sent their fledgling architect on a study tour of Italy. While admiring classical Rome and Renaissance Florence and Venice, the traveler nonetheless missed Germany’s “gray heavens.”

Mies absorbed much in the office of Peter Behrens, who was making a name for himself building with brick, steel, and glass. Behrens also is remembered for employing Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius early on.

In 1913, Mies opened his own practice, married and, in rapid succession, fathered three daughters. His timing wasn’t propitious. The Great War intervened, and he again was drafted.

After peace was declared, the world was a different place. Mies had to contend with rampant inflation, newly configured countries, the rise of Communism, a worldwide Depression, another World War, a Cold War and changing standards of living.

Cutting a debonair figure with his hazel eyes, chiseled chin, solid build, and commanding presence, the architect sought a nobler-sounding name. In 1921, he added the Dutch van der rather than the Germanic von to his mother’s surname. His persona was complete.

Although Mies was building splendid houses in Germany during the 1920s, he earned a place in the vanguard of his day in competitions and expositions. He didn’t win the commission for an office building in 1921, but he earned praised for his design’s simplicity. The plans he submitted called for a grouping of three prismatic, 20-story towers comprising steel skeletons sheathed in glass. A year later, he created another set of drawings for an ideal 30-story glass skyscraper.

In 1924, Mies opined that “the industrialization of building methods” would allow “the new architecture to come into its own.” As artistic director of the 1927 Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart, he achieved this optimistic goal. With the theme of the modern home and its furnished interior, he and 16 other European architects created 60 spacious domiciles in 21 separate structures. Crossing classical form with abstract geometry, they popularized flat roofs and white exteriors.

Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion — the German Pavilion at the International Exposition of 1929 held in Barcelona — transformed the flat roof and the white exterior into a thing of beauty. Costly, sumptuous materials, including travertine and onyx marble, and green and milk-glass, were used for a large outdoor terrace, interior walls, and reflecting pool linings. The small pavilion is airy and light-filled.
 

 

 

Barcelona Pavilion (reproduction) (Wikimedia Commons/Hans Peter Schaefer)

Barcelona Pavilion (reproduction) (Wikimedia Commons/Hans Peter Schaefer)

 

 

The expansive living room of the Villa Tugendhat, finished in 1930 for Czech newlyweds, could probably house the entire Barcelona Pavilion. Entered from a narrow staircase, it’s a vast space with floor-to-ceiling windows, a curved macassar ebony wood wall, an onyx wall through which light streams, a winter garden and a library at one end, and furniture specially designed for the couple. Because the Jewish family fled the Nazi occupation and the house then rested behind the Iron Curtain, it fell into obscurity for more than five decades.

Mies also left Hitler’s Germany. That was in the cards when the Nazis shuttered the Bauhaus, which he had directed for three years. Invited in 1936 to head the architecture program at the Chicago technology institute, Mies entertained other offers, including one from Harvard. But Chicago courted him. After visiting some of the finest buildings by H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright, he asked to meet Wright. “I should think he would,” Wright replied.

In August 1938, Mies settled in the Midwest. For the next 20 years, ITT constructed buildings he’d designed. With the savvy we associate with Andy Warhol, he also became eminently quotable. “Less is more,” he declared, and the 20th century took note.

After the Second World War, the émigré architect, then in his 60s, built one elegant building after another in and around Chicago. Designed for a lady friend, the Farnsworth House’s open loft-like interior and generous raised terrace overlooking a river in Plano belie the second home’s small size. At the 26-story, twin apartment houses at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Mies achieved the nearly impossible. Alternating with the floor-to-ceiling windows providing water views, the exterior I-beams transcend their function as metal supports and create a decorative rhythm. The structure was tailored with the precision of a frock by Christian Dior.
 

 

 

Farnsworth House (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)

Farnsworth House (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)

 

 

When the 39-story Seagram Building was completed in New York seven years later in 1958, Mies developed further his longheld belief in the power of simplicity. Certainly the vertically oriented, load-bearing steel beams are as eloquent as lines of poetry. Whether outside or inside this tower, you know you are somewhere special.

Shortly after Mies turned 80 in 1966, doctors discovered cancer of the esophagus, and he died Aug 19, 1969. People still work, dwell, and visit his office towers, homes, libraries, museums, and university halls. And the majesty of his structures, the joy his materials provide, survives him. Lives are still touched and enriched by the perfection of his vision. From top to bottom, inside and out, from central air conditioning to the hardware on closet doors, Mies oversaw everything. “God,” he reminded us, “is in the details.”

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