Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), Germanborn American architect, was a leading exponent of the International Style. His "skin and bones" philosophy of architecture is summed up in his famous phrase "less is more."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born in Aachen on March 27, 1886. He attended the cathedral school until he was 13 years old and spent the next 2 years at a trade school. He had no formal architectural training but acted as a draftsman for a manufacturer of decorative stucco, and from 1905 to 1907 he was employed by Bruno Paul, the Berlin furniture designer.
In 1908 Mies joined Peter Behrens (the employer of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius), who was one of several enlightened German architects attempting to link the ideals of the British Arts and Crafts movement, as propagated in Germany by Hermann Muthesius, to machine production. Behrens designed buildings and products for the German electrical industry AEG but also reverted to the esthetics, concepts, and architectural expression of the early-19th-century neoclassicist Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Thus it is not surprising that Mies's early domestic architecture, notably the Perls House (1911) at Zehlendorf near Berlin, with its hipped roof and axial plan, could have been designed by Behrens, or even by Schinkel a hundred years earlier. Mies supervised the construction of the German Embassy in St. Petersburg before leaving Behrens's office in 1912.
During 1910 and 1911 Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural projects were published by Ernst Wasmuth of Berlin. Mies acknowledged his debt to Wright ("The encounter [of Wright] was destined to prove of great significance to the European development."), but he was also strongly influenced after World War I by the de Stijl movement of Theo van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld. This Dutch movement had developed from the cubistderived tradition of painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Mies's brick country house project (1923) and his brick monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (1926; destroyed) in Berlin were essays in the de Stijl idiom. Even the plan of the German Pavilion (1929; destroyed) at the International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain, had the geometry of a de Stijl painting. The travertine podium, chrome-plated steel structural columns, green marble dividers, and gray glass of the pavilion, as well as the reflecting pool with a sculpture by George Kolbe and the famed Barcelona chair, stool, and table by Mies, gave the building a timeless quality of inexorable perfection.
Mies also designed the furniture for some of his other buildings, such as the tubular dining and lounge chairs for the second Deutscher Werkbund Exposition of 1927 in Stuttgart. He was director of this exposition and broad-mindedly invited Behrens, Le Corbusier, Gropius, J. J. P. Oud, Bruno Taut, Hans Poelzig, and others to contribute. "I have refrained," said Mies, "from laying down a rigid program, in order to leave each individual as free as possible to carry out his ideas." His own contribution was a row of apartments, steel-framed, finished in stucco, and with horizontal bands of windows.
In 1930 Mies designed the Tugendhat House at Brno, Czechoslovakia—a house evolved from the Barcelona pavilion—and for it he created the Tugendhat chair and the Brno chair. That year he became director of the Bauhaus, the famed German school of art which revolutionized 20th-century design. The growing strength of Nazism in Germany during the early 1930s forced the Bauhaus to move from Dessau to Berlin. Mies closed the school in 1933 but stayed on in Germany, trying to effect a change in the country's politics.
The American Years
Forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1937, Mies went to the United States; he became an American citizen in 1944. His work, and that of other modern architects, had been introduced to the American architectural scene by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock in an exhibition held in 1932 at New York City's Museum of Modern Art and in its catalog, The International Style: Architecture since 1922.
Mies's philosophy of architecture, which was to dominate his designs in the United States, was exemplified in his revolutionary projects of 1919 and 1920-1921 for glass skyscrapers in Berlin. They were to be "new forms from the very nature of new problems." His 1922 project for a reinforced-concrete office building epitomized all the ideals of the International Style; volume rather than mass, simplicity of surface treatment with no ornamentation, and horizontal emphasis (except in tall structures). Mies stated, "Reinforced concrete structures are skeletons by nature. No gingerbread. No fortress. Columns and girders eliminate bearing walls. This is skin and bones construction."
In 1938 Mies became director of architecture of the Illinois Institute of Technology (formerly the Armour Institute), an office he held until he resumed private practice in 1958. In his brief inaugural address he stated that "true education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values…. Education must lead us from irresponsible opinion to true responsible judgment…." He ended by quoting St. Augustine: "Beauty is the splendor of Truth."
A grid of 24-foot squares was the basis of Mies's Illinois Institute of Technology campus plan (1939-1940). Vincent Scully (1961) described it as a veritable "Renaissance townscape … conceived … upon a modular system of fixed perspectives" and compared it to a streetscape by the mannerist architect Giacomo da Vignola. The horizontal lines of perspective and the low vertical structural rhythm are common to both Renaissance spaces. Mies considered Crown Hall (completed 1956) on the campus, which houses the School of Architecture and Design, with its main floor an undivided space measuring 120 by 220 feet, his finest creation.
Particularly noteworthy among the residences and apartments that Mies built in and near Chicago are the Farnsworth house (1950) in Plano, Ill., and the pair of glass-sheathed apartment towers (1949-1951) on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He also designed Federal Center (1964), a three-building complex in the heart of Chicago's commercial area. In New York City he collaborated with Philip Johnson on the Seagram Building (1956-1958), a 38-story tower of gray and bronze glass, which was the ultimate realization of Mies's 1919 project for a glass-walled sky-scraper. He died in Chicago on Aug. 18, 1969.
Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier are the paternal triumvirate of 20th-century architecture. Mies's Werkbund apartment block of 1927 was a low-cost housing project of high-caliber design that has rarely been equaled even in the 1960s and early 1970s, when architects were desperately trying to solve the pressing need of well-designed housing. His Barcelona pavilion of 1929 was an esthetic contribution to 20th-century spatial design, comparable to Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie house and Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye.
Further Reading on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
A selection of drawings by Mies van der Rohe from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art is in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Drawings (1969). Biographies include Philip C. Johnson, Mies van der Rohe (1947; rev. ed. 1953); Ludwig Hilberseimer, Mies van der Rohe (1956); and Arthur Drexler, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1960). Mies van der Rohe is discussed in Peter Blake, The Master Builders (1960; rev. ed. 1963); Vincent Scully, Modern Architecture (1961); and John Jacobus, Twentieth-century Architecture: The Middle Years, 1940-65 (1966).