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Mies in Europe. (View).

Two recent exhibitions in New York chronicled the two phases of Mies's career. The second, dealing with American Mies, is not coming to this country; but we now have a slightly abridged version of the German Mies Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Curated by Terence Riley of the Museum of Modern Art and Barry Bergdoll of Columbia University, this is a formidable show.

The curators decided to look at Mies's pre-war work as if the later years of success in America had never happened. This led them to ignore work linking the two periods, such as the Krefeld Silk Works, which foreshadows the work built at I.I.T. a few years later, and to play down continuing concepts, such as the pavilion on an inhabited podium that links the 1907 Reihl House with the National Gallery of sixty years later. However it does leave them free to assess the work on its merit and not to be sidetracked into finding the germs for the later successes.

With the work of any great architect, one cannot help being fascinated and intrigued by that moment when he or she became a great architect. For the first decade of his career Mies built respectable, but orthodox, bourgeois villas and designed mildly pompous neo-classic monuments. Then we get this change as complete as Saul's vision on the road to Damascus. Mies changes his name, leaves his wife and family, alters his lifestyle and becomes an architectural revolutionary and propagandist. Was this the result of Gropius's rejection of Mies's Kroller-Muller Villa as 'too conservative'. This exhibition does not tell us, and perhaps the reasons for such a change are unknowable.

The results of Mies's change around 1921 are beautifully shown in the exhibition. Large-scale drawings give some of the impact that these projects must have generated at the time.

There are numerous books on Mies van der Rohe, so one may ask 'what does this exhibition contribute to our knowledge or understanding of the man and his work?' For me there are four areas of added insight. First, there is the emphasis on Mies's continuing concern with landscaping. Second, there are revelations in the use of colour. The two drawings of the concrete country house, one in bright sunshine and one in a glowing red dawn, reveal a concern with colour and light to rival Mies's well known interest in reflections and light.

Third, there is increased understanding for me--as a non-German speaker--of the revolutionary period with the copies of the magazine G given an English translation.

Finally, the models of most of the significant buildings show facades that are not seen in the few published photographs. The Wolf House, for example, is usually illustrated by its garden elevation, the side elevations are much less resolved. The model of the Gericke House, on the other hand, reveals a masterpiece which I had not appreciated from the imprecise sketches published in the books. The model of the glass office tower is exhibited so low down that one looks down at it, it looks rather squat, a far cry from the well known perspective with that marvellous sharp corner. Mies's editing of his own work is clearly shown in the Resor House, the beautiful design that we all know was done after the commission had been cancelled, the model of the commissioned building shows a two-storey house, partly designed by another architect and singularly lacking in clarity.

The masterworks, the Tugendhat House and the Barcelona Pavilion, are somehow disappointing. Flowing space, quality materials and sheer magic are impossible to capture in an exhibition. But go and see the show for the big drawings of the early works, for the informative models and to wonder at the extraordinary range and creativity of one man's mind.

Mies van der Rohe 1905-1938. Exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 10 December 2002 - 2 March 2003
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Title Annotation:Mies van der Rohe's architectural exhibition is examined
Author:Winter, John
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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