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More & more Mies.

Two immense and comprehensive exhibitions of the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)--one at the Museum of Modern Art(1) and one at the Whitney Museum of American Art(2)--have just departed from New York for international venues. Why Mies? Why now? Phyllis Lambert, one of the world's leading patrons of architecture, decided that the time had come, more than three decades after his death, to reevaluate and reinterpret the master's architecture. Lambert is famous for persuading her father, Samuel Bronfman, then president of Seagram, to fire the California firm of Luckman and Pereira as architects for the skyscraper he planned to build on Park Avenue and to allow her to choose an architect capable of creating a masterpiece. She met and researched the work of the leading international modernists and in 1954, guided by Philip Johnson, selected Mies.

Lambert went on to found the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1979, which has assembled a comprehensive archive of Mies research and previously unstudied Miesian material, including drawings and collages, photographs, project documents, and memorabilia. Mies himself gave the Museum of Modern Art his collection of some 20,000 drawings in 1968. And Terence Riley, chief curator of MOMA's department of architecture and design, also had the idea of a new Mies show, to follow the one created by Arthur Drexler in 1986 to celebrate the centennial of the architect's birth. Riley and Lambert agreed to share their archives and mount two exhibitions, his to explore Mies's work in Berlin, hers to focus upon the master's architecture in America.

The American work of Mies is well known to both admirers and critics of modern architecture. Few have failed to visit at least one or two of his office towers --in New York City, the Seagram Building; in Chicago, the Federal Center; in Toronto, the Dominion Center. Most are familiar with Mies's residential towers--Chicago's Lake Shore Drive Apartments, the urban renewal projects Lafayette Park in Detroit and Colonnade Park Apartments in Newark, and Westmount Square, a combined office and residential complex in Montreal.

Mies once famously said that he had no intention of inventing a new style every Monday morning. Even his low-rise structures, the Barcelona Pavilion, the little Farnsworth House in Piano, Illinois, and the New National Gallery in Berlin, have a common style. And except for the chapel, a simple brick and glass cube, the factory style he created for the campus he planned and built for the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago was used for almost every building there. Each was conceived as a single universal space adapted to a specific function--administration, library, laboratory, teaching, or student commons. Mies's biographer Franz Schulze called him "the century's supreme architect of the one-room building."

In the last decade of his life, Mies turned out to be a useful target for the polemic of postmodernist architects and critics. By the turn of the 1960s they were finding his structurally and aesthetically perfected towers and low-rise pavilions of universal space a diminution of architectural form and repetitious beyond excuse. "Less is a bore" declared Robert Venturi. The rational purity of Mies's architecture lost many of its champions and was deemed sterile because of its abandonment of ornament, neglect of tradition, and failure to adapt to the qualities of a given environment. Furthermore, Mies's urban renewal residential projects fared no better than those of lesser architects because, as Jane Jacobs was among the first to point out, the widespread destruction of viable neighborhoods in the process of replacing slums with high-rise housing was an immense mistake of public policy that deserved to fail and did.

The charge that Mies spawned all the bad architecture perpetrated in the name of the modern movement is unfounded. The ugly buildings that have been blamed on him were part of the oncoming industrialization of the building process. Mies made a new architecture out of the possibilities presented by technical advances in the manufacture of steel and glass, but others were not capable of matching or continuing his level of effort.

Most architects are merely competent, and their clients, ordinary businessmen rather than enlightened patrons, understandably choose to build fast and cheap. Few architects have matched Mies's passionate care for proportion and detail, and few clients anywhere would pay for such a level of architecture.

In the thirty-two years since his death, postmodernism has come but not gone. The developers who build tract housing, megamansions, and high-rise apartments, all decorated with classical pastiche, are giving their customers what they want. The neo-modernists are here and the best of them, Frank Gehry for one, are making technological and formal explorations of their own, just as Mies did, but now aided by the computer. Given that today's vanguard architectural culture is very much alive and well, it would be unrealistic to expect--or even want--the MOMA and Whitney exhibitions to bring about anything resembling a Miesian revival. This in no way diminishes Mies's significance, however, because historically, there is no more important figure in the legacy of architectural modernism.

"Mies in Berlin" presented the work of a quarter-century of practice in Europe, from the opening of his Berlin office in 1913 to his emigration to the United States in 1938. Much of it had never before been displayed as important in its own right, but only as a prelude to his accomplishment in America. The curators Riley and Barry Bergdoll believe that the virtual dismissal of Mies's architecture of this period came about because earlier generations of historians and critics chose to present the architect as a modernist almost seamlessly from the start. The Museum of Modern Art, more than any other institution, helped construct this image. In 1932, Mies was featured in the MOMA'S first exhibition of architecture, "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition" organized by Philip Johnson and Henry-Kussell Hitchcock. It was followed by a 1947 exhibition titled "Mies van der Rohe" organized by Johnson, and finally by the aforementioned Arthur Drexler posthumous show in 1986.

Few of the works in "Mies in Berlin" except for the very early traditional houses, would be unfamiliar to anyone who is interested in modern architecture, but the difference between seeing little black and white images in the margins of texts and the magnificent original drawings, often huge in scale and drawn by Mies himself, is nothing short of revelatory. The exhibition began with several handsome presentation renderings by Mies's first masters, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Peter Behrens, and Hendrick Petrus Berlage. Mies's classical work followed with his great drawings for the Bismarck Monument Project (1910), one of which, a courtyard perspective, was only recently discovered.

The beauty (and indeed the very existence) of Mies's traditional houses will come as a surprise to many. The exhibition included excellent recent photographs by Kay Fingerle of those that remain, all well preserved. Also newly photographed by Fingerle were the rebuilt Barcelona Pavilion originally constructed in 1928-29, and the Tugendhat House (1928-30). The show also included Mies's original model of the house.

On view were the early sketches, photomontages, collages, and renderings of the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project (1921), the Glass Skyscraper Project (1922), and the six-story Concrete Office Building Project (1923), as well as studies of his first, unbuilt modern house projects, all very familiar examples of Mies's early moves as a mo&mist, but rarely presented through his original, beautiful graphics. Urban design studies were included as well as photographs of two still existing housing estates--the Afrikanis chestrasse Municipal Housing (1925-27) and the Weissenhof Housing of the same period.

It could not have been easy to make "Mies in America" as interesting to look at as "Mies in Berlin." After settling in the United States, the architect perfected an aesthetic adaptable to all of his work and used it consistently for three decades. The specter of endless monotony must have haunted the exhibition's designer Inigo Manglano-Ovalle as he examined Mies's dozens of sketches in soft pencil, draftsmen's careful delineations of comers where steel meets brick, and studies of facade proportions beyond count--graphics that could only interest the most serious students of Mies's oeuvre, in this most serious of shows. Manglano-Ovalle's task was to infuse variety, diversion, and relief for visitors making their way from the early Resor House, through the many versions of the Illinois Institute of Technology campus plan and buildings, on to the Farnsworth House, to high-rise apartment and office towers, and eventually to the late masterpieces, the Seagram Building and the New National Gallery in Berlin.

Instead of building enclosed rooms, Manglano-Ovalle placed wall panels to define freely formed spaces that weave and flow into each other, to give museum visitors an experience of Miesian space. He displayed four rare and beautiful models made by Mies's office for the completed designs of the unbuilt Resor House (1937-43), the unbuilt Convention Hall for Chicago (1953-54), the Seagram Building (1954-58) and the New National Gallery in Berlin (1962-68). All were poorly lit, but the Seagram model, exquisitely fabricated in bronze, suffered most from this surprising curatorial failure. Since real buildings are best seen in daylight, models should be exhibited in light that approximates it. Manglano-Ovalle chose a very low light level throughout the exhibition, except for a bright gallery that contained excellent photos by Guido Guidi and Richard Pare.

The general dimness couldn't be more unlike the light-filled spaces of Mies's actual buildings, but of course it enhanced the films and videos. There was a memorable installation, the work of the architect Ammar Eloueimi: a computer-generated digital construction of the Illinois Institute of Technology's unrealized Library and Administration Building. Made from Mies's sketches and renderings, it takes the viewer through the building as it would have looked in the changing light over the course of a day.

A video installation, however, that was conceived as the culmination and climax of The show was memorable for its awfulness. The old and splendid model of Mies's last work, the New National Gallery, placed in the center of an enclosed room almost as dark as a cinema, was barely visible and overwhelmed by a film continually projected on an immense screen. The subject of the film is Mies's real building, not a simulation, and it displays a gallery interior with a glass wall that overlooks the building's terrace toward Berlin's Forum of Culture. Produced by Manglano-Ovalle, the work is a projection of twelve hours of footage shot in a single day, beginning at dawn and ending at dusk, that has been condensed to sixteen minutes using time-lapse technology. Twenty people mysteriously appear, move about, and disappear during the time sequence. The caption explains it all: "The artist sought to render the building as a single timeless element of the film, disturbed only by an ephemeral human presence."

It wouldn't have seemed so bad had it not been for the pretentious music. Throughout the exhibition, a specially commissioned work could be heard softly in the background, but within the darkened chamber, it surged. The composer, Jeremy Boyle, may have thought he was creating music that would intensify the visitors' perceptions of Miesian atmosphere and space in ways that drawings and models cannot. Instead he produced a score that belongs in a movie like Jurassic Park III to herald the first appearance of the flesh-eating dinosaurs. When the show opens in Montreal, Lambert should turn off the music and turn up the lights. Theatrical overkill does not belong in an exhibition as earnest, carefully studied, broadly researched, and intelligently organized as "Mies in America."

(1) "Mies in Berlin" was on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from June 21-September n, 2001. It will also be seen at the Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz (December 14, 2001-March 10, 2002) and the Fundacion La Caixa, Barcelona (July 30-September 29, 2002). A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Terence Riley and Barry Bergdoll, has been published by the Museum of Modern Art and is distributed by Harry N. Abrams (394 pages, $70).

(2) "Mies in America" was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from June 21-September 23, 2001 It will also be seen at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (October 17, 2001-January 20, 2002) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (February 16-May 26, 2001). A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Phyllis Lambert, has been jointly published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture and the Whitney Museum and is distributed by Harry N. Abrams (791 pages, $75).

Mildred Schmertz is a contributing writer for Architectural Digest.
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Title Annotation:Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Author:Schmertz, Mildred
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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