A critical look at the `father figure' of modern architecture

Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, by Franz Schulze. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 355 pp. 219 illustrations. $39.95. This is the year of Mies. To mark the centennial of his birth last week we have this and other biographies, plus exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere -- events that record the monumental presence and impact of this father figure of modern architecture.

This is not the decade of Mies, however. Paradoxically and simultaneously, this is the period when the post-modernist rejection of Mies's parental role and the popular distaste for its offshoots on the landscape have peaked. Even as the scribes summon their resources, the times footnote and foil the effort to accord the German master of abstraction the status that seemed less than secure even at his death in 1969. In many quarters, his rational geometry has been replaced by a return to historical and contextual forms.

This is the irony that accompanies and, in a sense, transforms this fine recounting by Franz Schulze. However accomplished the biography in its task, however proficient the architect in his rounds, however complete what Mr. Schulze calls ``The Triumph of Steel and Glass'' in Mies's day, the sense of a hero on the wane detracts from the hurrahs, and, in the end, the curiosity.

Master of half a dozen of the pivotal buildings of the modernist era and inspirer of the International Style across the globe, Mies has become, as Schulze notes early on, ``a lightning rod that attracted most of the thunderbolts of the so-called Post-modernist revolution.'' Far beyond his peers Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, and even beyond his fellow Bauhaus director, Walter Gropius, Mies, with his rational distillation of a technological right-angle way of building, has become submerged in the economic austerity of lesser copiers. Easy to mimic in form, if not in spirit, his mythic boxes have become down-to-earth invaders in the hands of the simplifiers and sterilizers of our cities.

By any accounting, however, it is at least time to go back to the source, and Schulze, like the show at the Museum of Modern Art (which closes April 15), does so. A skilled writer as well as a keen analyst of matters visual, he accomplishes this task with all the style and scholarship that one could expect from a biographer. That he calls his work a ``critical biography'' only seems an unnecessary apologia for recognizing the paradox of the chore: It is less a ``critical biography'' than a conscientious acknowledgment of Mies's place.

Schulze begins with Mies's ``Youth in Imperial Germany,'' in Aachen, a town large enough to boast some architectural achievements but small enough to make this restless son of a mason leave home. Here as elsewhere, Schulze pauses to amplify origins and influences. He underscores, for instance, how the vernacular grace of Mies's native town would become a keynote in the master's search for a style for Everyman to reproduce.

Letters of the period serve to underscore Mies's early ``modernism.'' Hugo Perls, for example, a well-to-do lawyer, describes Mies's ``strong convictions. . . . He wanted nothing to do with hand-me-down forms.'' This in 1910.

Such parallels and early historical antecedents account for this reviewer's fascination with this book. Here, for example, are linkages with the early artists and architects who made this period consonant with some of the greatest bodies of work in our century. Here, too, are the sources, in context, for such famous statements as Mies's modernist classic: ``We don't invent a new architecture every Monday morning,'' as well, of course, as the landmarks of his work from the Barcelona Pavilion to the Seagram Building in New York.

Schulze is a keen biographer, and such works become more than aesthetic way stations: They are part of the unfolding drama of the life of a man of greater complexity than the stereotype of the stern and chilly German producing buildings of equal rigor. Schulze has both the gift of an architectural historian able to render Mies's building innovations and that of a biographer able to paint the humanity and shortcomimgs of the man.

It is a less-than-lovely figure who appears here. At his worst, Mies was an indifferent husband and father, a womanizer and an alcoholic. Schulze plays down these traits, explaining Mies's romantic and paternal failings as the need for freedom. His treatment of the architect's drinking problem is rather coy and flip, however.

Schulze does better with Mies's interactions with the major, and sometimes stormy, figures of the day: The off-again, on-again, fiery link with Frank Lloyd Wright; the hostility to Walter Gropius, who preceded him both in the Bauhaus and America. The author neatly splices the personal and the professional as he traces the evolution of Mies's teaching and building at Armour Institute in Chicago and his shaping of the Farnsworth House or Seagram's.

Finally, Schulze has the breadth to go beyond architectural sources to deal with Mies's philosophy and its origins in literature: reading Plato, for instance, or Spengler as sources for his rationality, his monumentality, his unsullied spacing. Uniquely, Schulze gives us then the man of ``martinis, Havana cigars, and a few expensive suits'' and the ``elitist designer'' who proved to be ``the most potent architect of the American postwar period.''

If the influence of Mies the potentate has begun to pale, the fascination of the figure has not. Thanks to Franz Schulze, we may disown Mies's urge to abstract and rationalize architecture to the advantage of technology and the disadvantage of human-scale cities, while admiring the artistry of the brooding, intense, and profound figure painted so nimbly here.

Jane Holtz Kay writes on architectural subjects for the Monitor.

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