Mies Centennial Exhibition -- tribute to a master of modernity

ARCHITECT Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was no stranger to Chicago. So it is no surprise that Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in this centennial year of Mies's birth is presenting the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the work of the world-renowned 20th-century architect. The Mies van der Rohe Centennial Exhibition is a show of fine quality and extensive scope. It includes both his American work and many of his pre-World War II European projects.

The range of drawings and photographs on display here shows that Mies more than succeeded in one of his most clearly articulated goals.

``I don't want to be interesting,'' he once said. ``I want to be good.''

In the highest sense, this Centennial Exhibition is good. The show includes over 450 drawings and photographs of some 92 buildings, projects, and furniture pieces. There are 10 architectural models here too. Most of the materials came from the Mies van der Rohe Archive at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which organized the exhibition.

Among the drawings and models are most of Mies's pioneer works. Here we see five key projects that Mies completed in the 1920s -- projects that demonstrated his visionary genius: the Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper, the Glass Skyscraper, the Concrete Office Building, the Concrete House, and the Brick County House.

Drawings and photographs of other well-known Mies works are also on display, including some of the German Pavilion built for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition, and the New National Gallery in Berlin (1962-67). The latter is considered by many to be Mies' ultimate expression of the long-space structural building.

Tucked between these examples of Mies's famous works are a number of fine, but less known, projects. These make the show unique even for those already familiar with Mies. Each bears the master's trademarks -- clarity, functionalism, and geometric precision.

The show includes mural-size photographs of Mies -- a stunning introduction to the neat displays, which trace the development of the architect's career.

Like the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies never attended architectural school. His formal education consisted of attending the Cathedral School in Aachen, Germany, and trade school from age 13 to 15 years.

As a youth he learned in his father's stone yard the possibilities and limitations of masonry. In 1907, after three years' apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker in Berlin, at the age of 21, Mies built his first house. In 1913, he opened his own architectural office as an architect.

In this Centennial exhibition, four original Mies chairs and one original table are shown, as well as eight samples of furniture now in production. Mies created both a new architecture and the furniture corresponding to it. The enduring quality of his furniture, although not singular among the productions of his peers, is unusual in that it has the same timelessness that characterizes his buildings.

Among the furniture shown is Mies's famous ``Barcelona Chair.'' It was designed 57 years ago for the interior of the German Pavilion at Barcelona. Constructed in chrome-steel and natural leather, it has a spare geometric curved design. It is regarded as a modern classic, and is still in production today.

By studying the dozens of preliminary furniture drawings, the viewer can follow closely the evolution of Mies's furniture design. Although Mies was influenced by Mart Stam's cantilevered chair, his work was technically advanced; it has a resilience that comes from his pioneering use of seamless steel tubes for frames.

Adding a lively dimension to the show are three video interviews with people who knew Mies well.

Dirk Lohan, Mies's grandson, tells of his relationship with his grandfather. ``Mies is known to have been a deep thinker. . . . [But] he was to me . . . very happy, full of laughter. I believe his inability to speak English made some people think he was serious. What he did say in America had been extremely well thought through, like `Less is more,' or `You cannot invent a new architecture every Monday morning.' ''

George Danforth, one of Mies's first American students and the first person to work in his Chicago office, speaks of their friendship and work. He said, ``As a teacher I found him demanding, but I found him marvelous to be with, enjoyable in every way. . . . The single most important architectural contribution . . . was to make clear a vocabulary of building which made clear problems of structure within new systems.''

Franz Schulze, the writer of ``Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography,'' discusses Mies as an architect but also as a person. ``We must understand that Mies's roots are in his father's stone yard in Aachen. The materials are ancient . . . but it is Mies's magical plan that transforms them. If he had used steel and glass, he felt he had captured technology, which was the spirit of the times.''

The show continues through Aug. 10 in Chicago. Then it travels to the New National Gallery in Berlin. It remains there Nov. 13, 1986-Jan. 15, 1987. A final showing will be held in Barcelona.

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