Inside Mies's world, where 'less is more'

Looking at his simple boxes - er, buildings, one can underestimate the German-American architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). It's easy to denigrate his work, based on the inglorious aftermath of mid-century modernism, when cheap imitations of his high-rise towers became synonymous with anonymity.

Two exhibitions, "Mies in Berlin" (through Sept. 11 at the Museum of Modern Art) and "Mies in America" (through Sept. 23 at the Whitney Museum of American Art) make a case that "attention must be paid." Why? Because his work - and influence - reshaped the look of cities worldwide.

Mies's obvious contributions are the steel-and-glass skyscraper, which fuses structure and form, and the clear-span pavilion. In the latter, the interior is unencumbered by supports - an empty box, if you will, which allows ultimate flexibility. He called it, "universal space," putting into practice his statement: "Less is more."

What's hard to see, now that inferior Miesian knockoffs are ubiquitous, is that Mies intended architecture to liberate humanity. He shaped space to enhance the human spirit. "The battle for the New Dwelling," Mies said, "is only a part of the larger struggle for new ways of living."

It's no wonder Mies emphasized order in his rational, geometrically pure architecture. Order was absent in the upheavals he lived through: the collapse of the German empire, World War I, hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, the Russian Revolution, and World War II. Architecture, Mies said, should "create order out of the hopeless confusion of our days."

But order was only a means to an end: a new mode of living full of light, with visual flow between inside and outside, providing privacy and connection to the natural world.

The MoMA show documents the first 30 years of Mies's practice in Berlin and includes drawings, 15 scale models, photographs, and virtual tours of important buildings. It traces his work's evolution from a rather conventional, stripped-down Neoclassicism to the flat roofs and ribbon windows of Bauhaus style. Throughout, he integrated architecture and nature, developing a holistic environment to nurture the spirit.

His first structure of unalloyed genius was the German Pavilion, a reception hall designed for the 1929 world's fair in Barcelona, Spain. This rectangle seems the essence of simplicity. It's basically one space, bounded by glass walls, with interior partitions of luxurious materials: honeyed onyx, polished green marble, and green glass.

Two reflecting pools and foliage soften the rigid geometry. One feels both inside and out at the same time. The building seems both there and not there. The play of reflections and light, the dialogue between closed and open, transparent and opaque, void and solid, make the experience a transporting one. It piques the senses and sharpens awareness - as true art does.

Another Miesian device was to place a figurative sculpture among the exterior landscaping, to anchor the eye and suggest a human presence. It's fitting that, in the Barcelona Pavilion, a female nude, "Dawn" by Georg Kolbe, beckons beside a pool, since this building was the dawn of a new age.

Mies applied the principles of the Barcelona Pavilion to a sumptuous residence, the Tugendhat House (1928-30) in the Czech Republic. Its owner, Grete Tugendhat, said the house offered seclusion but also the "feeling of belonging to a larger totality." She called the house "large and austerely simple - however, not in a dwarfing but in a liberating sense."

The Whitney show covers the last 30 years of Mies's life, after he left Germany in 1938 and settled in Chicago. Who says there are no second acts in America? Mies got his second wind with a whoosh and proceeded to invent the modern high-rise, using industrial materials - like steel I-beams and plate glass - to express his aesthetic.

The Farnsworth House (1945-51) in Plano, Ill., became an icon of the age. Again, Mies reduced the elements of architecture to, as he said, "almost nothing." The house consists of two parallel horizontal planes - roof and floor - supported by eight steel columns, all enclosed in glass. Mies merged his obsession with universal space (the interior is one room) and the concept of expressing (rather than concealing) structure.

The owner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, was less than thrilled. Only two small windows opened, so ventilation was difficult. Mosquitoes swarmed in. Although elevated, the house was repeatedly flooded.

Worst of all was the exposure. Farnsworth called the house "my Mies-conception" and sued the architect for professional incompetence. She felt she was living in "an X-ray" when architecture buffs gawked at the house.

For a high-rise version of the Farnsworth House, Mies turned the glass rectangle on its end, striped it with I-beams, and called it the Seagram Building (1954-58).

Not surprisingly, for someone who said "God is in the details," this quintessential skyscraper is a marvel of refined detail, perfect scale and proportions, and deluxe materials. On the Park Avenue facade, Mies used a curtain wall of amber glass panels, ornamented by projecting bronze I-beams to create texture, play of light and shadow, and to stress verticality. On the pink granite plaza, greenery and two reflecting pools surrounded by marble benches humanize the monolithic structure.

Mies's last work, the New National Gallery (1962-68) in Berlin, is a 27,500-square-foot open space, walled in glass and supported on the exterior by eight steel columns. Mies thought modern cities were like dense forests, with vertical buildings hemming us in and blocking views. The Gallery, with its transparent facade, is like a clearing in the forest. Whether using his glass-and-steel vocabulary in tall buildings or horizontal residences, Mies offered elongated views to stretch the spirit, linking the individual to the world and hinting at limitless possibility.

Almost 50 years ago, Phyllis Lambert urged her father to hire Mies to design the Seagram Building. Now, as director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, she has curated the Whitney show. Ms. Lambert remarked recently, "Walking past the Seagram Building, my heart leapt up. It always does."

That's what art is all about.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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