PRINT December 1985


Mies van der Rohe and Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography.

Mies van der Rohe
By David Spaeth, wth preface by Kenneth Frampton, New York: Rizzoli, 204 pp. 235 black and white illustrations.

Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography
By Franz Schulze (in association with the Mies van der Rohe Archive of the Museum of Modern Art), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 384 pp., 219 black and white illustrations..

CRISP, CONCISE, AND professionally thorough, David Spaeth’s illustrated survey goes over the contours of Mies van der Rohe’s career like a valet brushing off a man in a pinstripe suit; the effect is fresh, even though the ideas have worn a little thin. Franz Schulze’s admirably researched “critical biography” takes us beneath the surface to look for the private Mies, but the result is a bit like finding a ring-around-the-collar on the Invisible Man. We’re left thinking that in this case clothes did make the man, and wondering how to account for their perfect cut.

These two good books are both marred by their failure to interpret the way the passage of time has altered our perception of their brilliant, troubling subject. With Schulze the flaw goes deeper, because his book is the more intellectually ambitious of the two, and yet he denies the need for such a reckoning. Acknowledging in his preface that materials in the Museum of Modem Art’s archive “reveal to us an image of Mies more complex than any we earlier formed,” Schulze goes on to say that “no fundamentally new assessment emerges from them.”

Mies van der Rohe, Schulze believes, is one of those “great artists [who] die twice. Personal extinction is followed by public questioning of the real magnitude of the man, leading his survivors as they bury his body to tear his icon from the altar . . . thus in the late 1960s and early 1970s his philosophy was repeatedly attacked as simplistic and even inhumane. . . . because of his stature he became a lightning rod that attracted most of the thunderbolts of the so-called postmodernist revolution.” It is difficult to trust the interpretive gifts of a writer who begins a book with such a distortion. To begin with, the sort of attacks alluded to here long preceded Schulze’s “so-called postmodernist revolution,” and were more characteristic of the resistance to Modernism at mid century (for example, Elizabeth Gordan’s 1953 attack in House Beautiful) than of its subsequent rejection. Later on, the “public questioning” of Mies focused not on his magnitude but on his meaning. How to deal with the fact that the sublime perfection of Mies’ building could not have been attained except by violation of the rational? How to reconcile the impersonality he sought with what he found: the ultimate signature style of the 20th century? The lessons of the master lay more in untangling such issues than in the uncritical acceptance of his example. If it sometimes took “thunderbolts” to do the untangling, it was precisely because of the kind of uncritical acceptance that is demonstrated in these two books: Mies was “the most rigorous of rationalists in a time little blessed with rationality”; for him the building art was “a reasonable process leading to an unassailable truth” (Schulze). “Mies’s approach to the realization of an architecture worthy of the name was carefully considered and rational” (Spaeth).

Both books quote Mies on the “real reason” why he used nonstructural mullions to ornament such buildings as the 860–880 Lake Shore Drive apartment towers in Chicago. “We looked at it on the model without the steel section attached to the corner columns and it did not look right. That is the real reason.” And that was the real problem. When other architects attempted to follow Mies’ example, it didn’t look right. The important question is why Mies’ gifts may be inexplicable, but we know too much now about the human brain and its divided sympathies to accept that the question can be resolved by taking sides. To turn this question into a stale debate between the forces of reason and irrationality is to give Mies’ words more weight than his buildings.

Herbert Muschamp