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PRINT May 2001

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Mies in Berlin, Mies in America

In appraising its acknowledged masters, architectural history is usually content with a single version: Wright the troubled genius, Le Corbusier the painter in planner’s clothing, Gropius the ideologue who lacked an artist’s chops. Among the twentieth century’s Big Four, only Ludwig Mies van der Rohe persists in multiple. As the architectural historian Joan Ockman observes, “We have proliferated a dizzying array of Mieses—a European Mies, an American Mies; a classicizing Mies, an expressionist Mies; an Adorno-critical Mies, a pragmatic-lyrical Mies—but it often seems that our quarry only becomes increasingly elusive or opaque.” It is fitting, then, that the architect is celebrated this summer in dueling New York blockbusters, the museological equivalent of a home-and-away doubleheader. The curators at moma and the Whitney have broken Mies’s career at a natural point—his arrival here from Germany in 1938—but this ghettoization-by-period only adds to the surplus of Mieses.

Historians never discuss Mies; they wield him. This grand tradition began, as so many did, with Philip Johnson’s 1932 “Modern Architecture” exhibition at moma and the publication the same year of his book The International Style. To further his vision of an architecture that would transcend people, place, and politics, Johnson stripped Mies of the expressionist and even romantic tendencies that were his birthright. Columbia University architectural historian Barry Bergdoll, who organized “Mies in Berlin” with moma curator Terence Riley, points out in his catalogue essay that while preparing the drawings for the 1932 show Johnson had all traces of the plantings, garden paths, and trellises erased from Mies’s plans, forever displacing the Idiosyncratic-Romantic Mies in favor of the Irreducible-Rationalist Mies he craved. Curiously, it is Johnson’s Lieber Meister Mies—born at moma—who holds court at the Whitney show, whose curator is Phyllis Lambert, founding director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. In 1954, empowered by her role as director of planning for the family business and encouraged by her friend Johnson, Lambert selected Mies to design the Seagram Building, the well to which so many architects have come to drink but left still thirsty. While MoMA’s somewhat revisionist tack might be read as an effort to balance its past indulgence of a mythical Mies, at the Whitney, Lambert is serving up a reprise of Mies the Form-giver, going so far as to allow Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas the opportunity to pay proskynesis with a pair of “visual essays” in the catalogue. While the Polemical Mies is the only historical constant, this summer we may end up wishing some had heeded his quotable avatar: Less is more.

Philip Nobel

Both shows open June 21. “Mies in Berlin” closes September 11 and travels to the Altes Museum, Berlin, in October. “Mies in America” closes September 23 and reopens October 17 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, and travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, February 16, 2002.