New York

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Perhaps more than any other architect since Andrea Palladio, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) has suffered the indignities of inferior imitation. Appropriated Mies has become confused with the genuine Mies, and as a result he is alternately revered for his brilliance and blamed for the prosaicness of the modern cityscape. With impeccable thoroughness, curator Arthur Drexler assembled a body of Mies’ work that was historically accountable and surprisingly fresh. This exhibition, which marked the centennial of Mies’ birthdate, presents a marvelous opportunity—not for canonization, but for a serious reappraisal of the architect and his work. My only real objection was the larger-than-life presentation; the reflective side of Mies was obscured rather than clarified by the use of enormous photopanels and the selection of large-scale drawings and models. This perpetuation of Mies’ mystique may continue to make his work formidable.

Mies realized the great potential of the open plan and of freestanding interior walls. Influenced by both Modern painting and sculpture, he sought an ideal form, which often eclipsed concerns about context, function, and site. He was the autonomous architect, undaunted by conditions beyond his buildings. (His isolated and inflexible attitude and estrangement from the public and client continue to affect architectural practices today.) The exhibition included all the seminal work as well as many less recognizable and illuminating projects and proposals. Two of Mies’ proposals for glass-sheathed skyscrapers—Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper, 1921, and Glass Skyscraper, 1922—introduced the exhibition and framed important themes about the artist’s concerns, his break with the past, and his free interpretations of the technology of skeletal construction. Ironically, his renderings of these two uunrealized projects are dense and opaque, suggesting none of the transparent or reflective properties of glass; the structural skins appear to absorb air rather than divert light.

The Farnsworth House (1945–51) in Plano, Illinois, and the Lake Shore Drive apartments (1948–51) in Chicago are uncompromised realizations of Mies’ rigorous esthetic, and they raise serious questions about the problems of occupancy in architecture. Rather than acknowledge the idiosyncracies of use, Mies tried to dictate an unmaintainable order. Mies at his most whimsical and poetic was demonstrated by two perspectival collages of the Resor House (1937–38) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that show the view from within the house of a fictional landscape beyond. And Mies out of his realm was evidenced by his proposal (thankfully unrealized) for concrete, oak-leaf-shaped sculptures for the sleek wading pools in the plaza of New York’s Seagram Building (1954–58).

It is tempting to overendow this exhibition with significance. Does it signify the end of Postmodernism and the Modernist value it inherited, or that Mies is to be held accountable for the mimetic potential of his work? When does innovation take the turning point toward convention? This even-handed exhibition confirms some lessons of history, and the fact that there is little difference in scavenging from the distant or from the recent past.

Patricia C. Phillips