The Early Years In Germany

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s (b. 1886, Aachen) early life in Germany is not the material out of which greatness would be expected. His father was a stonemason and the family’s financial constraints were such as to prevent Mies from getting more than a rudimentary education. He had no formal architectural training. Yet, Mies became one of the master architects of the modern age, a visionary who designed glass and steel towers in America.

Mies’s initiation in aesthetics and building materials came from his father who was, in addition to being a master stonemason, a stone carver. In 1905, Mies moved to Berlin to work first for an architect and later for a furniture maker. In 1908, he began work with one of the most interesting and prolific architects of his day, Peter Behrens, and the three years Mies spent with Behrens were invaluable training. Through Behrens, Mies became enamored of the neo-classical work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel. In Schinkel’s work, Mies saw universal principles of form and proportion. In time, these qualities would inform his own modernist work. Mies’s early house commissions reflected Schinkel’s influence on the young architect.

In the years after World War I, Mies’s work took an extraordinarily inventive turn, inspired in part by the daring and sophisticated environment in Berlin at the time. There, Mies was exposed to major art movements of the day, including the German Dadaists, DeStijl from Holland, Suprematism and Constructivism from the Soviet  Union.  He would have also seen the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, which was exhibited in 1910 in Berlin. In 1918, Mies cofounded the magazine Gestaltung, which advocated for modern art. He joined the Novembergruppe which had evolved from a political group into an artistic one that published and sponsored exhibitions.

It was through Novembergruppe that Mies exhibited and published his two astonishing and prophetic experimental skyscraper designs. The first (1921) was a drawing for a crystalline triangular glass tower in which Mies exaggerated the faceted glass in order to create the most interesting reflections over the tower’s surface. The second project (1922) was similarly transparent but in a free form intended to dynamically interact with light. The drawings for these towers look modern today; in the early 1920s they were radical, representing a new vision for the future of architecture.

Mies had little built work until the late 1920s, but in those early years he designed some of his iconic works, including his Monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg (1926) in  Berlin and the Wolf House in Gubem (1925-27). More important was his work as director and architect for a large exhibition of housing in Stuttgart called the WeiBenhofsiedling (1927). Apart from Mies himself, he chose the leading European architects, among them, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens and Bruno Taut to design the 21 permanent structures for the exhibition. One of Mies’s greatest works was built during this period, the German Pavilion for the International Exhibition in Barcelona (1928-29). This sublime construction was partially inspired in plan by the De Stijl movement. The unenclosed structure stood on an elevated platform with a spreading roof supported by chrome-plated columns. Upright panels of rich materials like such as glass and stone took the place of walls dividing rooms. In the most important house of his European career, the Tugendhat House (1928-30) in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Mies applied some of the principles from the Barcelona Pavilion to a functional dwelling. Long expanses of glass acted as membranes between the indoors and out. The living and dining areas were not enclosed, but merely suggested by discreetly placed floating planes and a dramatic curved wall. This was a precursor to the now ubiquitous open-plan house.

In 1930, Mies was named director of the experimental school, the Bauhaus in Dessau which promoted functionalism and modern architecture and influenced the content of architectural education wordwide. Conservative German leaders labeled the Bauhaus work “degenerate” embracing instead a backward-looking nationalist style. Pressure from right-wing factions forced the school to close in 1932. Mies moved the school to Berlin where it carried on briefly before the Nazis shut it down for good in 1933.




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