Why Mies? And Why Now?

Once scorned for being cold, Miesian Modernism is getting a fresh look at two New York museum

Beginning this month, the Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is being feted as never before. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which did so much to introduce the German master to the United States with its “International Style” exhibition in 1932, is launching “Mies in Berlin.” Billed as the “first in-depth look” at the architect’s early career, the show, organized by MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, Terence Riley, runs from June 21 through September 11. At the same time, the Whitney Museum of American Art is opening “Mies in America,” on view from June 21 through September 23. Curated by Phyllis Lambert, founding director and chair of Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture, where it opens in October, the show takes the architect from his arrival on these shores in 1938 until his death in 1969.

Toronto-Dominion Center,
completed in 1969.
Collection Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. Gift of Detlef Mertins © Detlef Mertins.

But why, one might well ask, is so much attention being paid to such an architect, and at such a time? Although enshrined—along with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright—as one of the three greatest architectural talents of his time, Mies has taken his lumps in recent years. Since MoMA marked the centennial of his birth with a show in 1986, Mies has been the juiciest target of those who attribute the physical alienation of American cities, at least in part, to the glass-and-steel high-rises on which he was the supreme authority. Postmodernism’s fussy “facadism” was a direct reaction to the perceived sterility of the Miesian idiom, and the subsequent Frank Gehry era of free-form “sculpturalism” is a mockery-made-flesh of Mies’s relentless rectilinearity.

So why Mies? And why now?

Much of the answer lies in the cyclical nature of esthetic enthusiasm. Just as Mies early on rejected the tired forms of European neoclassicism, and the Postmodernists, in turn, reacted against the chilly geometry of Mies (and fellow European transplants Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer), curators at the Modern and the Whitney could be seen as responding to the frustration in some quarters with the blob-and-matchstick work of the post-Gehry generation of architects that includes Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid.

Boring as the lesser practitioners of Modernism (men like Wallace Harrison, architect of the United Nations Headquarters and the Albany Mall) could be, they were tidy and intellectually easy to grasp. The architectural cutting edge today is decidedly serrated. And intriguing as some of the work by the likes of Rem Koolhaas and other thoughtful veterans may be, it is extremely hard to measure. The traditional appetites for scale, proportion, and the relationship of forms to one another and to the user have been largely suspended. In their place is an increasing need to wow and be wowed. Which is not to say that such efforts are always bad. But an extended diet of apparently unruly fare is guaranteed to produce nostalgia for a more orderly way of doing architecture. And no architect since classical times has been more orderly than Mies.

Having studied the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Henrik Berlage, and Peter Behrens (for whom he worked in Berlin), Mies eventually took these architects’ investigations of structure and materials to their ultimate level of refinement—beinahe Nichts,or next to nothing. This assumed the form of crystalline volumes contained by the leanest of steel beams and the clearest of glass walls. At its best—as in the Farnsworth House (1951), in Plano, Illinois, or Crown Hall (1956), built on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago—Mies’s modernism was sublime architecture. It may not have been cozy or even functional, but it was both beautiful to look at and stimulating to think about. And it was rigorously comprehensible—symmetrical organization, structural simplicity, “honest” materials clearly expressed. What a relief now to return to the Zen economy of Mies’s Seagram Building (1958), which epitomized these qualities, after puzzling for a decade through the prestidigitations of Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and the rest of the reigning obscurantist clan!

Nor is Mies the only focus of what appears to be a resurgence of interest in the practitioners of machine-age clarity. Richard Neutra, a Viennese architect who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright before setting out on his own in California in the 1940s, is the subject of a mammoth book just released by Taschen. And his countryman Rudolf Schindler, another Modernist expatriate (and Wright employee) who came to roost in California, is enjoying a rebirth of sorts; last February, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles mounted the most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled of Schindler’s work. Even Gordon Bunshaft, the bearish lead designer for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is experiencing renewed interest. Leading the celebration is none other than Robert A. M. Stern, the most durable of Postmodernists and now the dean of the Yale School of Architecture. This winter, Stern mounted a show in New Haven (in Paul Rudolph’s famously brutal 1963 Art and Architecture Building) titled “Saving Corporate Modernism,” a worthy attempt to publicize the threats by developers to several Skidmore, Owings & Merrill classics, including the Connecticut General Life Insurance complex in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Of course, the hazard of this voyage down the Modernist memory lane is that unwary travelers may lose sight of what was learned from the shortcomings of the style. Not the least of the lessons was that by turning increasingly to the use of models arranged on tabletops to create abstract compositions, many Modernist architects (led by Mies) began to lose touch with the “street level” impact their buildings would have on the user. Who among us has not felt a few degrees chillier walking past the blank glass walls of an esthetically admirable structure like Henry Cobb’s Hancock Tower in Boston? It should not escape notice that the current reliance on computers as design tools is inserting a similar layer of distance between the makers and the users of the current crop of avant-garde structures.

So we should not wax too romantic over the former titan, the “high-tech” architect of his day. We should certainly look to Mies for his intellectual and formal rigor—which is so absent from the sort of contemporary architecture that seeks, as its creators insist so shrilly, to reflect the chaos they see in the world around them. But we should also look beyond him for a new sensibility that profits from the latest technology while restoring the emotional contact that draws us to architecture as satisfied inhabitants, not just arm’s-length admirers.

A few architects, particularly James Stewart Polshek, have been doing that for years, but, happily, younger talents are now joining them. Profiting from digital technology and advances in computer-aided fabrication, such practitioners as Wendell Burnette, Maryann Thompson and Charles Rose, and Deborah Berke are reembracing the geometric, but with an elevated sensitivity to the tactile qualities of their materials.

MoMA’s cycle of exhibitions on Mies has come fully around in 15 years. The museum last did a show on Wright in 1994, and one on Louis Kahn in 1992. As the 20th-century architects who best combined abstraction and empathy, they just may be the ones we return to yet again. After all, today’s resurgent longing for I-beams and elegance will inevitably begin to rotate through the fashion cycle, and we will look back again for guid
ance to the future.

Carter Wiseman, an ARTnews contributing editor, is the author of I. M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture (Abrams) and Twentieth-Century American Architecture: The Buildings and Their Makers (W. W. Norton).

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