February 24, 2003
(Robert Hughes on) the extreme success and the in-between failure of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I now have one of those digital TV boxes, which get you more free channels to look at. Thanks to it I recently saw a TV show about Mies van der Rohe, and I did a posting about the Bauhaus (where Mies taught for a few years) on my education blog.

I find that videotaping digital TV doesn't work. The sound goes all haywire. But turns out that one of the oddities of these free channels is that they are in the habit of repeating shows only hours after first showing them, and I am now watching a film of a piano recital by Evgeny Kissin which I caught the end of earlier in the evening and thought I had missed. More to the point, I got to see that Mies van der Rohe programme again.

First, a word of praise to the presenter of it, the handsomely jowly Australian Robert Hughes. Until now I've known Hughes only through his bizarre televised pronouncements about abstract art and a few second hand rumours of his opinions about political correctness. Hughes claims to see all kinds of profundities in the various big name abstract daubs of the twentieth century, in the manner of a courtier confidently describing the stitching and colouring of the Emperor's new clothes, and until now my view of Hughes was that he is a bag a wind. But this Mies show was excellent, as were the two other architecture shows Hughes also did, about the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and about Hitler's architectural alter ego Albert Speer. There were rather too many pointless shots of Hughes himself doing nothing very much except hobble about on his crutches or gaze profoundly into the distance. That aside, he was making judgements about these architects, and giving you biographical information about them and their architectural struggles and triumphs, that made perfect sense and which were clearly about something that was there in the buildings, and not just in Hughes' profound brain.

About Mies, Hughes said something that is obviously completely true, but which one does not expect such an art-speaky person actually to say, which is that Mies' in-between sized buildings are boring dross. He took a close look at the Farnsworth house, and that looks very fine. The huge skyscrapers are splendid. But the two, three and four story buildings he did for the Illinois Institute of Technology are totally boring.

Hughes did not say much about why, but I now will try to.

I think there are two reasons for the failure of Mies' in-between sized buildings. The Mies aesthetic is all about big, simple, Platonic shapes, which for him usually meant rectangular boxes. The "massing of forms in space" etc. etc. But like most craftsmen (which is what he was), Mies had his own favourite materials, which he used again and again for all the buildings he did, small, medium, or big. Again and again, he would go to work with rectangular boxes made with steel frames, concrete floors, and large sheets of glass.

If you do this for a very small building, such as the Farnsworth House, the overall shape is clear. There are not enough horizontals and verticals to break up the simplicity of the shape. The Farnsworth House has Platonic beauty.

If you do this for a very large building, such as the mighty Seagram Building, the grand simplicity of the shape is also clear. There are so many horizontals and verticals that instead of breaking up the simplicity of the shape, these verticals and horizontals merely form a fine-grained texture on the surface of a flat shape. The Seagram Building has Platonic beauty.

The problem came when he did in-between sized buildings, like the IIT buildings. The grand simplicity of the shape is not clear. The detailing is repetitious enough to be boring, but not vast enough for the detail to be ignorable, in favour of the vastness of the great shape. The IIT buildings are extreme and striking only in their extreme mediocrity.

Mies claimed to be doing a new form of classicism. Big deal. A boring office block done in accordance with the rules of proportionality that governed the design of the Parthenon is, I'm afraid, still a boring office block.

And then, second, there is the weather. A modern building that has become shabby and had started to peal and rot and turn blotchy is a particularly horrid sight, because there is no decoration to assert itself through the blotches and retain the original architect's version of what the building is supposed to look like. Your average Modern Movement, Mies-type building is notoriously liable to look nicer when miniature and made of balsa wood, then in its full sized outdoor version.

Small Mies buildings, like the Farnsworth House, are small enough for their owners to be able to keep them in mint condition and to refrain from defiling them with inappropriate décor or furniture, provided they want to. The owner of the Farnsworth House is now somebody very rich called Palumbo, who worships the place, and who, I'm sure, keeps all weather damage at bay, damn the cost. (Old Mrs/Miss/Ms Farnsworth took against Mies and his house, and made a point of smothering the thing with wildly inappropriate décor and garden features, as if hanging towels on Michelangelo's David. She and Mies may even have had some kind of love affair, which caused her to turn against Mies in later years.

Mies skyscrapers are big enough for the weather to be powerless. The Platonic shapes are just too big for any blotches or fading to matter, certainly not at a reasonable distance. The shape is all.

But, the in-between buildings are large enough for it to be a serious burden to keep them spick and span, but too small to triumph over the ravages of weather and time. They are thus doubly appalling. They are boring from the word go and they quickly also become shabby and dilapidated.

Hughes then went on to say that Mies can't be blamed for his imitators. But I disagree with Hughes' claim that these imitators seriously diverged in the quality of what they achieved from Mies himself. The imitation Mies big city big blocks and big towers that now abound throughout the world are as impressive – or as brutishly dull if that's what you think of them, which I don't provided they're big enough – as Mies' originals. There are also many little modern houses done in the Mies manner which, if looked after devotedly like the handsome but utterly impractical sculptures that they are, can likewise look very fine. And the in-between junk first built by Mies and then spawned by Mies and by the Modern Movement generally is all as drearily hideous as the Mies originals were, but on the whole no more so. And all for the same reasons.

I speak with feeling about this in-between stuff. I live in London, and for about two decades between about 1957 and 1977 almost all new London buildings was done in this ghastly style. Perfectly decent brick buildings would be destroyed to make way for these horrible blockhouses, and I hold Mies, in part, personally responsible for this catastrophe. Very few buildings in London are big enough or small enough for the Mies style to work well. Mies plus London equals architectural horror.

Besides which, Mies was a teacher (hence my piece on my education blog). Is a teacher supposed to accept no responsibility for the alleged horrors of his pupils? It's one thing to be an architect and be copied. But Mies was a professor of architecture for twenty years. Also, Mies fancied himself as a craftsman. Crafts are supposed to be passable on to the next generation. Is it a craft, if it only works for the original creator of it?

Where Mies, and the whole Mies attitude, did produce miracles of good taste and beauty was in furniture design, and in the design of twentieth century indoor domestic objects in general.

These items are small enough for the Mies fascination with the detail of different materials to register and be beautiful.

And, this stuff doesn't get shabby and ugly as a result of the weather, because it almost always spends its entire life indoors. On the contrary, a piece of kitchen furniture with a completely smooth outside surface is by its nature very easy to keep clean and hence looking great.

Above all, unlike architecture, the furniture and kitchen equipment and light fittings and so on that Mies and his many followers and imitators designed is mass produced. This means that the really successful Mies and Mies inspired designs can be mass produced by the tens of thousands and sometimes by the million, while the far more numerous failed designs can been quietly junked. These people invented twentieth century interior design.

Everything I have already said about the virtues of the Farnsworth House applies also to his best furniture designs, such as the splendid Barcelona Chair, and you don't even have to be a millionaire to keep a Barcelona Chair looking good.

But to talk of Barcelona Chairs is to miss the real point of Mies' impact upon our lives. Few of us have Barcelona Chairs. But we all have kitchens, and in your kitchen as in mine, I guarantee you, the influence of Mies van der Rohe is all pervasive.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:06 AM
Category: Architecture