As the world exploded into the 20th century, designers and creatives around the world were looking for new ways to define humanity. Boundaries were being pushed, especially in terms of art. Absurd, over-crowded, and strange artistic creations were being formed through new mediums and it seemed that the next century would be one of absolute chaos. And then, there was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
A sublime minimalist, Mies van de Rohe sought to define architecture in the modern era the same way Gothic buildings did in the Victorian Era, or Classical did before that. Modernist architecture, he understood, was clear and concise planning followed by minimalistic creation. And he would be its forebearer.
Life of Mies van der Rohe
Like many German ex-pats during the 1930s, the Nazis pushed Ludwig Mies van der Rohe out of the Motherland and into the welcoming hands of the Americans. Modern architecture would never be the same.
Mies was born in 1886 and began his architectural career in 1908 under the tutelage of the influential Peter Berens. Berens would guide Mies’ progressive hand to formulate his modern designs. After a few years, Mies began working independently, designing homes for the rich and affluent. However, this class of people would disappear rapidly with the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 and work was not easy to find for Mies.
Finally, in 1937, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was forced out of his Berlin working space by the Gestapo, when prominent Nazi members deemed his works ‘un-German’. Unphased, Mies moved on to the United States to continue his architectural work and cement his position as the father of modernism.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe lead an interesting and dramatic life. The genius was often intertwined with a series of love affairs and fathered many children to many women. However, his true legacy lies in his work. These are some of his finest.
One of Mies’ first and most famous designs, the Barcelona Pavilion is decades before its time. It laid the foundation for both Mies’ career and most importantly, paved the way for modern architectural designs. The Pavilion wouldn’t look out of place in ritzy suburban neighbourhoods of today. Although seemingly a simple blend of varied marbles, extravagant materials such as red onyx and travertine make this simplistic masterpiece a beauty with every detail.
The building was the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition, presided over by the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. Although Germany was in the midst of the Great Depression, Mies proved the nation was still creatively rich.
Another of Mies’ earliest works, the Villa Tugendhat was completed in 1930 and stands in the affluent town of Brno, in modern day Czech Republic. The home is a multi-level simplistic design, intermingling with the surrounding greenery. This is in stark contrast to the reinforced concrete that was used as the base material of the building.
The Villa was owned by Fritz and Greta Tugendhat and would come to stand as more than a simple holiday house. Villa Tugendhat is today seen as an early icon of modernism and like the Pavilion, helped to establish Mies as one of Europe’s most prestigious designers.
Another retreat for the rich, the Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House was one of Mies’ initial offerings for the U.S. Its classic simplicity and classic Mies – glass, steel, modernism. So simple, in fact, the home includes just one room.
The house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth as a haven where she could ‘engage in her hobbies.’
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S.R. Crown Hall
If one is to design the main building for a school of architecture, it best be beautiful. Mies’ S.R. Crown Hall is more than beautiful – it is his masterpiece. That’s saying something for one of the greatest architects of the modern era. The building is characterised by its industrial simplicity – it’s not crude or especially brash, but it certainly uses simple materials such as steel and glass to create a structure without any unnecessary addition.
Built in 1956, the building can be found at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago – a place where Mies would spend most of his time following his German exile.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
Going against the grain of classical, even Roman architectural tradition in Washington D.C. is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The Library was Mies’ last design and was completed after his death. It shows the pure evolution of his architectural career, once again promoting succinct and minimalistic design for a modern touch.
Parts of the library are still being built and rebuilt to this day as interior designs continue to change. However, lawmakers of the district have made it their mission to preserve as much of Mies’ influence as possible heading into the future.
The Barcelona Chair
Alongside his success as an architect, Mies van der Rohe was also an acclaimed designer and is commonly regarded as a pioneer of modern furniture. His iconic Barcelona Chair was designed in 1929 for the Spanish Royal Family and is one of the most copied pieces of furniture in the world. It’s manufacturer Knoll, obtained a federal trade dress protection for five of Mies designs in 2004.
In a burgeoning world brimming with ‘stuff’, Mies’ creations were the perfect answer. More is not more, less is more. This is exemplified through Mies’ use of modern, plentiful materials such as plate glass and industrial steel, combined with a minimal framework to encourage a sense of open and free space. Mies’ designs were skin and bones architecture. Embedding a soul into a building was the duty of its occupants, Mies merely delivered the body.
However, each one of these buildings carried a spirit of modernism; a new wave of architectural design that is still the ruling theme of the day. To the untrained eye, Mies’ designs may have appeared lazy in their simplicity. This is not true. Mies’ insistence on perfecting every detail and cutting back to the barest necessity forged wondrous creations and his designs clearly stand the test of time. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe spoke the language of architecture.