August 17: RIP MvdR (and why you can’t do what he did)

2012/08/17 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1969 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe died.

After Wright in 1959 and Corb in 1965, Mies was the last of the mid-century modernist triumvirate to pass.  Born in 1886, Mies was a “large, lusty” man (as described in his New York Times obit), a sphinxish character who, as the non-professionally educated son of a mason, garnished his surname “Mies” with his mother’s “van der Rohe” in an aristocratic affectation.  He enjoyed rich clothing, fine wine and cigars; he relaxed in poofy furniture in his own old-fashioned apartment while designing minimalist, industrially-inspired buildings for other people.  His three favorites are all in Chicago: the Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago Federal Center, and Crown Hall.  They are the famously silent architect’s lessons for later generations, as he intended to teach and inspire followers:

I have tried to make an architecture for a technological society. I have wanted to keep everything reasonable and clear–to have an architecture that anybody can do.

Unfortunately, he got that really wrong (ignoring the dispute about just how “technological” any “society” is).  Not “anybody” can do what he did.  Mies’ great buildings each manifest the elegant sparsity and studied minimalism for which he is famous.  Sadly, most people quote, and act on, his aphorism “less is more,” which must be one of the most injurious statements ever uttered in architectural history.  The problem of “less is more” is that it suggests that the process of continual whittling will make a thing better and better (confusing simple with simplistic), which is stupid, as you can see in virtually any American city (and others abroad) that built anything tall between 1950 and 1980.  “Less is more” is the mantra of crummy and lazy architects, or good architects who act crummy and lazy; it is the philosophy of designers who, like fans of the Olympics, watch Michael Phelps make champion exertion look easy, and decide to adopt his training regimen, and end up victims of supraspinatus syndrome within a half-hour.

Better that we consider his even shorter (but more perceptive) bon mot, beinahe Nichts: “almost nothing.”  There may be very, very little there in a Mies building, but what was chosen, and how it was put together was the work of a master.  It’s the almost that separates 99.999% of architects from Mies’ caliber, and they would do well to think about that before imposing more dreary steel and glass cages on our cities.

Image: the gravesite at Graceland Cemetery, Chicago (Clio’s)


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