Contemporary Architecture (III) Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), a German-born architect and educator, is widely acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s greatest architects. By emphasizing open space and revealing the industrial materials used in construction, he helped define modern architecture.

Born in Aachen, Germany, Mies spent the first half of his career in his native country. His early work was mainly residential, and he received his first independent commission, the Riehl House, when he was only 20 years old. Mies quickly became a leading figure in the avant-garde life of Berlin and was widely respected in Europe for his innovative structures, including the Barcelona Pavilion. In 1930, he was named director of the Bauhaus, the renowned German school of experimental art and design, which he led until 1933 when he closed the school under pressure from the Nazi Regime.

Armour Institute, one of IIT’s predecessor institutions, was founded in 1890 just as Chicago was emerging as a center for progressive architectural thought. Men like Burnham and Root, Sullivan and Adler, and William Le Baron Jenney were transforming the practice and developing an architectural vocabulary that emphasized structure and function over ornamentation. This generation of architects founded what became known as the first Chicago School of architecture. Mies van der Rohe founded the next. In 1936, when Earl Reed resigned as director of the Department of Architecture at Armour Institute, the school engaged Chicago’s architectural leaders in the search for a new director. The search committee, headed by John Holabird, recruited Mies. Mies’ first task was to “rationalize” the architecture curriculum.

When Mies arrived in 1938, he insisted on a back-to-basics approach to education: Architecture students must first learn to draw, then gain thorough knowledge of the features and use of the builder’s materials, and finally master the fundamental principles of design and construction. During these early years, Mies held classes in space provided by the Art Institute of Chicago. Mies’ second task was to expand the south side campus. In 1940, Armour Institute and Lewis Institute merged to form Illinois Institute of Technology. Armour Insitute’s original seven acres could not accommodate the combined schools’ needs, and Mies was encouraged to develop plans for a newly expanded 120-acre campus.

Not since Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia (1819) had an American campus been the work of a single architect. Mies’ original proposal called for a more traditional layout of several large buildings grouped around an open space but in his finalMaster Plan he embraced Chicago’s rectilinear street grid and designed two symmetrically balanced groups of buildings. Mies’ academic buildings stood in sharp contrast to the patrician campuses of the past. They embodied 20th century methods and materials: steel and concrete frames with curtain walls of brick and glass. The sleek urbanism of IIT’s campus was a reflection of the university’s technological focus. The Master Plan created an oasis of calm that emulated the openness of the Midwestern prairie in the midst of the chaotic surrounding city. Mies’ buildings are both magisterial and harmonious, and they set a new aesthetic standard for modern architecture. Indeed, Mies’ designs have so pervaded our definition of architecture that it is difficult to imagine how revolutionary the campus was when it was first built. Mies went on to design some of the nation’s most recognizable skyscrapers, including the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York City.

Whether or not you agree with Mies’ assertation that less is more, his contribution to the modern urban landscape cannot be overlooked. Mies’ architecture has been described as being expressive of the industrial age in the same way that Gothic was expressive of the age of ecclesiasticism. In 1956, famed architect Eero Saarinen spoke at the dedication of Mies’ masterwork, S.R. Crown Hall, and lauded him as Chicago’s third great artist, placing Mies in the prestigious lineage of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. “Great architecture is both universal and individual,” Saarinen said at the dedication, “The universality comes because there is an architecture expressive of its time. But the individuality comes as the expression of one man’s unique combination of faith and honesty and devotion and belief in architecture.” After 20 years as the director of architecture at IIT, Mies resigned in 1958 at the age of 72. In 1959, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Mies its Gold Medal and the following year he received the AIA Gold Medal, the highest award given by the American Association of Architects. President Lyndon Johnson presented Mies with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.

It was in 1966 when Mies began suffering from cancer of the esophagus. He died three years later in his adoptive hometown, Chicago. Family surrounded him at his deathbed and, at a memorial service in Crown Hall, the general public stood alongside the leading names in architecture to mourn the architect.

Our built environment is meant to be lived in. Mies’ buildings, beyond merely affecting our lives, endow them with greater significance and beauty. His buildings radiate the confidence, rationality, and elegance of their creator and, free of ornamentation and excess, confess the essential elements of our lives. In our time, where there is no limit to excess, Mies’ reductionist approach is as pertinent as ever. As we reduce the distractions and focus on the essential elements of our environment and ourselves, we find they are great, intricate, and beautiful. Less is more.

Mies van der Rohe Society.

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En 1900 empezó a trabajar en el taller de su padre, que era cantero, y en 1905 se trasladó a Berlín para colaborar en el estudio de Bruno Paul y, de 1908 a 1911, en el de P. Behrens, donde conoció a Walter Gropius y Le Corbusier, que son, junto con él mismo y el estadounidense Frank Lloyd Wright, los mayores arquitectos del siglo XX.

Inicialmente se orientó hacia la arquitectura neoclásica, pero un viaje a los Países Bajos en 1912 le llevó a cambiar sus intereses, a raíz del descubrimiento de la obra de H. P. Berlage. Tras el paréntesis de la Primera Guerra Mundial, se adhirió a diversos movimientos de vanguardia (Novembergruppe, De Stijl) y empezó a realizar proyectos revolucionarios, como el destinado a un edificio de oficinas de la Friedrichstrasse de Berlín, constituido por dos torres de veinte pisos unidas por un núcleo central para escaleras y ascensores.

Durante este período publicó la revista G, en colaboración con Hans Richter, y se relacionó con algunos de los artistas más avanzados del momento, como Tristán Tzara o El Lissitzki. A partir de 1926 llevó ya a cabo obras de cierta envergadura, como la casa Wold en Guben, toda de ladrillo, y la casa Hermann Lange en Krefeld. Por las mismas fechas levantó el monumento a Karl Liebknecht y Rosa Luxemburg (destruido por los nazis), un simple muro de ladrillo con dos paneles en voladizo.

A raíz de estos y algunos otros proyectos, se convirtió en un arquitecto de prestigio y empezó a recibir encargos oficiales, el primero de ellos un complejo experimental de viviendas para la Exposición de Stuttgart de 1927, el Weissenhof Siedlung, para el que pidió ayuda a los principales arquitectos europeos.

La consagración de Mies van der Rohe se produjo en 1929, cuando realizó el pabellón de Alemania para la Exposición Internacional de Barcelona, considerado por muchos su obra maestra y una de las obras arquitectónicas más influyentes del siglo XX. Su enorme simplicidad y la continuidad de los espacios, que parecen no tener principio ni fin, son sus cualidades más admiradas.

En la misma línea realizó posteriormente algunas otras obras, caracterizadas siempre, como era connatural en él, por un uso avanzado de los nuevos materiales de construcción (cemento armado, acero y vidrio) y una gran simplicidad, que lleva a dejar las estructuras desnudas y a dotarlas de formas casi lineales en las que se cifra la creación de belleza.

Tras dirigir la Bauhaus de 1930 a 1933, la evolución de los acontecimientos en Alemania le obligó a emigrar a Estados Unidos, donde fue nombrado director de la facultad de arquitectura del Illinois Technology Institute de Chicago (1938), para el que proyectó un nuevo campus que, una vez finalizado, extendió su fama por todo Estados Unidos. En lo sucesivo le llovieron los encargos y trabajó fundamentalmente en la capital de Illinois, donde recogió y llevó a sus últimas consecuencias los postulados de la escuela de Chicago.

En 1958-1959 puso broche de oro a su carrera con el famosísimo Seagram Building de Nueva York, del que se dice que es el rascacielos más hermoso en vidrio ahumado y aluminio, y la Neue Nationalgalerie de Berlín (1962-1968), con un pesado techo de acero que se apoya en pocas y delgadas columnas, con lo que adquieren todo el protagonismo las paredes de vidrio. Con esta obra, Mies van der Rohe se mantuvo en la línea de oponer el horizontalismo de sus obras arquitectónicas europeas al verticalismo predominante en las estadounidenses.

 

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