Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Esters and Haus Lange, the Krefeld villas, conceived together and built adjacent, of similar design, were completed in 1930, early in his career. The drawings for the Brick Country House were exhibited some six years before; his Barcelona Pavilion was conceived about the same time as the villas and was constructed for the international exhibition in 1929. Contemporary with those more radical designs, the villas have endured an uneasy existence, at least in critical reception. Both have since been restored and converted to art museums, still active today. They have survived the ravages of the last century and stand in good shape.
Comparison might be made with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, built twenty years earlier, if only to reveal differences. Mies knew his work and likely was influenced. Both are long, brick, suburban homes built for clients of means. They sit low to the ground and emphasize the horizontal, and in doing so make us think of horizons and what horizons might imply. The Robie House, however, is an active play of horizontal planes, suspended, seemingly floating. Haus Esters, by contrast, is largely contained, reserved, and at first glance static. It lacks as well the dynamics of the open array of vertical planes in the Brick Country House and the Barcelona Pavilion. In abstracting the spirit of the industrial age, Mies left Haus Esters with a stark industrial cast. Isolated, without a sheltering roof, it looks exposed.
But it needs to be put in context. Wright had to create his own natural world on a small plot in a more densely populated neighborhood, following in his design his own projection of nature. Haus Esters has a sizable plot in an open area with substantial natural presence.
This is the garden facade, and the house is raised and the garden area surrounded by a low brick perimeter wall, creating in essence a platform similar to that of the Barcelona Pavilion.
It is meant to look contained, to set it against nature that is unbound, and we are meant to look out and up. In his early plans Mies conceived of a more divided and developed space for the garden that would have integrated the overall design further and further established its relationship with the natural setting. The house and grounds together, raised, formalized, make a statement of an abstract geometric order within vast natural space, implied, beneath an open sky, everywhere present. In its low stance it stakes out a proposition and posits something else, something higher, something essential, something. Roofless, it opens itself to the possibilities. The temptation is to invoke the Greeks.
And the house is much more subtle than it first appears.
There were other similar modernist homes at the time, but in contrast to most architecture then Haus Esters—with its flat roof; cantilevered planes; asymmetrical, elliptical geometry; the spare framing of openings; the long rows of windows on the front—still would have appeared extreme to most. The only nod to tradition comes from material—brick, given extensive treatment. Mies said almost nothing about the villas later, and critics have given them scant attention or been dismissive largely because they fall short of the tenets of modernism, especially in comparison with his other work then and later. One has to wonder how well that criteria stands up, if Haus Esters wouldn’t have received more favorable critical reception if its walls were white instead of brick, which gives pause.
But the Brick Country House and Barcelona Pavilion are conceptual works, not designed to be inhabited. Nor do they have to contend with site: they create their own environment, the first in an abstract drawing, the other in its own isolated space in an exhibition.
They most strike our imagination because they open up space where our imagination is given room to explore. We really don’t want to see them furnished, save, perhaps, for symbolic placement of a Barcelona chair or two. Clients don’t exist, rather are projected possibilities of what we might become living in the realignment of their open planes. Haus Esters, by necessity, makes not concessions to but accommodations with the realities of site and the lives it was designed for.
Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms
Living. Changing. New.
Mies van der Rohe/“Working Theses”/1923
Modernist work gained much of its appeal and energy from juxtaposition with the traditional architecture in whose midst it appeared. It surprised at least, if not inspired, in part because of what surrounded it. If it provided a corrective to the excesses and retreats of the past, a new way of thinking about living, about building, it’s because the old ways lay around it in full force for comparison.
His Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project, 1921. A century later, that context has diminished. Modernism of some stripe has become the prevailing order, in effect the new tradition. Its tenets have been extended, refined, replicated, and diluted, too often without question or sense of anything else other than the principles, turned to dogma, to mindless repetition. Or we have given ourselves to jeers at and flights and excursions from the rules, from the notion of rules, any rule. It is getting harder to see where architecture has been, and it is becoming more difficult to plot a course from where architecture has been, through where it is now, to where it might be headed.
As for how Haus Esters—or any of Mies’s work—might appear to us now, it is nothing new under the sun. The house scarcely startles, in fact deflects amazement. Design has to have some quality that transcends historical interest, that saves its work from becoming mere artifact. I was slow coming to an appreciation of the house, and I realize in that what I most like about it, its reserve, its restraint. Yet once restrained, I found myself open to its subtleties and all manner of speculation. In fact I would argue restraint is its redeeming quality. Restraint makes us aware of what has been held back, creating a tension that engages larger questions. Free flight takes us nowhere. At the very least, restraint sets the terms for freer expression: it gives us a clearer sense of what we are reacting against, what we might need to reject, to recreate.
Architecture begins when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.
I have no idea what Mies, who had an early history with brick, meant by that comment and doubt anyone else does either. The only way to appreciate it, perhaps come to some understanding, is to start putting bricks together and see what happens, which is what I did when I made this model.
A single brick, by itself, in itself, demands attention and invites reflection. I’ll quote myself again, from my essay “Completing the Mies van der Rohe Brick Country House, An Odyssey”:
A brick is an obdurate object of ambiguity that hovers between idea and matter, between life and death. Its texture can be smoothed to glide our touch or left rough and abrade. It can be molded into even shapes for consistent construction or made uneven, presenting individual challenges each time one is laid in a course. The hues can be made consistent, offering an even appearance, or they can vary from one brick to another, presenting more individual challenges. But while it can come close to an ideal oblong shape, it never attains perfection, and it can as much be said that it approaches perfection as it resists it. A brick has the right heft for throwing through a window in revolt. It can also be stacked to encase one solidly. Its color takes on that of blood and the earth from which it is made, or both inseparably combined. Whether it preserves blood or shows it spilled, whether it reveals decay or stalls it—these questions cannot be answered. In spite of its ambiguity, however, we are always aware, in mind and in hand, of its touch, of its mass and weight, of its presence.
Then consider how much its individual character is enhanced, qualified, challenged, or suppressed when bricks are put together. In a brick wall we are reminded often roughly, always concretely, of imperfect parts brought together, of individuality within unity. Even precision manufactured bricks cannot mask their materiality or their joining. Glass reflects, deflects, or glares; white dissolves substance into a purity that cannot last but has to be perpetually preserved. Brick, however, is substantial and reminds us of its substance as well as its temporality. It weathers, it wears, it erodes—and it endures. And bricks remind us of the fact of construction and its process, piece by piece, brick by brick, course after course. Haus Esters is a brick house, and an essential part of its design is to highlight its character, as a modern work, to question it. It needs to have significant presence, which we get. In Mies’s design we see how sharply and precisely he presents the dialectic of imperfection and order, of substance and space, leaving us with precise feelings but thoughts not easily categorized or explained.
As most of these people were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument.
Then consider Mies’s comment about the memorial he built 1926 to massacred revolutionists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartakusbund, and other martyrs of the November 1918 Revolution in Germany. Mies, however, kept to himself about his politics and maintained distance, which at the time, under the circumstances, may simply have been wisdom.
. . . a contradiction therefore arises, obviously deliberate, between the distinctly sculptural surface structure of the building and the almost weightless character of the outside walls that are seemingly relieved of any structural function.
Wolf Tegethoff, Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses
Side view. The model is about 1/54 scale. Overall dimensions and window and door placement are quite close. Expect variance, however, in the details. Not modeled are the thin black railings around the open decks and the framing of the windows.
Note the three white lines, the edges of floating planes, and contrast them with the lines of black trim at the windows and edges, exaggerated in my model, and with the sharply cut rectangles of the windows. A subtle yet active pattern of lines and planes is created that talks back and forth with itself, that both engages and frees itself from the substantial material fact of the brick. This dialogue continues in variations as you circle the building and see the other sides, where brick establishes different degrees of presence. The black linings are stark, scarcely domestic, but they provide absolute contrast with the white and the warm colors of the brick. Something essential is at stake here, idea versus existence, immateriality versus substance.
But even that materiality is questioned. Note too the edge of the brick wall that rises to support the plane above the porch on the second floor of the side, at the right in this picture.
Street view, with the main entrance tucked away in the corner of the ell, left of middle. This face has the most brick and establishes a material presence for the house—and its owners—as well as ensures privacy from passers by. We think we have a solid, contained structure, but that solidity, as Tegethoff points out, is contradicted when we see that edge on the side. The front wall is created for appearance, not structural integrity. The long windows also raise structural questions as well. What is supporting the floor and roof above? Yet still we are impressed with the mass of brick. The windows also, along with the white planes projecting, reinforce the horizontal character of the house.
The other side. Actually, there is a basement and the ground here descends to its level, not modeled.
The complexity in Haus Lange and Haus Esters arises from the desire to selectively erase gravity while suppressing the tectonic evidence of having done so.
Kleiniman and Van Duzer, Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas
Nowhere in the building do we see signs of stress and support in the windows, as might be accomplished by the traditional and necessary use of a lintel or at least a change in the course of bricks above the windows that would express recognition and visual correction of that tension. Instead bricks run the same continuous course across the windows, seemingly effortlessly, as is there is no strain at all.
When you return to the garden face, you have to wonder what supports the long row of rooms on the second floor, which rests above wide, open spaces in the interior. In making the model I had to build kludges to accomplish this feat, largely by adding large, clear plastic pieces on the first floor beneath the wall of the second floor. Mies accomplished it by an elaborate—and expensive—structure of steel supports, not visible, not apparent, inside or out. Nor do the exterior bricks reveal the larger, coarser bricks behind. They are a surface treatment, in fact superficial. The modernist desire to express structural function has been subverted.
Yet Haus Esters does appear to be a building that is structurally sound—the mass of brick ensures that—cleanly, clearly, rationally conceived. Looks may be deceiving, but the house is not deceptive. It is not a statement of function, but rather a discussion about function. It is an expression that engages the debate between functionality and appearance and does so in an eccentric yet reasoned way. That is the essence of dialectic, that it exists between two opposing terms without taking sides, those sides vanishing to coalesce into synthesis. The process does not rest with that synthesis. Rather it becomes the next term for the next dialectic, and the process continues. There is never a final answer, a static resolution of structure, of esthetic beauty. Or, instead, the process is the structure and the essence of beauty. The Greeks knew this. Haus Esters, then, does not take sides and exists not as a debate between opposite poles, appearance and function, but a synthesis of the the two, implying, in the process, the value of synthesis itself. And as a synthesis it projects the next dialectic, yet to be discovered. Architecture is open-ended, or should be. It is not a final solution. It helps us realize there is no final solution, a thought that might be applied elsewhere.
Essence—the word is problematic. Its meaning can be corrupted or shifted in any number of ways, or we realize it doesn’t mean anything at all. Those recognitions, however, are part of a dialectic of thought that has been carried on for millennia. Beauty is problematic as well, yet remains a term of vitality and value, if not the most important one.
What I most resisted from the start, what I never fully resolved for myself as I built the model nor can quite accept even now that it is completed, is the long line of rooms on the second floor, nearly symmetrical, nearly identical. Regimented, the rooms march across the plane, the doors to the deck in five of them in step. This is a long stretch that could have been broken in any number of ways. It is not monotonous but unsettling, which may be the point. The two floors combined form a dominant oblong shape, which colored my impressions as I built and resisted as well. This treatment makes a nod to traditional symmetries but as much pulls away from them. We are given an oblong shape and made aware of that shape, a geometric proposition that doesn’t fit any standard, any system of proportions. It tells us how much it isn’t a golden rectangle. Tradition is acknowledged and pulled away from dramatically. The effect of its long shape is qualified when put in context with the garden space and eased by the openings onto the ell of the deck. Visually, that is the function of the doors: they give relief, and their placement directly next to the windows, along with their black bases in line with the windows, together forming self-contained units, opens up the box. Also the second floor windows do not line up with the larger windows below but are offset at consistent intervals. There’s a shift to the proposition, though the integrity of side corners is maintained. Still, the oblong rectangle is arresting and cannot be ignored.
There’s a metaphor here about construction, about living in space. Contrast might be made with the verticality of Gothic cathedrals in the desire to express and capture higher, eternal truths, the light of the divine. Like modernist work, the cathedrals sought to break down walls and integrate interior with exterior. Cathedrals, of course, by their use and type will rise. Our starting point now is the home, the unit of our individuality, closer to the ground. Nature still exists in its vastness and the vastness of possibilities remain, but we are on our own. We don’t think of ascending to some ethereal place but of horizons, here on earth, in our present world, of extending ourselves out to them, and for this we need the appropriate shape.
When I started building the model, a great part of the world was under quarantine from the Covid virus, the contagion represented by growing red circles on a map. When I began writing these notes, protests and riots erupted across the nation after the George Floyd slaying. Portland, along with many other cites, was under curfew, so I was doubly isolated, this isolation compounded by knowing, but not seeing or feeling, the isolation of hundreds of millions—billions—around the world, thrown back on themselves as well. Meanwhile we have witnessed the last years reckless dismantling of our government, the system that provides balance amidst unrestrained economic forces and concentrated corporate powers, that safeguards our health, our well being, that gives us our collective sense of ourselves. We have been governed by an administration that doesn’t plan but makes policy by impulse, on the fly. During all those years, all the noise, angry, discordant voices, turned against each other, violent, irrational, not sounding a note of unity or resolution. Add to those voices all the voices that have gone unheard. We are suffocating, we are lost.
It was an odd time to build a model of a modernist house, and I couldn’t think of a good reason to do so. It is hard to give a good reason for anything now, and there are too many reasons to lose hope. Then again, I couldn’t think of any reason not to. There is something to be said, however, for bringing order into your own world. Only past interests and a series of accidents brought me to Haus Esters, which I didn’t think especially interesting. It looked to be a simple build I could finish quickly.
But once I started I was wholly absorbed with the construction, and with the construction, the discoveries it brought, and with the absorption, with the construction and discoveries, I felt uplifted. I could go ten hours straight and wake the next morning eager to pick up where I left off. I studied plans, many from atelier Mies, elevations, and photos, and did selective reading. The plans, small and faded and blurred, didn’t show everything to precision and only posited a three-dimensional structure that still had to be conceived and assembled. Oblique angles in photographs made dimensions hard to read. Then I had to account for the limitations of my plastic pieces, large at my scale. The compromise was always between too much or too little, and any decision in one place could have effects on the other side of the building, hundreds of pieces, hours away. Throughout the whole process, wholly elusive, the mind of Mies, his conception of Haus Esters, where I could only make uneasy guesses. Against Mies, my own design preferences, which I don’t trust at all and had to fight. Building the model was as much a process of bringing order as managing uncertainty and compromise. All this time I constructed in my head an inventory of my choices and their faults, weighing them against against a model I might have made with more precise parts and better understanding. Then there is the actual house, from the photographs, which still didn’t tell me everything but left questions of structure and intent. Building a model with my means is not a matter of getting everything right, but working until I have made the best collection of compromises, until there are no more decisions to be made.
The model has thousands of pieces and the process was slow, a matter of a full week. Construction can’t be rushed but has to develop piece by piece, brick by brick. If parts aren’t seated well, that disruption is transmitted to the layers above. My pieces, however, snap together. Actual coursework requires the intrusion and adjustment of mortar, which I tried to envision. Bricklaying has to be a demanding trade, a marvelous skill. Design must be seen to be evaluated, and there is no way to tell how decisions will turn out until construction is completed. When I thought I was done, I let it rest several days but was bothered. It looked too wide, too short, too oblong, even though I had taken measurements from a precise section drawing by Mies. My measurements were correct, but shifts because of compromises had made the building too wide, about six or seven feet of some one hundred. I thought I had done the best I could and it was time to step away.
But I still felt uneasy and avoided looking at it. The uneasiness spread to other parts of my life and seemed reflected in the news that confronted me each morning, in the ever expanding red circles. That is absurd, of course, but in isolation there is little to check the invasion of doubt or its spread. If I spent that much time with something, I should bring it to my satisfaction, regardless. Or, spending so much time on something useless all the more gave reason to make it as well as I could, else the project was just a disturbing waste.
One night, after deciding to leave it alone once and for all, without thinking, with one swift stroke I grabbed the roof, tore it off, and dismantled the house in sections, down to the foundation. Then I stared at the rubble strewn on my table, overwhelmed—what is all this? My understanding of the house existed in its construction, and that had been demolished. But I had many decisions in my head and worked late into the night, fearful I’d lose memory of them the next day, bringing it up to the roof. Then the next morning I tore the second floor down to the first to add a small layer of detail, spending that day and the next bringing it to completion, not knowing if my choices were good. My only solution was to make the model higher, and I only raised it 3/8 of an inch. I had no way of knowing if my revisions would work.
They did, visually. And the proportion of height to width in the revised model was almost the same as that in the elevation drawings. My additional efforts were justified, still in a model that fell short in other ways. My anxiety eased and shifted to minor exhilaration, meaningless, but satisfying and complete.
We look at houses today, or need to, because in so many ways we are on our own. Before we reenter the larger world we need to get our own houses in order. There is no special reason to look at Haus Esters—there is no single, correct example of anything—but it is a good choice, a good starting point to think and revise. It represents a connection to our past, as well as a synthesis of care and thought and innovation that never ages. If it is a home for those of greater means, that gives the architect full resources to express his or her vision. Also we like to elevate ourselves in our visions, regardless of our means. Let us hope this elevation, similar attention, can be extended to more affordable housing.
We may not have a clear course of action, yet that does not mean we stop building. But we need to remember how to build well, and remember what building well means and requires. We need to reach and think of purpose and esthetic perception, at the same time learn to manage our doubts, our uncertainties, to create a structure that will serve its purpose, that will last. We need to build solidly, but also allow for change and wear.
Restoration, reconstruction will come to the world, but it will be a slow, difficult process that will require thought, patience, and care—and compromises and fumbling and failures.
Even if we have no purpose or any course to follow, still we build. Building, like living, is what we do. We plan, we put together the stuff of our lives, when we can, as well as we can, and place our spirits into our constructions, brick by brick, breath by breath.
Haus Esters drawing and photographs from Wikiarquitectura.
Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project photo via Phaidon.
Photograph of Mies’s revolutionary memorial from The Charnel-House, which has a full discussion and sources, including Mies’s comment:
[I built it] in a square shape. I meant clarity and truth to join forces against the fog that had descended and was killing all hope—the hopes, as we rightly perceived at the time, of a durable German republic.
And the author of the post notes:
Mies went to great lengths to put this symbolism across: the bricks, stacked some twenty feet high, had been assembled from the bullet-riddled remains of buildings damaged or destroyed during the Spartacist uprising.
Most background information and much guidance from, many thanks to:
Wolf Tegethoff, Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses, MIT Press.
Kent Kleinman and Leslie Van Duzer, Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas, Princeton Architecture Press.
These are marvelous books, thorough and insightful, filled with illustrations.