Mies van der Rohe/Haus Esters, early version, early vision; John Coltrane/Chasin’ the Trane

I wanted to make this house much more in glass. . . .

Mies is referring to Haus Lange, the companion villa at Krefeld, but the wish applies as much to Haus Esters, as evidenced in his early drawings. A photograph shows him working on pastel sketches of the garden and street facades, making final touches, maybe. My previous post has a model of the house as built, where you’ll find photographs for comparison, and I had it in mind while constructing this version.

Both pastels intrigue me no end, and I wanted to come to terms with them in this model. But I could only make rough guesses about placement and dimensions, and completing it was a matter of making uncertain choices, following them up, and finally stopping because I had no confidence alternatives would result in anything more correct or more convincing. There may be a point in that.

The garden face. Note the layout of the garden, an integral part of the design, raised, as in the version built. Time has taken its toll, but the drawing must have been faint in conception, in its realization, the image almost ethereal, scarcely more than receding perspective lines in a natural landscape beneath a vast, open sky. For the architect who valued structure and objectivity, it comes closer to pure spirit. Essentially, it is a horizontal presence, a restating of the horizon. From this presence the rest fades. It is a gesture, a glimpse into infinity, not a detailed working out of structure.

The main entrance, on the street facade.

Obviously, the intent is to close the house to the street and emphasize the brick presence in layered, overlapping forms, yet still the masses approach immateriality.

We were very delighted to find a definition of truth by St Thomas Aquinas: “Adequatio intellectus et rei,” or as a modern philosopher expresses it in the language of today: “Truth is the significance of fact.”

Mies, in his later years, who read philosophy. His drawings, however, suggest an obverse conclusion, closer to Platonic idealism. The desire to put ourselves, our structures in the world, to grasp, to express, to participate in whatever lies beyond, has engaged us as long as we have built and is difficult to let go, no matter how tenuous, how evasive the connections.

The Parthenon

Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy

Hopper, Cape Cod Morning

Frankenthaler, Open Wall

de Kooning, Door to the River

There are also early floor plans:

The ground floor, which shows a large courtyard, left, containing the garage and chauffeur’s quarters, not built. This plan, however, does not align with the pastel sketches in layout or proportions. There is a stairway with an arrow pointing down, inside the courtyard and next to the house proper, and I do not understand this. Is the ground sloped? Or does it descend to a lower level?

The upper floor plan, in a larger scale, which does not align fully with the first plan or the pastels. He also made an elevation of the street facade, which shows a third floor and the parallel bands of windows used in Haus Lange, which may be indicated here. Also in the forward part there are two rooms and two windows, while in the pastel there is one of each for what must be the master bedroom. There is no indication of the courtyard.

Obviously, in all cases, Mies was in the early stages of design, working problems out visually, and he must have had both villas in mind, along with concepts he wanted to try, and with these earlier projects and projects yet to come.

It was the sense of the pastels that I wanted to capture, their glass presence, their horizontality, somehow. Their images are hard to read, however, especially the garden facade. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell what is brick, what is glass, what might be concrete. The wide angle, necessary to capture as much of the house as possible, also makes for a short elevation, and perpendicular lines to the front plane and horizontal planes are hard to locate and interpret. Both sketches are quick, for effect, for appearance, and likely there are distortions. I’m not convinced the street pastel is fully consistent with the garden. So I made guesses based on appearance in the pastels and filled in with evidence from the two floor plans, but given the discrepancies I was just making rough guesses, navigating three sets of uncertainties that don’t align. Perhaps Mies was performing the same balancing act, or perhaps he had a more coherent solution in mind, or perhaps these were just excursions without final resolution but rejected in later stages of design.

I made these decisions:

Planes of slabs, surely heavily reinforced, are indicated above both floors. The lines may be a gesture or they may be a structural intent. As in the Brick Country House, slabs rest above free standing walls. In both cases, this has to be a structural challenge.

A The windows to the garden define a long plane, which I thought essential and whose length is not reflected in the floor plan. Apparently there are a few courses of brick below the glass, but not above. It is not clear at all, however if there are any brick partitions separating the windows. Some would be needed for structural support, but the indication suggests sheer glass, and I was tempted. Yet, structural issues aside, without supports visually the window plane would have looked isolated and empty—and threatened by the implied weight overhead. The ground floor indicates three brick sections, two short and one longer, and I added a fourth support, under the corner of the forward room of the upper floor because without it that section looks precarious.

Then again, that is what the floor plan states. Respecting it and using three supporting sections would have meant longer windows, and about half of the upper front room, heavy with the mass of brick, would have floated above glass. Doing so would add to the dynamics of the overall plan and this seeming overhang would have paralleled the actual one of the end room at D. The pastel can be read this way, though the left end of the window plane is confusing, without clear indication of the third supporting section.

It is possible I was being timid. This is a design that intends to open up and challenge our sense of structure.

B The forward room is the master bedroom, and I put it in line with the wall of the ground floor windows. I see no alternative. The trapezoid at the inside corner of the forward room and the other four rooms is confusing, but I read this as an indication of an overhanging plane, which looks to be marked in the upper floor plan.

C These are the four smaller bedrooms set back, marked in the upper floor plan. The pastel is especially quick here, but seems to indicate four identical rooms, their windows raised above brick, with brick sections between. Repetition and regularity is called for here—and brick. This is a brick and glass house, and brick needs to assert itself on all sides. Likely there would be doors to the deck and railing, as in the built version.

D The first room of the upper floor, on the left, partially overhangs the ground floor at considerable length. I don’t know how else to read the pastel and ground floor plan, and this was a surprise.

E The room on the end of the ground floor is covered by a plane that turned out quite large, much larger than indicated in either plan. It is accessed by a door on the street side and likely would have railing as well.

I have no strong defense for any of these decisions and would be curious to see other takes. It’s hard to believe there wouldn’t be narrow bands of brick above the windows at least on the upper floor, if not the first. I made a rough build first and tried that on both floors, but what I found is that doing so would not only decrease window space but also detract from its open appearance. I did keep narrow courses above the doors and windows on the street facade, which are indicated, where brick is the dominant appearance. Most, I kept the model simple and abstract, with all doors and windows flush with the facades, without any attempt at details. The more I tried to account for details and structural reality, the more the model lost the character of the pastels. Reality requires adjustment and transformation. It’s hard to believe something similar didn’t happen with Mies when he moved to later stages of design.

Add simplifications demanded by the size of my plastic pieces, which would be tedious to explain. One uneasy decision led to uneasiness elsewhere, which needed to be accommodated or compensated. Many parts don’t correspond in proportions to those in the drawings, though, again, I suspect distortion. Still, the model of the house proper, without the courtyard, is close to the size of Haus Esters as built and, if I’m right in my decisions, it shows essential elements and gives an approximate sense of overall composition. Given the uncertainties of the drawings and my limitations, it was hard to think of a justification for the project. Much was lost in making an actual model, no matter how abstract. The concept began to vanish, bit by bit, with each part I placed. But what I most wanted to do was see the building in three dimensions, and I made several discoveries.

The long wall for the courtyard, a full story high, is just curious. Actually building the courtyard, in fact, would have meant buying the property adjoining. I wonder if the courtyard was ever a serious option. Here, you see how the wall balances what otherwise would have been an open and lopsided design. With the wall, the house has a low-lying stability, almost like a pyramid. Also the wall provides substantial horizontal presence, like the walls in the Brick Country House.

The total width approaches some 200 feet, and one would have to stand at considerable distance to see the ends of the house and the wall. Otherwise the wall would appear to continue indefinitely. We’re being put on a rational grid, expanding, without apparent termination.

What I most realized building the model is how much the design is a play of planes and volumes, asymmetric, open, and opening, to which the garage and chauffeur’s lodging, in the courtyard, contribute.

Not only does the street facade have substantial brick presence but it also emphasizes the different masses at different depths, different heights, stacked, overlapping, and opening out towards the line of the wall. The wall provides a rest, an anchor, a moment of stability countering the energy of the masses.

By contrast, the garden facade presents a more subdued, almost flat, appearance of transparency, offset by brick accents. The brick on the upper floor adds counterpart and balance to the wall.

This was another discovery, how much the walls contribute to the overall design.

For accent and variation, a single white plane at the entry, indicated in the pastel and used in the actual version.

The courtyard was the dark side of the moon for me as it is not represented in the pastels. I made my best guesses based on the two floor plans but had to stray. I assume the courtyard would provide a drive where a car could approach the house, let off passengers, and turn around and return to the garage. Likely it would have landscaping, lightly suggested here. But it is an enormous amount of space, larger than that of the ground floor of the house proper. Also it is hard to think of justification for the tall walls. The site has ample space and trees.

In the pastel of the street facade, there’s a forward room at the very left. I don’t know its function, save perhaps as an entryway from the street to the courtyard that bypasses the house, though I didn’t add a door, and it appears larger there than in the ground floor plan. It also appears to extend into the courtyard, which is what I have done. The upper floor plan also indicates a deck, though not the one I modeled. I made this deck in line with the deck opposite, probably my worst design decision, though I couldn’t think of a good alternative.

The courtyard offers a large square which is broken down in analysis by dynamic play of planes of varying sizes throughout rest of the house. Its value, I suspect, lies in visual presence and concept, not in some working out of domestic function. Even if the whole design is not seen entirely or viewed overhead, it would be experienced partly, plane by plane, by living there, walking around, beneath, or upon each. From this experience, the suggestion of a larger, active, expanding whole that may never be fully comprehended. It is a house that invites such exploration, some larger understanding.

It’s beyond my means, but it would be worth taking the project from here and tracking all the decisions that had to be changed, that led to the house as built. Kleinman and Van Duzer note, for example, that the garden windows had to be raised to make room for heaters, though that necessity is questioned. Once the courtyard was excluded, the overall design had to be made self-contained. I’m not an engineer, but I suspect structural problems would have been overwhelming. Detailing would have required substantial shifts, emphases that carry their own logic and pull away from the gist of the abstraction. Kleinman and Van Duzer and Tegethoff suggest that the changes were not made by the client but by Mies himself. Concept and construction, idea and details, don’t coalesce but exist in unresolvable tension. That’s why I value this and all Mies’s work, his ability to reach and maintain this tension, even in his most contained, most rational work. You see the same in subtler form in Haus Esters.

And the concept is simply marvelous. What I most value in this project is not what I built, but what escaped me, yet remains ever present.

Chasin’ the Trane

“The melody not only wasn’t written but it wasn’t even conceived before we played it. We set the tempo and in we went.”

John Contrane

In its relentless intensity, its obsessive probing of the most basic of blues changes, its fearless rejection of easy virtuosity and European technique, it is unlike anything else Coltrane recorded.

David A. Wild

I listen to music when I build, and when I started this model I bought Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard recordings—almost four hours of live Coltrane, including three variations of “Chasin’ the Trane”—which I replayed continuously, late into the night. Connection to Mies and this project would be facile, yet listening kept me moving through all my doubts and the uncertainty. “Chasin’ the Trane”—chorus after chorus where Coltrane shifts, varies, completes, and reenters and sets off once again in fresh invention, never losing the thread, never flagging in variety, in interest, in engagement, always moving forward, keeping the music alive. Sixteen minutes in one take, and you sense he could have gone on forever. Structure within itself, structure exploring structure and breaking structure. It is sheer invention with extension, with a heart, with spirit, with something else. It is music. It is a way to live. You start somewhere, you pick up the pieces, you improvise, you push yourself, you push your creation, you keep going.


Most background information and much guidance from, many thanks to:

Wolf Tegethoff, Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses, MIT PressHere I found and took the floor plans and sketches.

Kent Kleinman and Leslie Van Duzer, Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld VillasPrinceton Architecture Press.

Coltrane quotation and Wild from the liner notes of John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard, The Master Takes.

Aquinas and Mies quotation (and spelling) from Kenneth Framptom, Modern Architecture: A Critical History.

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