Mies van der Rohe: Berlin/Haus Lemke

Mies van der Rohe’s Lemke House is so simple, so basic, so modest that one has to wonder why it merits much attention. That, however, is what is so exceptional about the design, how modest, how basic, how simple it is. The simplest things are often the hardest. And given recent events, a return to a base, seen clearly, is well in order.

But as always with Mies simple is not so simple.

Overall proportions are close, dimensions within less so. Details fall well short of divinity. Making a model encourages me to study a building inside and out, imagining its structure, the relationship of its parts, the kind of life the architect envisions for those who live there. I look at floor plans and photographs, noting my shortcomings as I build, and think how a better model might be constructed. The ideal model rests inside my head, never fully touched. With the process of construction, with the projection, whatever else comes to mind, introspection. The actual house itself exists as itself, and as a model for something beyond itself, beyond construction.

Completed in 1933, it was built for the Lemkes in the Hohenschönhausen district in Berlin, near a lake, the husband the director of a publishing company that featured art books. He was not, according to Schulze, a communist as suspected, who, in addition to quality art books, published for the National Socialists and, later, the Soviet military administration. Their house was the last Mies completed before leaving for the US in 1938. The year the house was finished the Bauhaus was closed and he lost his directorship there. He found little work all those years.

Cultural attitudes towards modernism in Germany then were divided, if not schizophrenic:

Right-wing völkisch sentiment saw the modern arts as pernicious and pathological, expressions of a rootless, undeutsch urbanism for which the International Jew was the symbol. Yet Nazism could just as easily identify itself with modernity, science, and advanced technology. Among all the arts, architecture was gripped most tightly in a vise of contradiction. The Nazis fumed over Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau, threatening to tear it down, and going so far as to add a sloping roof to the studio wing.

From Schulze.

Goebbels professed some appreciation for Mies and modern architecture. However in 1933 Lilly von Schnitzler, wife of Georg von Schnitzler, the government official who tapped Mies for the Barcelona Pavilion, appealed to him on Mies’s behalf and got this reply:

Mies is the most significant German architect, after Troost. But Frau von Schnitzler, you seem not to know that the totalitarian states depend upon the favor of the masses. We are obliged to dance painstakingly on a wave, and if the wave should not support us, we would disappear overnight. I can do nothing for Mies, since the masses that stand behind us are driven by very different ideas, and if I were to recommend Mies, well, that wouldn’t be viewed favorably at all.

Quoted in Schulze. Troost was a neoclassicist and Hitler’s favorite. I have neither the heart  to review the ironies and contradictions, nor the stomach to make comparisons with the wave we are riding in the US today.

As I built the model, Oregon was—and still is—on fire, the fire spreading towards urban Portland, this while we’re maintaining isolation from the Covid virus and warily anticipating the coming election with no small dread and great uncertainty about what will follow, regardless of outcome.

My condo is shut tight, yet my throat scratches, my eyes sting, and I smell smoke in my closets; through my windows I cannot see the sun.

I feel trapped, insignificant, and threatened. That is nothing. Others, of course, are much worse off, so many having lost homes—and their lives.

The Lemkes had no children and wanted a small house. Their budget was small, and Mies, in financial straits, must not have made much on the commission at all.

I hope the project gave Mies solace and strengthened his resolve, a shoring up against the gathering storm. He must have felt uncertain about his future and the future of Germany. Yet the house keeps his ambition alive and fits in with and anticipates his other work. Nor does he falter from his usual careful planning and execution, or his creative pulse. The project is not a concession or a retrenching, but an opening up, a precise and original statement he pursues later.

I built the model as a distraction from events beyond my walls, but it became more than that, taking me outside my confinement, launching larger thoughts. It is still on the table and I often stop and linger in contemplation. I marvel at its plan, its proportions, so simple yet so paradigmatic. It takes me in all directions, it returns me to itself, to myself. I would love to live there now. The space is ample, more than I need. We all should learn to live with less.

The house itself has taken a beating. In 1945 the Red Army forced the Lemkes out and used it as a garage and for storage. Later, in the GDR, the Stasi put it to their own uses, making considerable alterations. In 2002 it was finally fully restored and is now an art museum.

The smaller plan, bottom right, is closer in dimensions to the house as built. At the top, facing the backyard and lake, the bedroom. Below it a narrow study, and on the other side of the L, looking out, the living area. The garage is set back, on the left. At the front, the kitchen and utility. As in his other home designs, the street face is partly closed to maintain privacy. Stairs lead to a partial basement.

Comparison with a standard L plan would reveal his decisions and highlight the unique character of the design. The garage could have been moved forward and the main entrance placed on the front, which would have added significant space to a small house. Bringing the window wall of the study out, in line with the bedroom, would have added another foot and a half or so to a narrow room. But a simple L would have denied the design’s drama and dynamic.

The front of the garage and back wall of the living area are on the same line: the house divides precisely, wholly along that hinge, forming two large planes that join and pull away from each other. The narrow protrusion of the bedroom into the courtyard pulls us in another direction. All motions pull away from an implied central, symmetrical axis, yet the directions fit together in a coherent expression that reaches beyond itself.

This dialectic of symmetry and excursion, its dynamic, is not unlike that of the Brick Country House, a conceptual plan whose living arrangements weren’t fully defined.

The design could also be imagined as three rectangles, connected and offset, of different shapes and sizes, that play against those of the drive and courtyard. With my borders it resembles overhead the interlocking squares of a Mondrian. Other combinations are possible: the design is open. And this pattern is divided further by the layout of the rooms, again of different shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of tension and balance, integration and separation.

These differences, the patterns, the dynamic would be perceived daily, viscerally and cognitively, in the experience of living there and moving about the house, one’s sense of oneself in space, in the world, constantly undergoing realignment and resolution. Entry is a private event, so the main entrance is hidden from the street. Walking down the brick drive, or driving up and leaving the garage to the main entrance, one is physically aware of leaving the world and entering by a door that is hidden from view, protected. Also one approaches the interior from the outside, up to the divide. Interior and exterior are brought together and their distinction challenged. Once inside the hall, one senses the divide immediately as it is the only place where the two larger parts join, yet it is left open, without a wall. Its presence, the absence, felt and seen, are essential and charged with import. And in the hall the divide releases its presence, its tension into space, as there one sees the views from the corner wall windows. Interior and exterior are again brought into discussion. The narrow study points to the backyard and opens up into the wide bedroom, whose indentation makes one aware of the difference between the rooms. Inside the bedroom, one is conscious of being apart from the rest of the house and just outside its major dimensions, closer to the world beyond.

The plan doesn’t economize on space for maximum use, rather offsets symmetry and functional alignment for dynamics, maximizing the presence and potential of space itself in a small footprint.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but analysis always casts a sharp light on design. The overall character of the Lemke House is one of reserve, even humility, and explaining how Mies manages the tensions yet maintains that character would require long, subtle, and difficult review, one that would still miss the mark. There’s a point in that.

Then there is the most important element of the house, its view.

Nature, too, shall have its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the color of our house, and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together into a higher unity.

Mies, and he is referring to the Farnsworth House.

If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from the outside.

That assertion is worth both reflection and debate. Stated is that we stand apart from nature; implied, that we see it filtered through our own perceptions, our intellect. Yet at the same time, somehow, we are part of it. Philosophers over the millennia haven’t solved this division between ourselves and nature nor settled our relationship, and Mies doesn’t either. None have come up with a satisfactory definition of nature itself. But Mies does raise these questions and keeps them alive in the expression of his homes. While we may not know nature, we can see it, and think about it, and live in it. We can’t see Mies’s “higher unity” nor know what it is, if anything, but we can project it and try to conceive it—and will never reach a final image. Living in the world is a process, an open question. The process may be all there is, without terminus. But fundamental to his assertion is a respect for nature, the need to protect and preserve it. Cities, whole societies could be built on this premise.

While the Lemke House doesn’t answer questions, it projects them. Its dynamics speak to the complexity and dynamics of nature itself, outside us, a shifting conversation between, within, without, back and forth.

The design also gives us a space to contain and view nature. The corner windows and courtyard in the Lemke House function in a way similar to the glass walls of Farnsworth: he creates a transparent room.

A box is suggested by the plane of the courtyard, and the protrusion from the bedroom partly encloses it. This intrusion has to be slight for effect and implication. Note he reduces it in his plan, above. Practically, weather permitting, Mies has provided another living space. From a design standpoint, the box centers and anchors the rest of the composition. All rooms revolve around it. Physically, emotionally, it opens up a view. Theoretically, it provides an idea. The box holds nature and brings it inside the imagined enclosure, joining it to the rest of the house, but it also, because of its transparency, like the Farnsworth House, looks out into the world. A relationship of enclosure and expansion is established where separation is created and at the same time dissolved.

From the study one largely sees the window wall of the living area, where there may be reflection of the terrain beyond—

—a large, beautifully, roughly, minimally landscaped lawn sloping gently towards a lake, to trees, to a forest. Overhead, the sky. With the view, the shifting play of clouds, the sun arching in its trajectory, the advance of shadows, the progression of seasonal changes; the pulse of verdancy, its decline and resurgence; the shimmering of grass and leaves in a slight wind, their trembling in storms; the white blanketing of winter snow, total, clarifying. Beyond all this, whatever we might think lies beyond.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.

Exodus 3:2

“Man-made global warming is not a scientific certainty; it cannot be proven, nor has it ever been,” Mr. Limbaugh declared on his Friday show, disregarding the mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary. He then pivoted to a popular right-wing talking point: that policies meant to curtail climate change are, in fact, an assault on freedom.

I read this the other morning in the NY Times.

If we want proof of our relationship with nature, we only need to look. We will not get an absolute, incontrovertible sign, however, a burning bush unconsumed, that tells us global warming is upon us, not until it is too late, and even then some will argue. We have to rely on our best interpretations supplied by our knowledge and careful study, careful looking, none ever as perfect as we would like. But absolute certainty is an illusion, a trap.

I understand an arsonist set one of the major fires in Oregon. That is not the concern. The point is that conditions have become such that one malefactor could wreak such devastating damage. Comparison could be made with our current political situation, the damage caused by a single man. The problem is not the man but the environment that has allowed his pernicious influence to spread, like wildfire. Freedom has become corrupted and turned to contagion.

We need to return to simple, basic things, and learn to think about them, and realize they are not as simple as we might like, and relearn a modesty scaled to our diminutive place in any larger scheme, and find a way to restrain the monsters we can release. Home is one place to start.

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“Nature, too, shall have its own life” from Christian Norberg-Schulz, “A Talk with Mies van der Rohe,” Baukunst und Werkform, no. 11 (1958).

Other quotations and background information from Franz Schulze, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition, The University of Chicago Press.

Photograph of corner windows by Manfred Brückels from Wikipedia Commons.

Plan and front corner photograph from ArchDaily.

Farnsworth House photographs by Victor Grigas from Wikipedia Commons.

Fire photograph via CBS 58.

1 thought on “Mies van der Rohe: Berlin/Haus Lemke

  1. Looking back on architecture and history, Gary Garvin offers us a window into our own lives and times. His discussion of a Mies design for a house becomes a meditative journey, asking us to consider our own design for living–does it lead us to greater harmony with nature and each another?

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