Mies van der Rohe: Krefeld/Haus Lange +

Never before were Architecture and Sculpture in such correlation. There seems to be a mental identity between the sculptures of Sol LeWitt and the architectural volume of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

from the LeWitt exhibition catalog

Truth is the significance of fact.

Aquinas/Mies van der Rohe

The best that can be said for either the square or the cube is that they are relatively uninteresting in themselves.

Sol LeWitt

The Krefeld Villas, Haus Esters and Haus Lange, stylistically interrelated, built together, completed in 1930, were converted into contemporary art museums years after the war. In 1969 Haus Lange held a Sol LeWitt exhibition that included his cube sculptures. One of them, Three Cubes, was placed on the deck by the dining room, before the garden.

My Three Cubes is larger and set diagonally apart in the garden corner, as if in opposition. The temptation is to lift similarities, plot them in a progression of esthetic stance and world view, 1930 to 1969, and then project it to the present and forty years out. Instead I see contrasts, discontinuity, open breaks, a dead end.

Though both have volumes that can be defined by a grid and depend solely on right angles, they contrast structurally. Three Cubes is self-contained and wholly predictable. Haus Lange is neither. For Mies structure serves a purpose. Basic elements come together to serve some larger meaning:

By structure we have a philosophical idea. The structure is the whole from top to bottom, to the last detail—with the same ideas. That is what we call structure.

LeWitt has discarded such thought, any reference, and the simple squares become no more interesting when assembled into cubic sculptures. Structure is just structure.

Thus Minimal objects and grids can be thought to exemplify the aesthetics of boredom and as such to deny humanist expectations in art. More than that, the static, repetitive, undifferentiated, uniform, and infinitely extendible modular arrangements can evoke a state of entropy. . . .

Irving Sandler on LeWitt

Where do we go from there?

Mies had little to say about the villas himself, and most critics have given them scant attention, considering them a departure from his more innovative work of the time, their interiors lacking the latter’s open dynamics. The villas do look settled, sedentary, even sedate. The brick, worn by weather, contributes to that impression, reminding us that these “modern” homes are some ninety years old, almost a century, and are conditioned by means and inclination of their time.

The fuse box at House Lange—current technology.

But the Brick Country House was an unbuilt concept, the Barcelona Pavilion an abstract exhibition piece with only a ghost of possible use. Most of his other residential work was planned for small families, or, in the case of the Farnsworth House, a single individual. Both Krefeld Villas were built for full families and had full programs. Haus Lange had seven bedrooms, including a guest room and servant’s quarters, all save the guest room with full baths, along with a living room, a dining room, a man’s room, a woman’s room, a drawing room, plus an assortment of utility rooms, meeting the demands of a compartmentalized lifestyle and a desire for privacy, the Langes perhaps having a foot in their past century.

The interior does have its surprises, but it’s the exterior that most engages interest and defies expectation. I looked down on the model as I built, and what I was most aware of was the play of horizontal planes as they pivot from an implied axis that has no defined or central placement, as is the case with the Brick Country House. The black is the roof, the dark gray the lowered roof over the front hallway, the medium gray the decks on the second floor, and the light gray the protruding part of the deck on the ground floor. This figure is every bit as involved and energetic as one that might be made for Haus Tugendhat.

Five decks in all, which on the second floor occupy a considerable amount of space—I wonder how they were used and how often. The decks also delete volumes that could have been given to interior space as well as simplified structural support. As Van Duzer and Kleinman point out, the house has all manner of structural challenges that necessitate heavy reinforcement with steel. Overall design takes precedence over function and daily use.

The deck planes are seen only as thin lines of flashing from the ground. They are quite visible, however, from the bedroom windows. Each extends to the edges of the walls below, interrupted only by railing, not modeled. And each family bedroom has a door that gives out onto them, a constant reminder of their presence. Their space and the overall floor plan are complemented and qualified by the more orderly but still asymmetric patterns of walks and lawns in the enclosed garden, which I don’t think was further landscaped. One composition of planes floats above another on the ground and looks out into space.

Herr Lange had his own deck, upper left, accessed only by his bedroom, as well as another on the first floor, exclusive to his room there. Frau Lange’s and the siblings’ bedrooms all looked onto the larger deck in the middle. The small deck on the right, second floor, covered, is reached by the long hallway, with a separate entry for the last bedroom on the right—the eldest son’s? The family had different, separate, and separated takes on the garden, and the view from each deck is partially hidden from that of the others, wholly so in the case of the parallel decks on the end.

The smaller rooms by the bedrooms, at h, are the full baths, lit and ventilated by the clerestory at the front. I can only try to imagine the family’s daily routine, waking, performing morning ablutions—I assume water pressure was good—then filing down the hall to the narrow stairs which open to the large living room, crossing it to go to the dining room for breakfast; leaving, going their separate ways, returning to the communal living and dining room, fanning out to their separate rooms with their different uses, then on to bed. The living room is the hub and has to be crossed to enter the other rooms on the first floor. Entry at the front door and ascent at the stairs, descent to the basement and garage, are downplayed and compressed. Only the door to the garden has a measure of formal distinction, but it is located off center, in a corner.

The family would absorb the complexities and energy of the design in the experience of moving through the house in their daily lives. This process would take some time and might leave the sense it would never be complete. I wonder if the bedroom doors to the decks and the planes beyond figured in the Lange family’s dreams, what they might have opened up to quotidian existence.

One way to think of the design is to imagine an oblong box that contains the house, then compare the mass of the home with the negative space, inversely complex. The simple box breaks down into a variety of volumes pivoting within the larger, empty volume. The negative space penetrates into the mass at the parallel decks on the left and the space beneath the bedroom on the right, partly cantilevered over the lower deck. Exterior and interior are interrelated without separation.

Extend the box to the edges of the garden and the house begins to recede, now defined by the larger garden space. And that space leads to space outside it. As with Haus Lemke, Haus Lange implies enclosed exterior space, bringing it into the living area, while at the same time opening up the house to the world beyond. To this diagram add lines of sight from the decks and windows, where can be seen—

The separate views from the rooms merge in large lawns without division that nearly dwarf the Krefeld Villas. Trees and perimeter hedges on the lawns block but imply further view, seemingly far beyond. Priorities have been established, the house set in a larger perspective.

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

The significance of fact lies rests in its relationship to nature.

And nature is boundless. The plan for the Brick Country House, in its extending axes, reaches out to infinity.

What this unity is—or what nature is for that matter—Mies does not define and the thought touches off centuries of philosophical debate, unresolved. But nature exists, as do buildings, and the relationship can be figured. This relationship is not one of symmetry, stasis, and control, as in the past, but of active interchange. The complexity of a built environment, based on geometry, reaches within itself and outside itself to engage the dynamics of nature that does not know right angles, nature ever changing, from which the house draws life.

Brick does not disrupt, its color human, posing a middle ground between green plant life and brown earth, blue sky. The flat roof keeps us close to the ground and emphasizes the space above. Most, the house has a horizontal character, modestly so, but which makes us think of horizons, our place, our extension into all space. Details are minimal, decorations nonexistent. The contrasts of the white bottoms of the decks, the dark trim and flashing throughout, reinforce the horizontality.

The garden face, like all the facades, is stable but at the same time asymmetrical and active. Across the facade the various masses of brick are distributed in balance but lie in no regular pattern. The decks on the ends frame the house as well as lead beyond. Two identical decks stacked strikes me as odd, but there they are, the smaller, retreating, counterbalancing the larger forward deck on the right. There is regularity of window size, as well as variation, as the windows don’t quite align everywhere. The rear wall of the garden steps down slightly from the side walls, leading to the large lawns. Other subtle offsets exist that produce a quiet tension.

Haus Lange conjures then defies our accepted sense of what a home is, how it should be laid out, how it should look, what we are supposed to do there. I want to believe there is some complex formula that might define the offsets, the tensions, the play of planes, but the only thought that comes to me is how much the design doesn’t have one. It takes us from order and repose into movement and unpredictability.

As you walk around the house—and the design encourages rotation through its lines, shifts, and tensions—the planes disengage, as if in disassembly, relationships change.

This disengagement will vary in degree with variations in the light, the shadows. I would be curious to see time lapse photography of this facade as the sun makes its course through the hours.

On this end you are most aware of retreating planes, seemingly independent, six in all, all different, defining different depths leading to the back, stacked, rising towards the front—and not much else.

Keep going around, and the house begins to disappear, becoming a kind of wall, almost without depth.

The front facade faces the street, provides protection and privacy from its traffic on the first floor, and has unassuming entry. Again mass and stability are restored, and here horizontally makes its most emphatic statement, reinforced especially in the long bands of windows on the second floor that, in their continuous run without brick mullions, seemingly defy support. The brick mass shifts right, the windows left, their planes interlocking.

The clerestory to the bathrooms entails a low ceiling in the hall, and taking the hall brings a long ribbon view of the street, accelerating the walk, reinforcing inside the horizontal cast of the exterior. It is a ritual passage, the only one in the house.

Keep going around, and the mass of the oblong box of the house most asserts itself in masses that descend to the garden.

Here the house goes down another level for the garage and other rooms of the basement, not modeled.

Another dramatic moment—the long three-car garage defies support and seemingly lies beneath a large mass of brick.

But that mass is largely just the wall behind the deck, yet the span is still a structural challenge. And the house opens up to the garden. Roughly, the house is contained within an L with the greatest mass concentrated in one corner. Mies has largely developed one quadrant of the crossing axes of the Brick Country House.

We have no idea, of course, of what Mies is talking about, and LeWitt isn’t talking about anything. I don’t know how to resolve this disjunction.

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Notes

Overall dimensions are close, as is the positioning of the main elements. Expect variations within. Not modeled, details that accent—full trim, railing, gutters. The inset of the windows is exaggerated. Also the decks and drive are paved with brick with a different finish and slightly different color. I made them gray to separate the planes. Had I made them brick they would have blended in with the rest of the house and not been well distinguished in the model or the photographs. What I like about the model is that it highlights abstractly the planes and masses, showing them in greater relief, encouraging study of their interrelationships. I would like to see a version of the house in which the decks were covered with slate.

Photograph of the Newt in Somerset via Four-Magazine.

Floor plans, site map, photograph of garden facade via Wikiarquitectura.

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 VillasPrinceton Architecture Press.

These are marvelous books, thorough and insightful, filled with illustrations.

Quotation from LeWitt exhibition catalog by Paul Wember, found in Kleinman and Van Duzer.

Mies, “Truth is the significance of fact,” translation of Aquinas “Adaequatio intellectus et rei,” “By structure we have a philosophical idea” from Architectural Design, 1961, found in Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture.

Sol Lewitt, “The best that can be said” and Sandler, “Thus Minimal objects and grids” from Irving Sandler, American Art of the 1960s.

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

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