Barcelona Pavilion, Meditations

The fact that here for the first time the Weimar Republic was given an opportunity to present itself outside its own borders as an equal partner within the community of nations explains the ambitious expectation officially accorded the project. Ten years after the end of the war the image of Germany as a presumptuously conservative state characterized by self-glorifying illusions of empire and a pathetic reverence for its Kaiser was still widespread abroad. The young democracy wished to counter this with a restrained expression of its progressiveness and distinctly international orientation. The government sought a new means of expression, untainted by historical allusions.


That project was Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition, 1929, designed to put a new face on Germany, give an open look on the world.

can only guess how visitors might have received the Mies construction, the pavilion set off to the side of the ceremonial main axis of the fair, away from the rising pomp and elaboration of the other buildings, their articulation of past traditions, of local variations, those bearing assumptions that had conditioned the attendees’ vision all their lives.

Asymmetric, low lying, simple, close to nothing, really; surrounded by, placed within, beneath, not commanding the life ascending the hill behind; its roofs flat, not pitched, quiet planes suspended beneath an expanding sky—maybe it startled, perhaps it shocked, likely it perplexed. Yet the pavilion has completeness and composure, and its overall aspect is serene. And there is nothing difficult about the Barcelona Pavilion. Rather it goes against assumptions whose difficulty has been attenuated by use, by forgetting, by repression. It challenges more with what it is not as with what it is, raising questions about past assumptions, about what assumptions might take their place.

Some eight years later we would see the German pavilion opposed to the Soviet at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris, 1937, when we were more accustomed to the modern, when assumptions had changed, when the repressed had come to the fore. Both are modern, or modernish, Boris Iofan’s Soviet design somewhat streamlined, Albert Speer’s for the Germans simple and direct, though showing faint strains of classicism stretched and pushed.

Neither is especially distinguished architecturally, and functionally, from the exterior, they exist largely as podiums for symbols, the giant figures lifting the Soviet hammer and sickle, triumphant; the stiff eagle perched atop a lofty tower, braced and poised, the National Socialist take on the Reichsadler, the German imperial eagle, a figure that traces its roots to the Holy Roman Empire and back to Roman legions. History has reasserted itself and is in conflict, one a perception of a tradition, of culture, of land, of race, resurrected and transformed, the other a theory of historical process, active, inexorable, liberating, materially transcending customs and class and borders. Visitors were put into the position of taking sides. I wonder if they saw what was coming.

At the base of the German pavilion, flanking the entrance, stood two groups of statues by Josef Thorak, Comrades

and The Family, triads of muscular figures, brooding, monstrous, really, injured and defensive, more defiant than proud, standing tight together, unified by compression, condensers storing energy that cannot be held much longer. They do not look at us but over.

Open and flowing the man and woman in Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Collective Farm Woman, more confident than hopeful, their assurance, their unity determined by their collected motion forward, by the tools they raise and join, the perceived process, an idea of process, of progression. They do not look at us, either, but beyond.

Mies’s pavilion had a statue as well, a single figure, Georg Kolbe’s Dawn—a graceful, demure woman rising, unwinding into a posture that has not reached resolution, not hopeful, not anything, not anything yet, just waking, still not looking at us but down, but who will raise her face, her eyes and compose herself for what the day might bring.

Economic and political collapse, worldwide depression, dislocation, realignment, Kristallnacht, Stalin purges, the non-aggression pact between the Soviets and Germans, the carving up of Poland, another world war, the Holocaust, tens of millions dead, so much ideological debate reduced and simplified into smoke, blood—in this light Dawn appears to be cowering.

There is so much to sort out from this time that has persisted, that remains unresolved, the distance between thought and action, or the closeness, between symbols and fact, what the symbols meant, what lay behind them, what they ignored, what they disguised, what they displaced, what displaced them, how we once stood in the world, how we should have stood, how we might stand yet. But we turned our attention elsewhere, not looking back.

To simple abstract forms that point to an abstract future,

once more some thirty years later.

To glass towers and inverted forms and the mysteries of the market, the transcendent power of wealth.

Lately to the ethereal, to virtual imaginings in virtual realms that transcend borders, materially immaterial, ever transcendently commercial.

Much has returned, however, that should look familiar, a posturing towards tradition that defies tradition, virtual itself, beyond virtue, beyond belief, here, elsewhere.

I don’t think anyone knows what they are doing.

When in the ’20s and ’30s did we begin to read the signs for what they were, recognize the symptoms, and realize the approaching conflagration? What are the signs now and do we see what is coming? What is prescience, what is hysteria? What is sanity, what is disease? Our politicians and civil servants hire protection, the economy creaks, the environment groans, lands have been laid waste by war and the rest of world trembles. I do not know what to think but my posture is bent, fitfully rising.

Viewing Kolbe’s sculpture, which stands in the court pool, through the green tinted glass wall produces a feeling of noble calm and sublime tranquility. This building of marble and glass by the architect Mies van der Rohe provides the visitor with a peaceful refuge from the busy and crowded grounds of the exhibition.

From a contemporary account. So I have been quietly contemplating the past weeks this model of the Barcelona Pavilion, architecture so composed, so suggestive, so oblique, while history swells around, the present rages, the future looms ominous, flies away, thinking about models and shapes and forms and meanings, about standing up straight, about standing in the world.

The pavilion is so well known we do not know it. Familiarity, repeated visits, repeated mental reconstruction of its assembly, reduces it to the expected shapes and patterns, etching them in memory where they become fixed, inert. Or we note its influence, its significance in the movement of modern architecture, which relegates it to a moment past and assumes some notion of esthetic progress. Or it has been promoted to Greatness, which elevates it to a lofty plane, remote, abstract, unapproachable, meaningless, really, which only allows veneration from below, at a distance—or incites us to attack and destroy it, or, nowadays, simply bores us.

Lost in all of this is how compelling the pavilion was then, almost a century ago, how fresh it is now, how assured it is of what it is, how much it doesn’t impose but accommodates and puts us on its level, how much it encourages us to look back, and around, and within, and beyond.

One temptation is to analyze the design endlessly, taking it apart, delving, searching for hidden revelation. Another, opposed, is not to say anything at all. So much has been said about the Barcelona Pavilion we’re reluctant to add another word. The pavilion encourages reserve itself, a measured silence.

But there isn’t that much to it—the two planes of the roofs,

the two planes of reflecting pools, all the rectangles, one a square, of different proportions,

and a handful of lines for the walls, suggesting, not completing other rectangles.

There are the expectations of symmetry, of balance, of poise, of pose, of marking and elevating our place in our surroundings,

of set proportions,

of internal relationships defined by measured order, of whatever that order might represent about an ordered place in the order of the world.

The pavilion does reference a grid in the square plates of its floor, but the elements do not quite fit it everywhere and we are most aware of departures from the expected axis of symmetry. And the elements rest on a base, another rectangle, yet again incomplete, with another departure. The design does not deny the expectations of balance, of order, however. Rather those set the course for its excursions. The notion of order, our place in it, is qualified and extended, or questioned, put in a different perspective.

Above, the sky, nature, whatever else. The roofs rest flatly, quietly beneath, implying, underlying, underlining this space without intrusion. The interior opens itself up as well to the exterior throughout, and the pools capture the expected sky, ever changing, with its own excursions and departures.

Structurally it looks to its time, the style of the modern, and forward, with the eight posts that support the roof, freeing the walls and allowing an open plan.

But the posts call attention to themselves with a cross design and chrome plating, treatment that reminds us of columns from the past, their articulation, their promotion in ancient constructions.

And similar to past buildings the pavilion rests on a podium, like a temple, and has ceremonial entry and procession, though the stairs are disguised by a low wall and placed to the side and navigation through the building follows a winding course not obvious, also partly hidden.

Like a temple it also has the statue in a place suggesting ceremonial importance, ritual practice, and while Dawn is set in a corner, not the center, lines of sight throughout the pavilion lead to her.

But the pavilion is informal, without clearly defined space or a set plan for practice, and more closely resembles a suburban home or a villa. Mies added furniture, a pair of Barcelona Chairs, along with matching stools, easy chairs with their own tensions, where we can sit back and relax and at the same time feel the gentle compression of our weight against the x shaped metal legs, chromed like the columns, the frames of the glass.

What most catches the eye, our other senses, our sense, is the material itself, not abstract fill but concrete expression, matter drawn from the earth that shows the effects of compression over the millennia from the weight of the world,

the travertine of the exterior walls and floors,

the cool green marble around the pool and statue,

the darker marble of the wall at entry,

most, the wall of onyx doré in the heart of the interior, warm, ablaze, manic, consoling, standing alone, free.

The stone covers the surfaces of all walls where there is no glass, without framing or structural implication or imposition, left to itself, where left to ourselves, free, we stop and gaze and lose ourselves in their individual textures, their specks and and blots and streaks and currents, reserved, erratic, ecstatic, at all their variations, fixed, immutable but unpredictable and free, like the sky, patterns suggestive but incomprehensible, necessary but beyond reason, or close to it.

Add to this the gathering, diminishing light, the passing, shifting shadows, the reflections from the windows and polished marble surfaces as they catch each other and us, shifting as we move about, and those caught in the pools from the sky, shifting, and those from ourselves, standing over.

So much might be said about closure and openness, of complementing variations, of the dynamics of asymmetry against the energy of symmetry. We feel the design could be rearranged in any number of ways: there are options. But we sense it is made exactly the way it should be, though are hard put to say what that way is or define relationships. I don’t think any fixed, final understanding is possible or even the point, rather the opposite. Nor can we fully know it unless we relive all the time Mies spent in the process, countless sketches, detailed drawings, plans, models, all the revisions, adaptation to to site, but that would take us back to what we see, the Barcelona Pavilion the way we see it, to the mind of Mies himself, inseparable from the process, to the mind itself.

Not a house—it has almost no facilities and is marginally livable. It scarcely functions as a pavilion, and it exhibited nothing the few months it stood other than itself. Not a house but a model, a proposition, living, livable, a way of existing in the world.

The government sought a new means of expression, untainted by historical allusions—

But not out of time, but in it, but timeless, shorn of passing symbols, shifting stances of the moment, what they represented, what they did not, capturing the essential.

We are alive in the world, and the world has life.

We build models to understand ourselves, the world, our place in it.

We have no hope unless we reach, we build.

But we have no hope of reaching what we most need to understand. We are nothing in the world, we only know how to make models.

Yet we are everything, and we can build. So we stand and keep reaching, keep making models. We blind ourselves, and others, when we stand still, stand rigid, stop reaching, stop building.

Vigilance, always vigilance, quick, light, unassuming.





Mies’s pavilion existed in varying states of completion only some eight months, the length of the fair, after which it was dismantled. The steel used for the framing of the walls—they are not solid—was sold and likely the marble, expensive, was repurposed elsewhere. The worsening economic climate prevented any plans of rebuilding it in Germany, though we can only wonder how it might have been received in the years that followed had that happened. In 1986 architects Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Cristian Cirici, and Fernando Ramos made a marvelous reconstruction of it, and it is from that my pictures come.

Black and white photograph of reflections and the four color photographs of the marble ©Cemal Emden via Divisare. These and his other pictures are exceptional, the best way to become acquainted with the pavilion without going there and in many ways exceed what we might find in a visit.

Wolf Tegethoff, Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses.

“Viewing Kolbe’s sculpture, which stands in the court pool. . .” from a contemporary newspaper account cited in Peter Carter, Mies van der Rohe at Work.

Aerial Barcelona exhibition photograph from BarcelonaYellow.

Black and white photograph of the exterior by Alexander Hüls via Wikimedia Commons.

Exposition Internationale Paris 1937 photograph via Brooklyn Stereography.

These two pavilions were jointly awarded the Gold Medal for design at the Expo, seen by many as an attempt to portray neutrality during the tense times that were coming to Europe. These attempts did little, however, as war was to break out on the continent less than two years later.

Ian Ference

Thorak German Pavilion statues from Mourning the Ancient.

Mukhina Soviet Pavilion statues from Alise Tifentale.

The three drawings are of Palladio’s Villa Capra La Rotonda.

1939 World’s Fair AP photo via The Atlantic:

An idea dreamed up at the height of the depression, the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York was “The World of Tomorrow.” Planners were given permission to develop 1,200 acres in Queens, on the site of a former ash dump. Government agencies, corporations, civic groups, and smaller organizations from around the world arrived in huge numbers, building extraordinary pavilions and setting up exhibitions. The iconic Trylon and Perisphere structures became the symbols of the entire fair; they housed a diorama called “Democracity,” a utopian city of the future.

Buckminster Fuller, US Pavilion, geodesic dome, Expo 67, Montreal.

Hudson Yards/The Vessel, Heatherwick:

When the rest of it is finished — when the remaining rectangle of exposed rail yards between 11th and 12th Avenues is covered by a deck and more residential towers — the whole 28-acre shebang will be bigger than the United Nations, the World Trade Center, or Rockefeller Center and physically vaster, more populous, and more expensive than any private development in the country. Besides being big, Hudson Yards represents something fundamentally new to New York. It’s a one-shot, supersized virtual city-state, plugged into a global metropolis but crafted to the specifications of a single boss: Related’s chairman, Stephen Ross.

The asset-management team BlackRock signed up to spend $1.25 billion in rent over 20 years. The retail complex will have at least six places where you can spend five figures on a wristwatch (Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier, Watches of Switzerland, Piaget, Tiffany). The 101st-floor party space, surely to be among the priciest available, will be the place to host the most ostentatious vodka launch in town. They’ve paved a parking lot and put up a high-rise paradise.

Justin Davidson, “I Have a Feeling We’re Not in New York Anymore,” Intelligencer, New York.

Vice virtual headquarters:

Two giant names in the world of architecture and online media are now teaming up to take over the metaverse as Vice Media Group has announced a new partnership with Bjarke Ingels Group for a new virtual office space called the Viceverse.

The newly-opened space is hosted by the popular Decentraland platform where it will serve as a kind of virtual innovation lab for the company’s digital creative culture agency, Virtue.

Through its creation, the company says, Virtue will now be able to pursue innovative new ways of collaborating with clients that include brands like Coca-Cola and Beats by Dre.

Josh Niland, Archinect“BIG unveils designs for Vice’s new virtual headquarters ‘Viceverse'”

Model and photographs by the author. Proportions are quite close, though walls are too thick, which led to several adjustments.

See also Six Persimmons, from which two lines are taken.




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