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, an open look on the world.
I 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’ expectations all their lives.
Asymmetric, low lying, simple, only a few parts, close to nothing, really; surrounded by, placed within, beneath, not commanding the green life ascending the hill behind; its roof 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 familiarity, 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.