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.
Another corner art museum in an urban setting, similar to the five-story version of my first effort in program and size—about 110 x 110 feet, 80 feet high. See that post for description. Again, the interest is in creating a building that distinguishes itself and announces its function at a busy intersection. The L arrangement of windows breaks the cube and relieves the sides, as well as points to and highlights the corner, announced by a massive column. On the top floor, a canopy overhangs an open area for views, for air, for a break from exhibition, which could be used for outdoor sculpture and plantings.
The design was heavily influenced by David Adjaye’s Dirty House in London, a warehouse converted to studio and living space.
The flat black color, among other things, brings together the different textures of the former warehouse and unites them in a rough, expressive geometric shape punched with square holes, above which, in absolute contrast, hovers a pure white plane, a modernist benediction. Combined, the two forms make a stark and compelling image, wholly coherent.
A museum for contemporary art on a corner site in an urban setting that, in fact, resembles a work of art.
An art museum, especially in a city, needs to separate and distinguish itself from its surroundings as well as give some indication of its type and be expressive without upstaging what is inside. It also needs to make full use of limited space, and since wall space outside equals exhibition space inside, it can only have a few windows. Further, curators need full control of lighting, and natural light can be an intrusion. Yet somehow it has to make maximum use of limited space without appearing as a monolithic block.
The former Whitney succeeds in all of those requirements. Breuer on his design:
Its form and material should have identity and weight in the neighborhood of 50-story skyscrapers, of mile-long bridges, in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should be an independent and self-relying unit, exposed to history, and at the same time it should have visual connection to the street, as deemed fitting to the housing for twentieth-century art. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.
More a non-building than a non-monument that repeats the rational grid of many modern constructions, then separates the implied building into discrete parts. It is laid out on a 5 x 5 x 3 grid, positing a cube with sections missing.
The Cartesian coordinate system is recalled, with all that might project, a way to map all space, thus the universe, or only a system of spacial points that refers only to itself and the math that defines it, thus encloses nothing.
My first non-monument is loosely based on the type basilica. In Rome the basilica was a public building used to hold courts as well as serve other civic functions. It was located in the center, and every Roman town had one.
Basilica of Pompeii, 120 BCE. Later the basilica defined the construction of many early churches. The structure of secular administration passed on to sacred.
Fresco showing cross section of Constantine’s St. Peter’s Basilica, 4th century. I selected the type as a starting point for my first excursion because it is simple, basic, and structurally expressive. Also it has a past, and as such it figures historical precedence. It might encourage some public use, or at least promote the idea of such use and the notion of a public that has common interest. Or it might serve no purpose whatsoever and stand stranded at its site, in the present, in the course of history. Still, every built structure is an assertion of some sort, and, if it endures, serves as a reminder of time, of change, of memory. Most, it provides an alternative construction to the structures that now dominate our lives, overwhelmingly commercial and residential. We need ways, and expressions of those ways, to remind ourselves we live together, that something might exist beyond our daily functions, our individual interests, desires that are merely personal.
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.
Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Esters and Haus Lange, the Krefeld villas, conceived together and built adjacent, of similar design, were completed in 1930, early in his career. The drawings for the Brick Country House were exhibited some six years before; his Barcelona Pavilion was conceived about the same time as the villas and was constructed for the international exhibition in 1929. Contemporary with those more radical designs, the villas have endured an uneasy existence, at least in critical reception. Both have since been restored and converted to art museums, still active today. They have survived the ravages of the last century and stand in good shape.
Comparison might be made with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, built twenty years earlier, if only to reveal differences. Mies knew his work and likely was influenced. Both are long, brick, suburban homes built for clients of means. They sit low to the ground and emphasize the horizontal, and in doing so make us think of horizons and what horizons might imply. The Robie House, however, is an active play of horizontal planes, suspended, seemingly floating. Haus Esters, by contrast, is largely contained, reserved, and at first glance static. It lacks as well the dynamics of the open array of vertical planes in the Brick Country House and the Barcelona Pavilion. In abstracting the spirit of the industrial age, Mies left Haus Esters with a stark industrial cast. Isolated, without a sheltering roof, it looks exposed.
In the metopes below, eternal adversaries grappled in inextricable pairs: Lapiths and Centaurs, Greeks and Amazons, Greeks and Trojans along the north side in the direction of Troy, Giants and gods on the south. In many of the metopes the struggle was shown in mid-course: there was no victor, no vanquished. Warring opposites complemented each other in intricate, almost heraldic, groupings—and this is perhaps another essential aspect of the term Classical. It conjures aloofness, a sense of timeless idealism; but involvement, too, and violent involvement at that, is part of the Classical spirit.
Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture
The drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House are nearly a century old. Reference to it in my “modern” design means that I’m following a tradition well in the past. His project implies that design, like life, is an active process, that the goal of architecture is to capture that understanding. It is Classical in the sense that we are aware of careful and thoughtful proportions, but also of proportions carefully shifted. And the design is Classical in the sense Kostof suggests, of competing stresses, contained but kept vital. Above, a metope from the Parthenon.
It is the challenge of contemporary architecture now, how to maintain yet enliven the modern tradition—it’s what we have—yet break away from the sterility of glass boxes and too well ordered grids. Too many solutions just push the box or attack it, without esthetic grounding, cultural context, or solid frame of reference, too often to excess. Mies’s design is reserved yet still fresh.