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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
I first saw the drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House over forty years ago while in college, in H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art, a standard text on the subject at the time, the pictures illumined with only a few sentences of explication. First the three-dimensional drawing of a home spare yet engaged, complex yet composed, low lying yet forward looking—a lean, solid wedge opening out into the world and negotiating the earth and sky:
Below it the sketch of the ground floor plan, a grid of right angles that do not intersect, difficult to read as a living space, that extends, in seeming contradiction to the first drawing, out into space without clear containment, yet still a scheme coherent and compelling:
And a chord was struck within, or a tone cluster, that gathered and realigned.
For Mies, architecture was neither a technical problem nor applied sociology but rather, as he wrote in 1928, using words that are as ambiguous as they are emphatic, “the spatial implementation of intellectual decisions.”
—Christoph Asendorf, “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—Dessau, Berlin, Chicago”