Modernist Mies van der Rohe

All modernist architects owe a debt to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German born American architect (1886 – 1969). Known widely as “Mies” he was one of the prominent innovators of modern architecture along with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Open, flowing spaces, minimalism, and his of use of plate glass and structural steel are some of his lasting contributions to architecture. His open floor plan, interior concepts, and clean-lined furniture styles are still reflected widely in contemporary design today.

The Bauhaus School was an art and design school that morphed into a movement. Young painters, graphic artists, and architects, including Mies, were set on starting fresh – breaking with conventions of the past. And understandable reaction to the Germany of 1919, still in ruins, struggling, after a bitter defeat in WWI. During this time one of Mies’s most recognizable designs emerged - the Barcelona Chair. (top photo left) The 1929 graceful steel and leather chair is a classic combination of form, function and beauty. By 1932 the Nazi regime had shut down Bauhaus. They did not approve of the modern aesthetic or international flavor of its members.

In 1938 Mies left Germany to begin his lifelong relationship with the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mies arrived in Chicago to become the Director of Architecture, but soon was awarded the commission to redesign the campus and its buildings. Among many of his campus buildings, S. R. Crown Hall, home of the College of Architecture, is most renowned. (see video below)  

His Farnsworth House (2nd photo at left,1951) —two parallel planes suspended between only eight steel columns—appears simple; but Mies is said to have worked through 167 drawings to come to his final, bold design. Attention to detail brought elegance, combined with his intent to design a house interactive with nature with minimal boundaries between humans and the natural world. Within 2400 square feet and a budget of $40,000 he created three separate but unified spaces: a transparent house, a covered terrace, and an open deck. 

After retiring from IIT, Mies focused on his commissions, such as his 39-story, 516-foot tall Seagram Building (3rd photo left) of offices in New York City. It followed what was called International Style: rectilinear forms, light, taut plane surfaces devoid of ornamentation and decoration. Glass, steel, and reinforced concrete were used with open interior spaces. In addition to work in Berlin and Toronto his many US projects include the Chicago Federal Complex, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; 860–880 Lake Shore, Chicago; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington DC; Lafayette Park, Detroit.