Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)

Michael Blackwood: Mies (1986)

Maria Ludwig Michael Mies was born in the city of Aachen in western Germany, in the spring of 1886. Aachen, known in French as Aix-la-Chapelle, had been the capital of Charlemagne's Frankish Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. By the time of Mies' birth almost 1100 years later, however, it had become one of the numerous centers of heavy industry in the Ruhr region of the Kingdom of Prussia, the dominant state in the Wilhelmine Empire before World War I.

Mies' father was a stonecutter, but while Mies accompanied his father to building sites, he never received any formal architectural training. Mies developed his skill for drawing beginning at age 15, when he was apprenticed to several local Aachen architects to produce renderings for architectural ornaments.

In 1905 Mies moved to Berlin, where he obtained an apprenticeship with Bruno Paul, who was known both for his work in Art Nouveau and for his furniture design. Within two years he received his first independent commission, the Riehl House in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, which so impressed the architect Peter Behrens, then the best-known and most progressive architect in Germany, that he offered Mies a job in his office. It was there that Mies met both Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, who also would join Behrens' office staff during Mies' tenure.

Mies was frustrated, however, working under Behrens. He would later claim credit for the courtyard elevations of Behrens' great Turbine Factory for AEG, built between 1907-10 in Berlin, saying that Behrens "didn't realize what he was doing." Mies often expressed great admiration for Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage and his Amsterdam Exchange, finished in 1903, a building Behrens once remarked to be passé. Mies apparently responded "Well, if you aren't badly mistaken," which made Behrens furious, barely restraining himself from striking Mies.

The War Years

Mies' physical maturation had given him an imposing frame, but his personality was reticent, laconic, and deliberative. In 1913 he married Adele Auguste (Ada) Bruhn, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Much like Le Corbusier would later do in 1920, in order to mark his professional transformation from craftsman to architect, Mies changed his name by adding his mother's surname "Rohe," with the Dutch connection "van der," since in Germany at the time (still an Empire) the use of "von der" was legally restricted to those who could prove noble heritage. It also offset his father's familial name, as "mies" translates to "rotten" or "lousy."

By most accounts his marriage to Ada was not a happy one, though it did produce three daughters. Dorothea, (1914-2008), known as Georgia (van der Rohe), made a name for herself as a dancer and later actress, primarily in New York. Marianne (1915-2003), and Waltraub (1917-1959), who later became a curator and researcher at the Art Institute of Chicago. Mies was conscripted for World War I in 1915, posted initially to Frankfurt-am-Main, then to Berlin, and finally in 1917 to Romania, where he spent the rest of the war and fathered a child out of wedlock.

Postwar Return to Architecture

Mies returned from war service in November 1918. Though his family, through Ada's father, remained well-off, even during the period of hyperinflation in Germany, Mies grew restless. Though he resumed his practice, he was experiencing a professional crisis about the direction of his architecture, and in February 1920 he and Ada separated. She assumed custody of their daughters, whom Mies only saw on occasion until after he moved to the USA. He kept their apartment in Berlin while Ada and the girls moved to the western suburb of Bornstedt.

Through most of the first half of the 1920s Mies lived the life of an artist-bachelor, moving in the great melting pot of architectural and design ideas that Berlin had become, becoming acquainted with Theo van Doesburg, Werner Graeff, and El Lissitzky, and staying abreast of the developments of the Bauhaus, de Stijl, Expressionism, and Constructivism. He kept his practice afloat through commissions for private residences for wealthy clients, which remained aesthetically very traditional. At the same time, his theoretical ideas about architecture began to move in new directions.

By 1924 Mies had become involved with Lily Reich, a furniture designer who also became his office manager until he moved to the United States (and even then she still maintained his personal and professional records until her death in 1947). Nonetheless, Mies maintained a separate residence from her, as he did from all the women he was involved with after the breakup of his marriage.

Reich was responsible for organizing and installing an exhibition of interior furnishings in Stüttgart in 1927 that coincided with Mies' organization of the Weissenhofsiedlung prototypical housing exposition. For the exposition, Mies unveiled his MR tubular steel chair, inspired by earlier examples by Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam. Together, Reich and Mies designed the famed Barcelona chair, quite possibly the most famous furniture design of the century, which premiered inside Mies' eponymous German Pavilion at the world's fair in 1929.

A Stalling Career under Nazi Germany

Mies had been rewarded handsomely for his German Pavilion at the 1929 world's fair and received a considerable salary when he took over as director of the Bauhaus in 1930 from Hannes Meyer, who had resigned under controversy after he had been accused of Socialist political activism by the anti-leftist municipal government of Dessau, where the school was then located. Mies set out to depoliticize the environment, jettisoning the school's associations with manufacturing in order to focus solely on teaching art, architecture, and design. Upon his appointment, Mies personally interviewed each student, dismissing those he deemed uncommitted or too political. He did not change the makeup of the faculty, with the exception of adding Lily Reich to it. He began to dress the part of his newfound authority, invariably wearing suits set off by fashionable bowlers and homburg hats. Briefly he even wore a monocle. He gained weight and became a nearly-ceaseless cigar smoker, a habit which would many, many years later kill him.

Mies' naturally reserved personality, meanwhile, deepened as an educator into a kind of "magisterial aloofness," playing the part of the strong, silent type. Indeed, one friend observed that Mies habitually let others dominate a conversation until he gauged that they had spilled everything they wanted to say, then would often sneak in and make a summary pronouncement or inject something that nobody had considered yet, which gave his words a certain gravitas.

Mies took over the Bauhaus, but with the rise of Nazis and the continued hostility in Dessau, it became clear that even after the move to Berlin in 1932, the school was doomed. Mies invested his own money in an abandoned telephone factory on the outskirts of Berlin as the school's new home, but that was seized by the Nazis. After protracted wrangling with Hitler's underlings to allow the school to reopen, Mies received a green light, after which he and his fellow faculty closed the school on their own accord, realizing that it would not survive in the new German political order.

Move to the USA

Despite Mies' professed apolitical stance, it was clear that his professional situation in Nazi Germany had become untenable by 1937. After negotiations with several institutions, Mies finally accepted an invitation to head the architecture program at the Armour Institute of Technology (renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology a short time later). In August 1938, after some harassment by Nazi officials over his passport, Mies immigrated permanently to the USA in time for the start of the new school year.

On one trip to Chicago during these negotiations, Mies managed to get in touch with Frank Lloyd Wright, who uncharacteristically invited him to Taliesin, where the two bonded despite the fact that Mies spoke no English and Wright no German. Mies was highly impressed with Taliesin, strolling out onto the terrace overlooking the Wisconsin countryside and exclaiming, "Freedom! This is a kingdom!" At the end of a four-day visit, Wright even drove Mies back to Chicago, stopping at Racine to show him the Johnson Wax Building under construction. Once they reached Chicago, Wright also gave Mies a tour of Oak Park and the Robie House. Wright, of course, would famously introduce Mies to the architectural community in Chicago once Mies had finally settled into his new home.

Mies settled in Chicago, picking up a command of English as he went. On New Year's Eve 1940, he met Lora Marx, a sculptress recently divorced from the architect Samuel Marx. It was, according to everyone present, love at first sight, a relationship that would last, with a year's interruption between 1947-48, until Mies' death, though they would never marry, and actually never lived together. Mies would later call the years between 1941 and the temporary break in their relationship the best years of his life.

Lora helped Mies find permanent residence at 200 East Pearson Street in downtown Chicago, an apartment in a neo-Renaissance building designed in 1916-17 - hardly the modern structures he was designing himself. Mies usually had the place to himself, except for when his daughters began to visit, starting in the late 1940s. He also in the 1940s began to develop a relationship with Dirk Lohan, his grandson through Marianne. Lohan would actually train under Mies and become relatively close to his grandfather personally and professionally, to the point where he would often be called on when one of Mies' buildings needed restoration or an addition was planned.

Mies socialized widely in Chicago, both with students and friends, most of whom remember him to be quite approachable, despite his reserved nature, even going so far as to be considered a kind of father figure to many of the young men he mentored at IIT. For Mies, the dual responsibilities of teaching and professional practice did not seem difficult to balance, though as time wore on, he became less concerned with teaching.

Mies also loved to drink socially, particularly martinis, and he could hold his liquor. Lora could not, eventually admitting that she was an alcoholic in 1947, entering Alcoholics Anonymous and breaking off her relationship with Mies (for that one year apart). It is doubtful that Mies shared her alcoholism; his students, staff, and even his driver - Mies did not even own a car until the 1950s and even then only Lora drove it - virtually never saw him drunk.

It was also in 1947 that Mies enjoyed the honor of a one-man show at MoMA, attended by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. The resulting publicity and success of the show added to Mies' global renown, and that same year he met Herbert Greenwald, a Chicago real-estate developer who became one of Mies' most loyal clients (until February 1959, when Greenwald died in a plane crash). Greenwald would commission Mies to design the Promontory Apartments and Lake Shore Drive Apartments, and the Esplanade Apartments in Chicago, and the large project for Lafayette Park in Detroit.

Lafayette Park was a large redevelopment of a supposedly blighted low-income area north of downtown that fell under the umbrella category of American urban renewal of the postwar era. Unlike most urban renewal projects, however, Mies' vision - a mixed-scale and mixed-use project of high rises, town houses, schools, community centers, and commercial development completed in concert with his fellow IIT faculty member and friend, Ludwig Hilberseimer - proved relatively successful. Lafayette Park became so central to Mies' office's operations in the late 1950s that when Greenwald died, Mies was forced to lay off half his staff even though the project was substantially incomplete.

Later Life and Death

After 1960, Mies' health became progressively worse. He took much less part in the day-to-day operations of his office, though the firm still thrived, completing projects such as Toronto-Dominion Centre and the Berlin Neuenationalgalerie; the latter was opened in September 1968. Mies was too infirm to attend the dedication, but several months before he had been present when the massive coffered roof was installed, a nine-hour affair that he watched with intense interest.

Mies spent a great deal of time at home, immobilized by arthritis, though he welcomed guests on a regular basis, including Gene Summers and Dirk Lohan from his office, Phyllis Lambert (who lived in Mies' Lake Shore Drive Apartments), his daughter Marianne, and Lora Marx. He and Lora traveled some; a favorite destination was Tucson, Arizona, which undoubtedly offered relief from the frigid Chicago winters.

Mies developed wall-eye, or divergent strabismus, which left him unable to concentrate for long on words on the printed page, so Lora dutifully took up the task of reading to him. Mies' first symptoms of esophageal cancer, caused by years of smoking, appeared in 1966. His fragile health precluded any possibility of surgery, but he was treated with radiation. In early August 1969, Mies caught a cold that soon developed into pneumonia. He died after lingering in and out of consciousness for two weeks. Mies was the last of the triumvirate of the International Style to die, following Le Corbusier in 1965 and Gropius just six weeks before him. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, within sight of the graves of Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.

The Legacy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

By the time that Mies' health entered its definitive decline, the reaction against the International Style was in full swing. Robert Venturi's seminal attack on the rigidity of Miesian design, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, appeared in 1966, leaving no doubt of the target of its criticism. Venturi declared, "I like elements which are hybrid rather than 'pure', compromising rather than 'clean'.... I am for messy vitality over obvious unity." And finally, he turned around Mies' most famous aphorism, suggesting that "Less is a bore." But this was hardly the first shot taken at the canon of modernist architecture - Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and even Le Corbusier had already in the 1950s begun to reexamine the steel-and-glass idiom that Mies had made famous.

The sharpness with which architects and critics of the 1960s responded to the International Style's hegemony over design speaks, moreover, to the incomparable command that it - and particularly Mies - had held over the spirit of modernism in architecture in the postwar era. Advances in communication and travel had made the International Style a truly global phenomenon, adopted on every inhabited continent by thousands of architects.

At the same time as Mies' architecture began to be critiqued negatively, however, he continued to be critically appraised in various retrospectives and exhibitions, including one at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968. That same year the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Archive was established at the Museum for Modern Art in New York, which now holds about 19,000 of Mies' drawings and prints, some 1,000 of which are by Lily Reich; much of the collection can now be viewed online.

The interest in Mies has continued unabated up until the present day, with two large exhibitions concentrating on the two halves of Mies' career: Mies in Berlin and Mies in America, opening in 2001. Both premiered with lavish exhibition catalogues that included essays by leading scholars. Collections of his drawings, correspondence, and books are held at the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Mies has been honored numerous times, both during his lifetime and posthumously. He received the RIBA's Royal Gold Medal for architecture in 1959, the AIA Gold Medal in 1960, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1982, his Crown Hall at IIT appeared on a 20-cent postage stamp issued by the US Postal Service, and upon the centenary of his birth in 1986, the West German government issued postage depicting his Neuenationalgalerie in West Berlin. The Mies van der Rohe Society, based at IIT, works to preserve Mies' buildings on the campus and promote engagement with his work, primarily in Chicago.