The era of modern architecture spans decades, starting from the 1851 Crystal Palace in London to late modernism architecture in the 1980s, in examples such as the PPG Place in Pittsburgh and the Milam Residence in Florida. This movement spans not only decades but also continents. While it was born in Europe, it later expanded to the United States and even Latin America.
Just as widespread was the movement’s reach, which encompassed famous names in the architecture and design industry. For example, the representative of Bauhaus Marcel Breuer, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Born in Germany and later moved to the United States, der Rohe is also known as the architect of the “less is more” ideology. And with the nickname Mies.
So, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. This was right after the spread of Neoclassical architecture and before minimalism and functionalism. In the midst of all these ideologies, aesthetics, and movements, Mies took inspiration. And he was able to grow and change. His pursuit of personal style started in Berlin at the office of Bruno Paul and, later, Peter Behrens. In these studios, Mies got in contact with progressive German culture. But it didn’t last long.
The German architect moved from this mother country before World War II when the Nazis rose to power. In fact, Adolf Hitler and his followers opposed modernism, which they called “degenerate art.” The Nazis believed modernism was pretentious, irreverent, and (ultimately) an evil Jewish plot against the German people.
That’s when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe accepted an offer from the architecture school at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1937. In the United States, the German architect could develop his own style based on different aesthetics including Bauhaus. He started with upper-class homes and later moved on to projects like The Promontory on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
During his American years, the German architect also became an educator and dabbled in interior design. Towards the end of his life and career, Mies was influential. So much so that he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. Three years later, he died of cancer and was buried in his adopted home: Chicago.
One of the last projects he completed while he was alive was the Toronto-Dominion Centre and Office Tower Complex in Canada. However, other projects signed by him were completed posthumously, like the IBM Plaza in the Office Tower of Chicago (1973).
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: From Bauhaus to “Skin and Bones”
The aesthetic era called Bauhaus has a specific beginning and ending date: 1919-1933. This school and movement were born in Germany, in the town of Weimar. The school’s first director was Walter Gropius, another representative of Bauhaus, just like der Rohe.
The idea behind this movement was that art could be total and that there shouldn’t be any barriers between artisanship, artists, and architects. Students learned practical styles, industrial production, and the needs of men. All to create a new and inclusive language.
The course dedicated to architecture was established in 1927, and in the early 1930s, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe directed it for nine months. His goal was to combine functionality with quality through discipline. The focus was on urban architecture filled with modern elements such as iron, concrete, and glass.
Then, the rise of Nazism forced this German movement to stop. But Ludwig Mies van der Rohe moved to the United States.
“Less is More,” He Said
The German architect had already dipped his toe into the modernist architectural movement in Berlin. Most famously, he led the project for the 1929 international exposition in Barcelona, which featured concrete walls, glass details, and geometrical lines. All in pure modernist aesthetic. Or, as der Rohe described, the “less is more” architecture and design.
He brought his style from Berlin to Chicago, turning the American city into the heart of American modernism after World War II. His work is scattered throughout the United States, from The Seagram Building in New York City to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. No matter where he worked, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe wanted to close universal spaces with clean and linear frameworks, creating a harmony of geometry. A harmony that was difficult to find in the modern era.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Famous Architectural Projects
His style was minimalist, clear, and simple and featured free-flowing open spaces. So, truly skin and bones. Nothing extra, nothing too flashy, and nothing superfluous. The buildings and designs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were his take-ups on modernism. The following are some of his most famous and acclaimed projects.
Lake Shore Driving Buildings Apartments
Lake Shore Driving Buildings Apartments, or 860–880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago (1949-1951). In this project, Mies tested his theories and his aesthetic in a large-scale work: a city skyscraper. For these projects, the German architect focused on three elements: interior lighting, exterior mass, and reflexes. The skeleton is made of steel, while steel beams divide the windows to let the light in.
The apartments are spacious open spaces, and the two towers are an innovation in urban architecture. In fact, they aren’t the typical brick buildings, built to be functional but without any attention to aesthetics. These skyscrapers of 26 floors are just the opposite. Overlooking Lake Michigan, they still catch the eye of the passerby, even over 60 decades later. This was the first step toward modern architecture’s industrialization using modern materials. The era of marble, columns, and arches was coming to an end.
Farnsworth House (1946-1951) is indeed a single house in the town of Plano, Illinois. While the idea of a single, private house seems simple enough, there is nothing simple or obvious about this project signed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Two materials are the main components of Farnsworth: steel and glass. This house doesn’t clash with its natural landscape in the heart of the woods and prairies. But it fits right in. It’s an indoor-outdoor idea of design and space that didn’t exist before.
Inside, the plan is a bright open space with a wood-paneled fireplace. Nothing more. So, the Farnsworth House represents the “skin and bones” ideals of Mies. Despite its simplicity and lack of privacy, the property was sold for $7.5 million in 2004. The National Trust for Historic Preservation still operates as a museum open to the public, featuring exhibitions about the Bauhaus movement, Mies himself, and plant portraits.
The Seagram Building
The Seagram Building in New York City in the 1950s is another example of Mies’ urban architecture concept. He designed this building with another modernist: Philip Johnson. This skyscraper on Park Avenue features a rectangular structure with a total of ten pillars. The covering consists of dark glass and copper, two elements that can shield from the sun. At the ground level, Mies created his signature open space, an element that was meant to give importance to the building.
However, there isn’t much for ornamentation in the Seagram Building. Just like there isn’t much of it in any of his projects and designs. No matter where he was in the world.
The National Gallery
The National Gallery in Berlin is a return to the roots for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who also designed its sculpture gardens in the 1950s. So, this is one of his latest projects. The building features steel columns, a square glass pavilion, and transparent walls in the interior. The glass pavilion was the entry point for visitors, a welcoming sign of design and architecture. Then, there is a large podium building for the museum and enough exhibition space for artists such as Ulrich Rückriem, Jenny Holzer, and Renzo Piano.
The Barcelona Pavilion
The Barcelona Pavilion is another one of Mies’ masterpieces. Although this building predates any American projects, it still reflects the architect’s style. In fact, it was completed in 1929 for the International Exposition. The elements common to each space are onyx walls, green Tinian marble, and frosted glass. What was inside? Only a swimming pool and a sculpture ensemble. This pavilion is the first look into Mies’ “less is more” ideals, both functional and modernist.
From the United States to Europe, the German architect left his footprints worldwide and in different industries. In fact, he also worked on interior design projects.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Design Masterpieces
While he’s most celebrated for his architectural projects, Mies also worked on design and furniture. And, to stay true to his aesthetic, his projects are functional, geometrical, and detailed. They are also a reflection of Mies’ early career before moving to the United States. After his move, he preferred to focus on architecture.
These are his most famous masterpieces:
The MR Chair, which was designed in the 1920s. He made it for the design company Knoll, and this chair features the main components of the Bauhaus aesthetic. It has a steel structure instead of traditional wood. Plus, it features a chromed steel tubular and upholstery with leather straps with leather laces.
The Barcelona set, made of a chair and a small bed. Mies designed it with Lilly Reich for the 1929 International Exposition in Spain, as the name suggests. Made of steel, these pieces of furniture represent the best of industrial design. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created a set that focuses on the essentials and the details, leaving anything frivolous out. The pillow is hand cut and sewn with button quilting. The squares come from the same cut of leather. The Barcelona set was so successful that the design company Knoll reintroduced it in the market in 1950 with slight modifications.
The Brno Chair dates back to 1930, and it’s, once again, made for Knoll. He designed the Tugendhat House for his place in the town of Brno in the Czech Republic. Simple yet revolutionary, this piece of furniture is made of chromed steel with variable density foam padding. The Brno Chair is another icon of modern design, simple and visually appealing. Every detail is taken into consideration, from the structure to the stitches.
These pieces of furniture represent Mies’ introduction to the world of interior design. And, years before he moved to the United States, each of them shows the creator’s aesthetic. The MR Chair, the Barcelona set, and the Brno Chair represent the “less is more” of furniture.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, an Architect, Belongs to the Epoch
“An architect is the essence of the epoch, not of the time. And that’s all he can express,” said Mies.
And architecture as a language, a concept that the German Bauhaus movement believed in. Instead of putting labels on forms of expression like painting, sculpture, and architecture, Mies and his contemporaries wanted to create one, wholesome language. But only in the United States did he develop his style. From the idea to its beauty, which was a secondary goal for him. Mies didn’t design and create with beauty in mind. Instead, he focused on functionality and industrial design. He followed his ideas.
He was a science man with a creative spark.
“I would ask myself, what is the result?” he said, “can we change it? What can I do here?” The answers varied, but they would give him the direction to follow while creating a skyscraper in New York City or a Pavilion in Barcelona. Divided between what his heart wanted and his ideas, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe followed a clear vision. A true man (and architect) of the mind.