Mies van der Rohe at the Whitechapel Gallery

[This article originally appeared on the Electric Review website.]

There’s something to be said for exhibitions that position themselves less as didactic accounts of their subject than as star-struck cheerleaders on their subject’s behalf — or for those that display not only literal artefactual evidence of their subject’s career but also adopt his own prejudices and predilections. Anyway it’s hard to fault Mies van der Rohe 1905 – 1938 on either regard. This major examination of the first, Europe-based half of Mies’ career, organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery, pulls off its retro-modernist take with an enviably straight face — although whether you find this delightful or just a little unnerving is a matter of taste, perhaps even of mood.

Put bluntly, Mies van der Rohe is an architect’s retrospective that includes lots of architecture and virtually nothing about the architect himself, let alone the world around him. All of which is, in some sense, very much in keeping with Mies’ belief that architecture is simply ‘the will of an epoch translated into space’, rather than the creative interaction between an individual and the traditions he inherits. According to Mies,

We are concerned today with questions of a general nature. The individual is losing his influence; his destiny is no longer what interests us. The decisive achievements in all fields are impersonal and their authors are for the most part unknown. They are part of the trend of our time towards anonymity.

Thus the exhibition provides an account, as rich in fulsome appreciation as it is in certain types of detail, of 38 projects developed by Mies between his arrival in Berlin in 1905 and his departure for America in 1938. What is does not do is to tell the viewer much about Mies himself, or about his friends and colleagues, or his patrons or critics, or the traditions within which he was working or about the world in which he lived. The story, in other words, is entirely a formal one. Who needs personalities when there’s formal development? Who needs history when there’s modernism’s own privileged account of itself?

Ludwig Mies was, for those of us who like this sort of detail, born in Aachen, deep in the Catholic Rhineland, in 1886. His father was a stonemason — a personal circumstance with considerably more than Hello! magazine-type relevance, since it arguably played a part in shaping his attitudes towards the quality and treatment of building materials and his understanding of the way in which structures should support themselves — and since this craftsmanly ethos may well have encouraged remarks like his revealing ‘God is in the details’. (It was a strange feature of Mies’ mature work that although it could, as countless provincial ninth-rate imitators have since made all too clear, be executed on the cheap, Mies insisted on extremely fine materials in his own constructions, perhaps most famously in his use of bronze in the Seagram building but also, discernibly, in the Barcelona Pavilion.) From 1908 to 1912 he worked with a progressive architect named Peter Behrens who also (as this exhibition will not tell you) employed Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius around this time. What became of Mies during the First World War I have no idea, which perhaps says all one needs to know about the biographical detail provided by this exhibition.

In Berlin afterwards, however, having left a wife and family elsewhere, Mies found a role for himself on the cutting edge of modernism. He became involved with G magazine (contributors included El Lissitzky, Walter Benjamin, Man Ray, Georg Grosz, Kurt Schwitters, Piet Mondrian, Constanti Brncusi and Fernand Léger); he also designed amazing fantasy skyscrapers that could almost certainly never have been built given the technology of the time. But that was hardly the point. It was during this period that he changed his name from prosaic ‘Mies’ to the more cosmopolitan-sounding Mies van der Rohe. Mies was the last director of the last Bauhaus School of Art & Design (it was shut down by the Nazis in 1933) and by the late 1930s, came to believe that the United States offered greater scope for his architectural vision than did Europe. He emigrated in 1938. His years in America were successful and fulfilling ones, but are beyond the ambit of the exhibition.

Instead, the exhibition is made up of many, many studies of individual architectural projects, from the Riehl House (Potsdam-Neuabelsberg, 1907) to the Resor House (Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 1937-38). Most of Mies’ earliest works are rather ordinary suburban houses built for well-to-do middle-class people. Try as the curators might, they have a difficult time making a case for the architectural greatness of these pleasant bungalows, set in tidy little gardens, full of Arts & Crafts detail. A German artist named Thomas Ruff has photographed a number of Mies buildings for this show. These opulent, appreciative chromatographic prints, with their luxurious finish and mildly hallucinogenic colours, seem again to make one sort of case for these early buildings — conferring on them a measure of formal power, as well as near-infinite glamour. But these recent photos also stand in humorous contrast to a few much earlier photographs of these houses, looking as they did when they were actually being lived in by the men and women who’d commissioned them — at which point they were smothered in vines, hung with patterned flock wallpaper, and cluttered with endless, comfortable, inelegant and thoroughly old-fashioned-looking tat.

This makes an inadvertent point about modernism — it’s a dated period style now, not a road to enduring aesthetic truth — but at the same times says about Mies’ architectural priorities, too. Mies did not seem to care very much about the functionality of his buildings, about any of their qualities other than design per se. His eye-catching glass skyscrapers of the inter-war period were unbuildable. His masterpiece, the Barcelona Pavilion (1929) had no purpose at all other than its formal elegance. Has there ever been a building that was closer, in terms of intent and effect, to pure sculpture? Compare this with the impact of building like Durham Cathedral, or the Petit Trianon at Versailles, or even St Pancras Station, and one gets some sense of the self-regarding nature of the modernist project — but this is not an exhibition that allows comparisons.

Nor was Mies exactly over-engaged in politics. It says something about Mies that this exhibition could include proposals for a monument to Bismarck, a monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (Communist ‘martyrs’ of the November Revolution), as well as the German Pavilion at an international exhibition circa 1934 decorated with the eagles and swastikas of the National Socialist Party. Mies’ beloved prisms were nothing if not versatile. And when Mies eventually left Germany, he did so not because of the objectionable nature of the regime or its persecution of his colleagues — both pretty evident by 1938 — but because he was seeking a better environment for commissions. For Mies, one suspects, the architect existed in a place beyond good and evil, beyond the needs of the people who might commission or inhabit his buildings, beyond the need even to build the buildings. It isn’t easy, after all, being the conduit through which the will of the epoch expresses itself …

Thus the stars of this exhibition, along with Thomas Ruff’s sumptuous prints, are Mies’ own plans, often executed with considerable style, and backed up with models and the odd computer simulation. The curators succumb to a brief flurry of excitement over G magazine — who wouldn’t? — but this only serves to underscore the lack of colour, context, variety in the rest of the exhibition. The circumstances of the commissions? The building materials? Did the buildings work? The curators’ implied contempt for such questions surely mirrors Mies’ own. Similarly, in the exhibition Mies’ architecture seems to appear more or less out of nowhere. Only three other figures — the neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Peter Behrens and Frank Lloyd Wright — get a look in. So the effect is to suggest that Mies grew out of no tradition and learned nothing from his colleagues and critics. But the lack of biographical background precludes reference to that stock-character of romanticism, the sui-generis genius. Instead the plans simply develop, the structures form themselves on the page, with all the satisfying naturalness and inevitability of the growth of a crystal. And then they stay there. There is no hint of the contingent, the accidental, or the flawed and failed. By the same token, Mies was surely one of the most influential architects of the last century or two, but in this exhibition one gets little sense either of what his fellow architects borrowed from his achievement, or what they ignored. That is, one suspects, because the assumption that these ‘projects’ stand outside history. And as I wrote at the beginning, while some people will adore this, others may find it seriously alienating.

This is not, of course, to say that it’s a bad exhibition. There is much in Mies van der Rohe that is both skilful and beautiful, and even more that is interesting. Anyone with an occupational interest in design will, I suspect, find parts of it genuinely inspiring. And for the broader public, it’s a worthwhile show. Mies deserves to be brought to our attention fairly frequently. Not least, he did as much as any single individual to give most of the developed world its urban environments of glass-clad skyscrapers, its suburban environment of flat-roofed shells. At their best, these sorts of structures look spare, clean and fresh; they are cheap to build, suitable for all sorts of site and adaptable to a host of purposes. Of course, in the best post-modern tradition, there’s an irony in the fact that so much of the charm — I choose the word purposefully — of this sort of thing now lies in the complex fact of its dated quality, its resonances with the villas of East European dictators and perhaps our own parents’ more adventurous friends — its rootedness in a particular time that has now passed. Mies would have hated this, but of course for many of us it no longer much matters what Mies thinks. It is perfectly possible to admire, indeed even to love the fruits of modernism without having much time for the climate and soil that nurtured them.

For the curators of this exhibition, however, it’s a different story. In their decision to adopt a tone of uncritical acceptance in the face of Mies’ whole approach to architecture — indeed, his whole approached to the whole vexed business of modernism — the curators may have missed an opportunity to provide an even better show, which might at least have cast the odd raking beam of criticism across Mies’ achievement, illuminating it to greater effect. The fact that the ethos underpinning his work is, in many senses, still highly controversial hardly makes it any less interesting. Instead of engaging with this, though, the exhibition simply ignores it. There’s an elegant arrogance in this decision; there’s also a degree of myopic silliness. Sometimes, less really just isn’t more.
Mies van der Rohe 1905 – 1938 will be at the Whitechapel Gallery from 10 December 2002 – 2 March 2003. Admission is free.

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