Mies van der Rohe's work is familiar to most people even
if they can't always attach his name to a particular building or
design. But few people understand the context within which these
familiar icons were created. A new joint offering by the New York
Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art provides
a chronological, if not entirely contextualized, view of a key 20th-century
This exhibit is a sprawling centennial look at arguably the most
influential architect of 20th-century America. While Frank Lloyd
Wright got the lion's share of publicity, Mies had the lion's share
of influence on other architects, both as the last director of the
Bauhaus, Germany's seminal modernist academy until the Nazis shut
it down in 1933; and as the architect who then went on change, for
both better and worse, how America's cities look. The exhibition
is divided between the two museums, with MoMA covering Mies in Berlin,
and the Whitney covering Mies in America.
Although combined, the two exhibits present a staggering array of
models, photographs, drawings, blueprints, furniture, videotapes,
and computer animation, they are less successful in placing Mies
into a social, historical, and political context.
Of the two, MoMA does a far better job of placing Mies into the
heady framework of a Germany being buffeted by change, first from
WWI, then by the liberal, but decadent Weimar years, and finally
by the darkness of Nazi rule.
Of the two exhibitions, MoMA's is also the more creative, if only
because Mies was growing and changing so much as an artist, beginning
from when he moved to Berlin in 1905. (In an ignominious beginning
to a legendary career, he threw up on the train ride from his birthplace
of Aachen to Berlin.)
Befitting an exhibition of an artist whose European career peaked
near the end of the Weimar Republic, MoMA's exhibition displays
a wide range of avant-garde techniques. There are digitally altered
photographs, copies of G, (short for Gestaltung ("Organization")),
the avant-architecture magazine that Mies himself paid to issue
during 1924, and videotapes of Mies's exhibition techniques. There
also numerous building models, many of which were specially commissioned
by MoMA for this event.
It also doesn't hurt that Mies's architectural style was evolving,
searching, and generally more experimental while he was in Germany.
The models and other material at MoMA chart Mies's conversion from
a classical architect, inspired by 19th century Germany's great
Karl Friedrich Shinkel, to the lean, Bauhaus and Corbusier-influenced
modernist. The exhibit suggests that Mies began to shift towards
his modernist mode based partially on anger at being rejected for
a Bauhaus architectural demonstration by Walter Gropius. This began
a lifelong feud with Gropius. The feud, sometimes playful, sometimes
bitter, with the founder of the Bauhaus a better teacher,
but demonstrably inferior architect to Mies (just compare the blocky
Pan-Am building to the sleek, classical Seagram) ended only
with Meis's warm eulogy to Gropius.
The MoMA portion of the exhibit has many of Mies's early works displayed
in various formats, such as the Riehl House, which is shown by way
of a model, photographs, and a computer-generated walk though. The
creativity in displaying these early works lends extra interest
to an exhibit that can be otherwise overwhelming in scope.
It does help to be slightly familiar with Mies's career before attending
either exhibition, and Franz
Schulze's biography of Mies, available in the gift shop of both
museums, does an excellent job of placing Mies into a historical
context. And at $28.00 for the softcover version, it's also a cheaper
alternative to the mammoth $60 tomes each museum is selling to accompany
For anyone armed with a little background, both exhibitions also
highlight a few of Mies's mistakes, misfires, lesser works, and
quirky individual designs: the deadly dull form of his low-income
housing project on the Afrikanichestrasse in Berlin of 1927; the
fifty-by-fifty house of 1950-51, which Mies thought could be built
en masse, Levittown style, despite the fact that it's almost all
glass, and all open plan, except the bathrooms and closets; his
unbuilt 1945-46 drive-through restaurant design; his 1926 monument
to slain Communists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; and finally,
his 1934 designs for the German Pavilion for the Brussels World's
Fair of 1935, in which Mies tried to make his own appeasement with
Eventually, of course, Mies could find little or no work in Nazi
Germany and fled to Chicago. If Mies's architecture, and his politics
bounced all over the spectrum in Berlin, they appear to be solidly
capitalistic, and even conservative in America, where several of
Mies's most important commissions were for corporate headquarters,
and all of which are portrayed in some medium in the exhibit.
He became an American citizen in 1944 and was awarded the Presidential
Medal of Freedom in 1963. It's probably not a coincidence that the
large collage that was created to demonstrate the interior of his
enormous proposed Chicago Convention Center includes a photograph
of thousands of conventioneers waving "I LIKE IKE!" signs.
This is the material covered by the Whitney, which does a mediocre
job of placing the architect who once wrote, "Architecture is the
will of an Epoch translated into space" into the epoch within which
he operated, but an excellent job in displaying the second half
of his life's work. Perhaps it's the fear of acknowledging that
only in America, especially in the roaring economy of the 1950s,
could Mies have found the clients that allowed him to build his
best works, such as his magisterial Seagram building, the one modernist
jewel on otherwise clunky and repetitive Park Ave.
In spite of the lack of an historical context, the Whitney's exhibit
is certainly well laid out, spacious, and makes great use of subtle
Ligeti-like background music much more interesting than the
hackneyed Beethoven Ken Burns used in his Frank Lloyd Wright documentary.
Anyone who has an interest in Mies, or even in 20th-century architecture
and design in the U.S. would do well to pay a visit.
And in a brilliant bit of symbolism, the Whitney displays a large-scale
model of Berlin's new National Gallery, in a darkened room
the last building of the last surviving representative of "the heroic
age of modernism."
Mies in Berlin is on view from June 21 through September 11, 2001
at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Mies in America is on view from June 21 through September 23, 2001
at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Both exhibitions share an extensive website at http://www.moma.org/mies/.