Book Review: Masterly Survey of a Master Architect

By Michael Webb

Mies. Detlef Mertins. Phaidon, $150.

The late Detlef  Mertins distilled a lifetime of scholarship and research on Mies van der Rohe into this massive and authoritative survey of the master’s work and thought. Seven hundred drawings and photos illustrate the entire arc of a career that took Mies from Peter Behrens’ office in Berlin to a global practice in Chicago as the primary exponent of international modernism. “Less is more” and “God is in the details,” have become part of the everyday language of architecture. To some he was a god-like figure; others dismissed his buildings—even the best of them—as unlivable, dysfunctional, and authoritarian. It’s time for a reappraisal.

“Mies served to inspire a renewal of modernity after postmodernism,” declares Mertins. He portrays him as an autodidact who was at once progressive and conservative, a student of philosophy and science as well as art and architecture, drawing on a rich ferment of ideas, old and new.  He explores the masterpieces in depth, balancing contemporary and later judgments, while illuminating the socio-political context in which they were created. Links between Mies and the architects who inspired him—most notably Karl Friedrich Schinkel—are discussed. This lucid exposition is weighted down by an academic emphasis on philosophy, in an attempt to explain Mies’s quest for the sublime. At times, this verges on self-parody: An account of the dispute between the architect and Edith Farnsworth concerning cost-overruns and a lack of privacy segues abruptly into citations from Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Socrates. 

Illumination triumphs over pedagogy, and there are many fresh insights. The German commissioner for the 1929 Barcelona World’s Fair was an ideal client, declaring,  “we don’t want anything but clarity, simplicity, honesty.” Mies’s pavilion, which was reconstructed in 1986, succeeded in “capturing the new spirit of the nation and the times.” That success helps explain why the apolitical architect, who had earlier designed a memorial to two communist martyrs, delayed his departure from Hitler’s Germany, and persisted until 1937 in seeking commissions (as Le Corbusier did in Vichy France). Mertins quotes Thomas Mann, another reluctant émigré, who declared  “I don’t want politics. I want competence, order and decency. ” 

In Chicago, Mies quickly became a star, designing the entire campus of the Armor Institute of Technology (later rechristened IIT) and the hugely influential Lake Shore Drive apartment towers, which persuaded Phyllis Lambert to recommend him for the Seagram Building, his undisputed masterpiece. In postwar America, he could realize the glass towers he first proposed in Berlin in 1923, but those airy fantasies had hardened into a rigorous geometry that was widely copied and debased. He became a favorite of developers (even designing an innovative drive-in for a commercial strip in Indianapolis). There were a few more flashes of brilliance—the housing estate of Lafayette Park in Detroit and the majestic New National Gallery in Berlin—but Mertins’ hurried summary of later projects attests to a loss of inspiration, however meticulous the details.

Mertins completed the text just before his death in 2011, and an editorial committee brought it to publication. The valuable bibliography has been updated (Building Seagram, published in 2013, is here) though the committee has failed to add a comment on the successful restoration of the Tugendhat House, completed in 2012. There are 35 pages of citations, but no list of buildings and projects, a regrettable lacuna.  Even so, if you want to comprehend Mies’s genius and failings, this is the book to have.

 

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