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January 08, 2003

Free Reads -- Worsley on Mies

Friedrich --

Giles Worsley in the Telegraph (here) has a good review of the Mies van der Rohe show that originated at MOMA and has now opened in London. (You may have to register, but it's worth doing.) Here's a long passage:

It also becomes clear that what motivated Mies, and what drove him into his Modernist experiments, was neither the search for a supposedly logical, rational architecture, nor a socially driven desire to reform the world, but a fascination with architecture as art.

Mies had no underlying programme. The social underpinning of Modernist architecture left him unmoved and you have only to look at his designs in the light of a different century to realise there was nothing rational about them. They are fabulous, beautiful plays on light, space, materials and transparency....

This is a reverential exhibition, so there is no insensitive questioning of practicality, no raised eyebrows about leaking flat roofs or whether those great walls of thin glass might make the rooms a little cold. Mies is treated as the artist he was. And, like many artists across history, Mies was essentially amoral. He was prepared to work for whoever would pay for the buildings he wanted to design. In his early career, that was the moneyed classes of Berlin. He built his largest house in 1915-17 for a wealthy banker who was clearly doing well out of the First World War.

Given the chance, Mies would even have worked for the Nazis. One of the most extraordinary drawings is his 1934 design for the German Pavilion at the Brussels International Exhibition, complete with swastikas. Goebbels was keen on his work, but Hitler preferred Albert Speer. Mies hung around until 1937, then he finally came to realise he was never going to build. Instead, he emigrated to America and created the house style of international capitalism.

A few points I'd like to add to, or at least bring out from, Worsley's first-rate piece:

* Modernist architects and their defenders have always been quick to play the progressive-politics card: we're on the side of the angels, therefore everyone who prefers other styles isn't. It can be quite astounding how quickly and ferevently this move comes at you, as though architecture is something more than a "mere" matter of crafting buildings, blocks, and neighborhoods -- and as though modernist architecture (like progressive politics itself) is on the verge of setting us "free." (Baloney, of course. But even accepting the promise, it pays to ask: free from what, exactly? As it often turns out in practice, from much of what we love -- nooks, crannies, windows that open, textures, comprehensible space, gardens, quirks, bustling blocks, and neighborhoods with character.) Well, so much for modernist architecture's political pretentions. How awful, yet how lovely, to discover that the modernist god-head Mies had, essentially, no political programme at all.

Mies' Farnsworth House: A pity about the chilliness. And leakiness too.

* I also want to pounce on something I was trying to point out in earlier discussions on this blog about the proposals for the WTC site. It's that modernist buildings are probably best thought of as great big abstract sculptures. As such, they're often impressive, dazzling, exciting, and chic. But they're often lousy as buildings, fall out of fashion in a matter of years, and they often do terrible things to neighborhoods.

And what a strange conception of architecture! In such fields as poetry, painting and movies, playing abstract, avant-garde, highly-aestheticized games is a pretty harmless activity. Why? Because no one has to read a poem or see a movie. But when it's a question of apartment buildings and office buildings, hundreds if not thousands of people have no choice but to interact with them, often on a daily basis. Modernist (po-mo, etc) architecture is telling these people that they've got to live with (and often live in and work in) buildings that are essentially aesthetically-driven. Ie.: "I am obligating you to live in, work in, and walk by my piece of sculpture."

What kind of ego and arrogance does it take to impose yourself, let alone your aesthetic preferences, in that way? No wonder the star architects are often said to be doing "egotechture." (And how many people actually share those aesthetic preferences -- abstraction, "clean lines," empty space, blankness, shimmer and dazzle -- anyway?) I'm shocked that more people don't react to the buildings they're made to work and live in as angrily as they did some years back to Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc."

A sign, I often worry, of how brainwashed we've let ourselves become. The good news is that, once the brainwashing is shaken off, more sensible thinking tends to commence almost immediately. Leaking roofs, cold glass walls, etc etc -- bad! How many people would buy a superchic car purely for the looks? A few, certainly. But imagine the rest of us being forced to do so. Shouldn't we be allowed to express a preference for comfort, reliability, snugness, safety, convenience, etc.?

Here's a passage about Mies's legendary Farnsworth house that's a pretty typical piece of modernist-architecture appreciation:

Designed and built from 1946 to 1951, Farnsworth House is considered a paradigm of international style architecture in America. The house's structure consists of precast concrete floor and roof slabs supported by a carefully crafted steel skeleton frame of beams, girders and columns. The facade is made of single panes of glass spanning from floor to ceiling, fastened to the structural system by steel mullions. The building is heated by radiant coils set in the concrete floor; natural cross ventilation and the shade of nearby trees provide minimal cooling. Though it proved difficult to live in, the Farnsworth House's elegant simplicity is still regarded as an important accomplishment of the international style.

A nicely-done run-through of the house's design qualities and significance, no? And don't you love the way that one little clause -- "though it proved difficult to live in" -- is sneaked in?

What many people tend to find is that irreverent thinking about modernist architecture quickly leads them to an appreciation of traditional architecture -- which is traditional, after all, partly because it has shown that it works, that it pleases, and that it can adapt.

Hey, did I ever tell you about a lunch I once had with a group of new-traditionalist architects? They were bright and funny, etc. And no more so than when they started discussing the topic, "And when did you awaken from the modernist-architecture delusion?" Oooh, were they eloquent on that subject.



posted by Michael at January 8, 2003


It's nice to see balance--an appreciation of the art of modernism (in a harmless place like someone else's house) with some sense, and without the ideological bludgeoning. For more sensible thoughts along these lines, if you didn't already know, have a look at Jane Jacobs' classic Death and Life of the Great American Cities.

Posted by: DrJ on January 8, 2003 6:33 PM

"Death and Life": one of my bibles! Great to hear you're a fan too. The more of us the better.

An architect once said something to me I've found useful. Architects generally (in his opinion and experience) don't really like attending to utility, context, attractiveness, etc. "What most people don't understand is that what architects really like," said this guy, "is designing things."

Which made it clear to me. And has made me wonder ever since: why don't they do exactly what it is they like, and go design things -- things like umbrella stands, and pen holders. Inflicting their design sense on thousands of people via buildings seems absurd, let alone arrogant.

Thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 8, 2003 7:00 PM

OK, so all the architects go off to design umbrella stands, or Target teakettles. Which leaves the building design to, um, the developers. And if there's one thing worse than a building designed by an architect, it's a building not designed by an architect.

Posted by: Felix on January 8, 2003 9:40 PM

I have no comment,but I'll ask for your help.I need more information abput FArnsworth house,like floorplan with dimensions,section and other,for a project that I have to do in faculty...Can you help me!!!!!!

Posted by: miranda on April 10, 2003 7:37 AM

Rrrumy love it.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:15 PM

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