Conceptual and Realised work of Mies van der
Rohe

‘No architect has been more
strongly identified with the reality of the built work than Mies van der Rohe… it
is not surprising that drawing has an ambivalent status in the practice of
Mies’ (Allen, S 97)

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Why
do so many find it initially surprising that a man whose philosophy is ‘almost
nothing’ presents architectural drawings where the architecture is almost
entirely absent?

Structural
clarity

At
first glance, there appears to be a complete contraction between the built
works of Mies van der Rohe and the speculative collage drawings behinds them.
The built works, for which he is certainly more famous, stripped buildings down
to their down to their most essential elements whist still maintaining spatial
elegance the result of which produced, buildings with an incredibly strong,
physical presence with an emphasis on the new technologies behind them. In
apparent contrast to this are Mies’s collage drawings where one could argue
there is no architecture present, and that which is, is only indicated by its
absence. However, despite initial objections, the two lines of work are certainly
parallel to one another, both driven forth from Mies’s personal philosophy of beinache nichts or ‘almost nothing’ which
is present in both bodies of work. Moreover, the collage drawings respond and
evolve as result of the built works, changing to better represent the physical
qualities of Mies’s buildings despite becoming even more abstract in the
process.

Mies
must represent his work in this way to best frame the carefully choregraphed
sequences of spatial arrangements that define his built works. As Robin Evans
writes in the case of the celebrated Barcelona Pavilion of 1929:

‘The plan looks extensive. The
section looks compressed. The building is neither’

Only
the collage drawing (Figure 1) of the Barcelona Pavilion comes close to
communicating complex spatial environment Mies has carefully choregraphed
through his plan. In this drawing, Mies shows us the spatial experience of his
building in three dimensions from a fixed view point that gazes through the
building and beyond. The drawing only gently hints at architectural elements,
the most defined being the column that stands front and centre of the composition.
Despite its physicality, it is only suggested that the column connects at the
roof and floor plates, freeing the building from its own technical restraints
and generating infinite space around the solid element. Nevertheless, spatial
relationships are drawn between the column, the planes of the wall and glass and
given perspective through the space. Through the glass, a small landscape
garden can be glimpsed. In this collage, the glass is physically represented
through the faintest of pencil shading, with the window mullions indicated only
by their absence.

However,
whilst being only the most delicate line, Mies’s column is given power and
definition which contrasts with the reality of his built works. This can be
seen in the finished Tungsten House (Figure 2), whose chrome columns mirror the
Barcelona Pavilion’s that it was built in parallel to. Totally reflective, these
columns can hardly be said to be drawing attention to their own solidarity
despite being a major support to the house. Viewed as a dissipating feature
dissolved to a smear of light it is difficult to comprehend them as a principle
means of support resulting in a light structure that gives ‘not the exhilarating levitation of an object,
but a gentle, dreamy disorientation in the observer’ (4). Ultimately, this
gives on the one
hand, the appearance of nothing, on the other, an evident need for support'(3. 232)

Following on from these built works, Mies clearly reflects on
the contradictions presented by his collage drawings and develops their style
to better represent the realised scheme. The first step for this can be seen in
his speculative work undertaken for the unbuilt Resor House (figure 3). For the designs, he made a departure
from the earlier Barcelona Pavilion drawing, using photographic content in
dialogue with the architectural sketch creating a ‘nearly dematerialized
architecture of the interior’. It would be easy to mistake this collage for an
elevation, due to the strong horizontals and lack of perspective lines, but can
be extrapolated that the column and painting exist slightly detached from the
window on a different spatial plane. The column here is still physically drawn,
but it clearly connects with a floor and ceiling plate and has been placed away
from the foreground of the composition to reduce its focus. Instead, emphasis
is given to the window but more importantly the landscape beyond. Clearly
enamoured with the beauty of Wyoming’s mountains, Mies gives the glass complete
translucency allowing the landscape beyond to become the ‘wall’ (1). This is
clear evolution of Mies’s graphic technique in response to his built work and
changing philosophy. As previously seen in the Barcelona Pavilion, Mies did
gently indicate the materiality of glass within his building but this collage,
there not even the slightest graphite mark to indicate the materiality or
reflective qualities of glass. We none the less know that it is present, but
emphasise has been given to the landscape satisfying Mies’s own belief that ‘If you view nature through glass walls, its
gains more profound significance…becoming part of a larger whole’ (6). It would
seem then as clear as glass that Mies’s intention with this collage (and those
following) was to illustrate that exact point, staging views of nature through
architectural framing.

4.”Reflections
confuse the picture of reality. The virtual and the real become hard to
distinguish, this exemplifying the immanent chaos of modern life.” 265

 

This
is what Stan Allen strongly argues when analysing Mies’s later speculative
collage ‘A Museum for a Small City’ (figure 4). Using historical panoramas as a
relatable spatial experience, Allen reasons that Mies’s buildings are intended
to be a series of carefully choregraphed ‘contingent constructions dependent on
the viewers mobile perception’ and that his collages are explorations of what
these ‘contingent constructions’ spatial organisation could be for the
inhabitant.

Moreover,
in the collage ‘A Museum for a Small City’ Mies’s graphic style has evolved to
the point where the architecture has completely disappeared and is entirely
indicated through its absence. As with the Resor House, space is similarly defined
through layered planes but columns are only indicated by gaps cut into a
photograph of the landscape beyond, becoming completely dematerialised. The landscape
and the art within the scene are made more tangible with the architecture
cancelling itself out in the ‘act of framing the view beyond’ with clever play
of absences and presences (Allen 98). There is nothing to define the floor nor ceiling
and now, both the column and glass are physically absent from the picture, but yet
still as present as the landscape beyond.

The
climax of these conceptual ideas can clearly be seen in the Farnsworth House. Commissioned by Dr Edith Farnsworth to
be used as a weekend country retreat, Farnsworth house is Mies’s only built
residency in the United States. Designed in 1945 and completed in 1951, the
house was conceived by Mies as ‘an envelope of glass and steel floating over
the Illinois Fox River flood plain’. The finished work sits with striking
horizontal overlooking but not dominating the landscape. The house is elevated
to even sit apart from the ground for the practical reason to avoid flooding but
has the joyful effect of causing the main body of the building to float. This
is heightened by the slat stairs meaning that at certain points they structure must
shift and break from being solid to transparent depending on the viewers mobile
perception. An intimate plane rests between the ground and living space acts as
a terrace and transitional space before entering. Like Mies previous work with
the Barcelona Pavilion and Tungsten House, the plan of the building is asymmetric
which allows for Mies’s spatially active still life’s to occur. The interior is
completely open plan being subdivided not partitioned into different domestic dwellings
with very private areas such as the bathroom being enclosed within the core. With
floor to ceiling windows and sparse columns between, the design offers no
privacy in favour of allowing the direct contemplation of nature from within a
domestic setting.

Mies’s
later and larger works such as the Seagram building and S.R Crown Hall notably move
away from the asymmetric plan in favour complete open plan. As such the Farnsworth
House can be considered the last building of Mies’s that really necessitates
and rewards the movement of the observer through space.

In
conclusion, whilst some might see Mies’s collages as a separate entity to his
build works the two are entirely symbiotic. It is understandably difficult to
relate something to abstract to Mies’s architecture which is often held up as the
‘paradigm of constructed, material presence'(Allen, S). Ultimately though, the
two halves make a whole with the collaged drawings presenting the landscape
that the realised project materialises itself into. Both the realised and the conceptual
establish a complex relationship with their surroundings and set in motion a ‘play
of illusion and representation’. The root of both the collages and the built
works are the asymmetric floor plans whose subtly choreographed sequences of
architectural elements which both seek to represent through either the absence,
or presence of architecture.