Mies van der Rohe - What is Neo-Miesian?

Less is More Architecture (1886-1969)

Black and white photo of elderly white man, laughing, architect Mies van der Rohe, c. 1950
German born American architect Mies Van Der Rohe, c. 1950. Photo by MPI/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The United States has a love-hate relationship with Mies van der Rohe. Some say that he stripped architecture of all humanity, creating cold, sterile and unlivable environments. Others praise his work, saying he created architecture in its most pure form.

Believing that less is more, Mies van der Rohe designed rational, minimalist skyscrapers, houses, and furniture. Along with the Viennese architect Richard Neutra (1892-1970) and the Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965),  Mies van der Rohe not only set the standard for all modernist design, but brought European modernism to America.

Background:

Born: March 27, 1886 in Aachen, Germany

Died: August 17, 1969 in Chicago, Illinois

Full Name: Maria Ludwig Michael Mies adopted his mother's maiden name, van der Rohe, when he opened his practice in 1912. The architect practiced as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In today's world of one-name wonders, he is simply called Mies (pronounced Meez or often Mees).

Education:

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe began his career in his family stone-carving business in Germany. He never received any formal architectural training, but when he was a teenager he worked as a draftsman for several architects. Moving to Berlin, he found work in the offices of architect and furniture designer Bruno Paul and industrial architect Peter Behrens.

Important Buildings:

  • 1959-74: Federal Center, Chicago

Furniture Designs:

In 1948 Mies allowed one of his protégés, Florence Knoll, exclusive rights to produce his furniture. Learn more from Knoll, Inc.

About Mies van der Rohe:

Early in his life, Mies van der Rohe began experimenting with steel frames and glass walls, a style that would become known as International.

He was the third director of the Bauhaus School of Design, after Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer, from 1930 until it disbanded in 1933. He moved to the United States in 1937 and for twenty years (1938-1958) he was Director of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

Mies van der Rohe taught his IIT students to build first with wood, then stone, and then brick before progressing to concrete and steel. He believed that architects must completely understand their materials before they can design.

Although van der Rohe was not the first architect to practice simplicity in design, he carried the ideals of rationalism and minimalism to new levels. His glass-walled Farnsworth House near Chicago stirred controversy and legal battles. His bronze and glass Seagram Building in New York City (designed in collaboration with Philip Johnson) is considered America's first glass skyscraper. And, his philosophy that "less is more" became a guiding principle for architects in the mid-twentieth century.

Skyscrapers around the world are modeled after designs by Mies van der Rohe.

What Is Neo-Miesian?

Neo means new. Miesian refers to Mies van der Rohe. A Neo-Miesian builds upon the beliefs and approaches that Mies practiced—the "less is more" minimalist buildings in glass and steel.

Although Miesian buildings are unornamented, they are not plain.  For example, the famous Farnsworth House combines glass walls with pristine white steel columns. Believing that "God is in the details," Mies van der Rohe achieved visual richness through his meticulous and sometimes surprising choice of materials. The towering glass Seagram Building uses bronze beams to accentuate the structure. Interiors juxtapose the whiteness of stone against the swooping fabric-like wall panels.

Some critics call 2011 Pritzker Prize-winning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura Neo-Miesian. Like Mies, Souto de Moura (b. 1952) combines simple forms with complex textures. In their citation, the Pritzker Prize jury noted that Souto de Moura "has the confidence to use stone that is a thousand years old or to take inspiration from a modern detail by Mies van der Rohe."

Although nobody has called Pritzker Laureate Glenn Murcutt (b. 1936) a neo-miesian, Murcutt's simple designs show a Miesian influence. Many of Murcutt's houses in Australia, like the Marika-Alderton House, are elevated on stilts and built on above-ground platforms—taking a page from the Farnsworth House playbook. The Farnsworth House was built in a floodplain and Murcutt's above-ground coastal houses are raised from tidal surges. But Murcutt builds on van der Rohe's design—circulating air not only cools the house, but also helps keep the Australian critters from finding easy shelter. Perhaps Mies thought of that, too.

Learn More:

  • Mies van der Rohe Said...
  • Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst, University Of Chicago Press; Revised New edition 2012
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  • Mies Van Der Rohe by Claire Zimmerman, Taschen Basic Architecture Series, 2006
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  • Mies Van Der Rohe At Work by Peter Carter, Phaidon Press, 1999
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  • Mies by Detlef Mertins, Phaidon, 2014
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