Mies van der Rohe and Neo-Miesian Architecture

An Influential 20th Century Pioneer of a Less-Is-More Architecture

Black and white photo of elderly white man, laughing, architect Mies van der Rohe, c. 1950

MPI/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images 

The United States has a love-hate relationship with Mies van der Rohe. Some say 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 became the designer of 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

Maria Ludwig Michael Mies was born on March 27, 1886, in Aachen, Germany. He changed his name in 1912 when he opened his own design practice in Berlin, adopting his mother's maiden name, 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's stone-carving business in Germany, learning about the trade from his father who was a master mason and stonecutter. When he was a teenager, he worked as a draftsman for several architects. Later, he moved to Berlin, where he found work in the offices of architect and furniture designer Bruno Paul and industrial architect Peter Behrens.

Career

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 20 years (1938–1958), he was the director of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where he taught his 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 Mies 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. The Meis philosophy that "less is more" became a guiding principle for architects in the mid-20th century, and many of the world's skyscrapers are modeled after his designs.

What Is Neo-Miesian?

Neo means newMiesian refers to Mies van der Rohe. 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 the 2011 Pritzker Prize-winning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura neo-Miesian. Like Mies, Souto de Moura (born in 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 (born in 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 for protection 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.

Death

On August 17, 1969, at the age of 83, Mies van der Rohe died of esophageal cancer at Chicago’s Wesley Memorial Hospital. He is buried in nearby Graceland Cemetery.

Important Buildings

Some of the more notable building designs by Meis, include:

Furniture Designs

Some of the more notable furniture designs by Meis, include: