That’s particularly easy to see in New York, which has one building designed by Mies (the mighty Seagram Building, designed with an assist from MoMA co-founder Philip Johnson, who helped launch Mies in America) and countless mediocre imitators which arose during the city’s postwar building boom.
Living so close to New York, on weekends, I began to take the train into the city, to visit MoMA, to see the artwork I studied in photographs firsthand. I also spent hours in its architecture and design department, studying the models, drawings and furniture. And I began to collect books on the topic from the museum’s design store.
Growing up in a house that was decorated in the early 1960s and resembled Don Draper’s home in Mad Men (just as my dad in his 40s had more than a little of Don’s sense of fashion and Brylcreem; alas I didn’t not inherit dad’s healthy follicular genes), the clean, Spartan look of MoMA, and modernism in general, was all heady stuff. But in retrospect, I was living out the passage in Allan Boom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind, in which Bloom described America as morphing into “a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”
The Rosetta Stone for Mies’s architecture was the Barcelona Pavilion, the universally-known shorthand nickname for the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. This was a building he designed relatively quickly (particularly for Mies, who was known for his laborious design efforts, spending hours and hours meditating on a project “t’inking,” as he would say in his broken English), and yet it quickly became recognized as the masterpiece of his pre-war period.
As part of the Pavilion, Mies, likely assisted by pioneering modernist interior designer Lily Reich, with whom Mies had a professional and personal partnership in the 1920s and ‘30s, designed for the Pavilion the famous Barcelona Chair. It was a symbolic throne, designed for the signing ceremony that opened the Pavilion by King Alfonso XIII and Queen Eugenia Victoria of Spain. Afterwards, Mies would use the Barcelona Chair, virtually always in pairs, in the lobbies of most of the office and apartment buildings he would design after the war. Many other modern architects would use this chair as well in a similar capacity.
Back in 1987, the BBC, as part of its Design Classics series, devoted a half-hour to the chair, which I taped off the A&E Network in 1991. Unfortunately, it was taped in VHS and later saved to a DVD-R, so apologies for the less than high definition quality of the image:
The Barcelona Pavilion was leveled in early 1930, when the Exposition closed. It was eventually rebuilt in 1986, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mies’s birth. In 2000, when my wife and I spent ten days in London, we made a weekend detour to Barcelona, and I visited the Pavilion. (We also took a tour of the rest of Barcelona’s modernist architecture, via an excellent private tour guide whom Schulze had referred me to; I had interviewed him for a couple of articles in the year prior.)
Tom Wolfe wrote in his 2000 anthology Hooking Up that the Bauhaus pioneered the phrase “Start From Zero” — as one of the on-air commenters says in the BBC episode above, the Bauhaus banished the past, in much the same way that political correctness, then just beginning to gather steam (and note the Weimar connection, via the Frankfurt School), would banish much of history. However, as with the totalitarian regimes that shouted some variation of “Start from Zero” during their birth, while the Bauhaus promised a new freedom for artists, eventually, it simply replaced the old rules with a rigid orthodoxy of its own. In this classic scene from the documentary Helvetica (which I wrote up extensively in 2010), graphic designer Michael Bierut is talking about print and advertising design, but the same spirit applies to American architecture in the 1950s and ‘60s as well:
Jonah Goldberg and Dennis Prager have each described progressivism as a substitute religion. The Bauhaus would attempt to give their substitute faith a substitute aesthetic. Banished in Germany when the Nazis arrived with their own substitute religion and aesthetics, eventually, much to their surprise, the socialists of the Bauhaus would find their clean and simple aesthetics adopted by the businessmen of America. The captains of industry of the Mad Men-era were able to separate modernist aesthetics and the politics that birthed them, as I’ve tried to do, trying to reconcile a past love of mid-century modern with a center right/libertarian worldview. I think I’ve been relatively successful in that regard, but the mental escape from Weimar wasn’t easy.
The aesthetic escape? Forget about it. At the start of the year, after watching a marathon session of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire to write my review for PJM’s Lifestyle blog, I remember shutting off the TV late at night and thrilled to have left the 1920s behind. Only to walk into my living room and note when all of my modernist furniture was designed. It was a reminder of the paradox of modern design: you can check out of the 1920s anytime you like, but you can never leave.