Mies van der Rohe: Creating the Architectural Language of 20th Century America
November 28, 2012 - 1:14 pm
Television’s Mad Men would have you believe that America was a monolithic bastion of Puritanism, untrammeled by European or socialist influences (despite the rise of Woodrow Wilson and FDR!) until the Beatles touched down at JFK Airport in 1964. The reality though, as Allen Bloom memorably wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, was that almost immediately upon the US winning World War II, America began to slowly — often unwittingly — become an unofficial enclave of Germany’s Weimar Republic.
Take architecture. As Tom Wolfe noted in From Bauhaus to Our House, his classic debunking of modernism’s excesses, because America’s intellectuals tend to think of themselves as an artistic colony in thrall to Europe, when the leaders of the Weimar-era German Bauhaus of the 1920s were evicted by the Nazis, they were welcomed by Depression-era American universities as “The White Gods! Come from the skies at last!”
[Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bahaus] was made head of the school of architecture at Harvard, and Breuer joined him there. Moholy-Nagy opened the New Bauhaus, which evolved into the Chicago Institute of Design. Albers opened a rural Bauhaus in the hills of North Carolina, at Black Mountain College. [Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, its last director, when the Nazis shuttered its doors in 1933] was installed as dean of architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago. And not just dean; master builder also. He was given a campus to create, twenty-one buildings in all, as the Armour Institute merged with the Lewis Institute to form the Illinois Institute of Technology. Twenty-one large buildings, in the middle of the Depression, at a time when building had come almost to a halt in the United States— for an architect who had completed only seventeen buildings in his career—
O white gods.
Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) is the titular subject of the newly published biography by architectural historian Franz Schulze and architect Edward Windhorst (who studied his craft under a protégé of Mies). They’ve collaborated on an extensively — very extensively — revised version of the biography of Mies that Schulze first published in 1986, the centennial of Mies’s birth.
While he was America’s most influential postwar modern architect and teacher, Mies never quite become a household name on the same order as Frank Lloyd Wright. (Despite a prominent Life magazine feature in 1957.) But he’s been the subject of numerous biographies and book-length profiles, beginning with his prominent role in The International Style, the pioneering Museum of Modern Art exhibition by Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock, which first put modern architecture on the map in America, back in 1932.
Even as Mies was associated with several prominent buildings deserving of respect after World War II, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was to singlehandedly invent the language of postwar American architecture. We take tall steel and glass office buildings and apartments for granted, but it was Mies who created their look, beginning with 1951′s Farnsworth House (which would also provide the inspiration for Philip Johnson’s own Glass House) and from that same year, the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment complex.