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Mies van der Rohe: Creating the Architectural Language of 20th Century America

The Adam Building, a 1928 project (not built) by Mies for a department store in downtown Berlin. Scanned from the 1986 edition of Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography.

Mies didn't arrive at this language overnight – he began formulating it as early as his 1921 Friedrichstrasse Office Building project (his charcoal and conte crayon sketches were perhaps the very first modern designs for tall office buildings) -- in an era when a bankrupt Germany was still literally crawling out of the rubble of World War I. And his much lesser-known 1928 commercial designs, such as the Adam Building, which was a proposal for a department store for Berlin, and a similar design for a bank/department store in Stuttgart, further point the way to his post-World War II American architecture.

Unbuilt Stuttgart bank and department store project, 1928. Scanned from the 1986 edition of Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography.

These buildings also expose one the paradoxes of modern architecture: While the external I-Beam didn't make its appearance on a Mies-designed building until after World War II, Mies arrived at his basic building forms, and all of his furniture designs, by the end of the 1920s – and yet this “modern” architecture and design is still very much with us today. (At the start of the year, when I prepped for writing a review of the DVD edition of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire series set in Atlantic City in the Roaring Twenties, I watched several hours of the show in a marathon session lasting deep into the night. When I turned the DVD player off, I was thrilled to return to the 21st century – only to stare at all of the Mies-designed furniture in my kitchen and living room and realize in a sense, I was still stuck in 1920s!)

Unfortunately, while illustrations of the Adam Building and Stuttgart Bank/Department Store were included in the original 1986 edition of Schulze's book, they’re missing from this revised edition. Which is too bad, as they’re not readily found in Google’s image archives. There are several key additions in this new edition, however. Perhaps the most intriguing is the transcript of the court hearing from 1952, when Dr. Edith Farnsworth sued Mies after construction costs for her titular house on the banks of the Fox River in Plano, Illinois, went over budget. As Schulze and Windhorst note, the relationship was cordial (some have argued quite very cordial), until 1951, when Farnsworth soured on the design of the house once it was completed, and the relationship between client and architect irrevocably soured as a result. On the other hand, as Mies told the court in 1952, “I was famous before. She is now famous throughout the world.” But neither parties acquitted themselves all too well during this period, as the transcript found by Schulze and Windhorst highlights.

Another way that this biography differs from Schulze’s 1986 predecessor is an emphasis near the end of the book on the projects built under the name of The Office of Mies van der Rohe, but largely designed by Mies's associate architects. For the most part, these were competently done, but frequently lacked the sense of Schinkel-inspired proportion that Mies brought to the best of the buildings he personally designed.