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

But then, as Schulze and Windhorst write, while Mies saw himself as the most systematized and rational of architects, his sense of space, proportion and massing, the keys to his best works, were concepts almost impossible to teach:

Mies was a system builder in an age suspicious of systems, and part of his genius was his skill in reconciling opposing positions. His system was not a set of rules but a method for seeking and finding an architecture in harmony with modern times. It was his will, firm and final, that convinced the world of the 1950s that he was a man of reason. Yet without the simple excellence of his architecture, even his will and the charisma that radiated from it would not have been enough to win the acclaim he garnered. It became conventional wisdom to acknowledge that Mies’s architecture, because it was reasonable and systematic, was therefore the most teachable. The stillborn design in the Miesian manner that transformed the American cityscape in the 1950s and 1960s suggests otherwise.

And then there were the architects who didn't work in Mies's office, but borrowed his language extensively, such as Philip Johnson and Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. SOM in particular would build far more Miesian buildings than Mies himself -- which Mies himself didn't mind at all, as he told an interviewer in 1960, “Sometimes people say how do you feel if somebody copies you and so on. I say that is not a problem to me. I think that is the reason we are working, that we find something everybody can use. We hope only that he uses it right.” But the public and the American urban landscape didn't necessarily benefit, as Schulze and Windhorst’s comment on the acres of stillborn Miesian buildings in postwar America highlights.

But that same reductionist impulse wasn’t just confined to modern architecture. It would impact graphic design as well by the mid-1960s, as the classic moment in the 2007 documentary Helvetica illustrates:

Note that for both Mies and designer Michael Bierut, featured in the above clip, this was a benefit of modern design, not a drawback.  However, one enormous drawback to Mies's language – and the language of modernism in general -- was its lack of emotionalism. As the recurring leitmotif in Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House went, expressions of grandeur would be responded to with an upturned nose and the droll socialist reply, “how very bourgeois” by most postwar modernist architects.

The way Americans lived made the rest of mankind stare with envy or disgust but always with awe. In short, this has been America’s period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo youthful rampage— and what architecture has she to show for it? An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness, as the height of bad taste.

We brace for a barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world— and hear a cough at a concert. In short, the reigning architectural style in this, the very Babylon of capitalism, became worker housing. Worker housing, as developed by a handful of architects, inside the compounds, amid the rubble of Europe in the early 1920s, was now pitched up high and wide, in the form of Ivy League art-gallery annexes, museums for art patrons, apartments for the rich, corporate headquarters, city halls, country estates. It was made to serve every purpose, in fact, except housing for workers.

When Mies had the opportunity to first build in America, beginning on his own IIT campus during and after World War II, the results looked rather factory-like to the layman. Wolfe described Mies's open-planned S.R. Crown Hall, his showplace school of architecture on his IIT campus, as looking like an LA car wash. This is somewhat unfair on one level, as the stylized "Googie" architecture of L.A. in the 1950s and '60s was an attempt to add additional curb appeal to Miesian architecture. On the other hand, when Wolfe writes, "The compound style, with its nonbourgeois taboos, had so reduced the options of the true believer that every building, the beach house no less than the skyscraper, was bound to have the same general look,” he's certainly onto one of the key disadvantages of Miesian architecture -- and modern architecture in general.