Thursday, July 10, 2008

Talking Mies

Russel Fernandez very kindly sent me this. It's a collection of conversations with Mies van der Rohe dating from the late '50's to the mid '60's - i.e. his well established American years. Mies (as I feel obliged to call him) is in predictably opaque form on the whole. His answers have a stately, elegant emptiness and a refusal to be drawn on straightforward issues. There is a gathering cloud over some of his comments as he seems to detect the decline of his influence and the coming of more extravagant and expressionist buildings, but mostly he takes a fairly lofty disinterest in issues such as legacy or influence.

I was surprised by one of his answers though. This suggested that Mies' architectural approach was formed somewhat abstractly, through theory and through reading. "My architectural philosophy came out of reading philosophical books" he states at one point, contradicting much of what I thought I knew about Mies, which is that he learned architecture as a primarily practical art from his father, who was a stonemason (or so the myth goes) and that he had little time for theory.

Perhaps I was wrong - or at least a little ignorant - but Mies' architecture has aways seemed to shun words, bringing out a kind of awed silence in critics and onlookers, encouraged by Mies himself who also said: "I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good". Goodness, or quality perhaps, is assumed here to be something that eludes verbal description. Interest is equated with novelty and the superficial interest of the eye-catching rather than the deep structure of the profound. To silence one's critics is normally to trump their mere words with innefable art. But Mies admits that words proceeded, even defined, his structures.

Mies' interest in theory proceeding design seems extremely unfashionable today when architecture has put its faith in flamboyant self expression and personal signature. Mies allows that actually building buildings might have tested his theories, maybe extended them, but certainly not disproved them. It also contradicts his own teaching methods which focused rigorously on technique and technical skill and very little, if at all, on theory.

When I studied architecture in the early 1990's Mies was still - just about - held in speechless awe. Now, no one seems to talk about him at all. His work once spawned a thousand imitators but now seems impossible to replicate and the emphatic clarity of his towers has become literally unfashionable. A home grown piece of Mies on London's Pentonville Road has recently been re-clad by architects AHMM (you can see it literally being covered over here). It was always one of my favourites because it was such a perfect homage, so contentedly unoriginal. AHMM's scheme is like a cover version but with the same backing track, replacing Mies' grave voice with an altogether jollier one. Perhaps the distant rumble of theory still echoes from the structure though.


Anonymous said...

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the target of nuclear bombardment by proponents of the postmodern movement, who sought to denigrate his ideas and buildings, even his furniture, to promote their own new approach to architecture. One false accusation was a lack of theory.

But if you read the "Artless Word", a collection of his writings and speeches, many translated from German, you will find he had a lot to say and thought deeply about what he was doing.

Whether what he did is relevant today or not, the depth of the ideas behind his work is nothing short of astonishing.

Charles Holland said...

thank you for your comment anonymous. yes, a lot of nonsense was talked about Mies van der Rohe's work although it is probably difficult to imagine now the enormous influence his work had some thirty years ago and probably slightly insufferable nature of that. i have always found his work quite opaque as (wrongly perhaps) its difficult to find beauty in things that you are constantly told are beautiful. so i'm always interested in different 'ways in' to his work.

re-reading what i wrote it seems a bit naive - I mean of course he theorised his work, of course he and others intellectualised it. And the stonemason bit has always been seen as mostly myth making. But, it was his very bald statement that he read about, thought about, decided on it, and then did it that interested me.

anyway, i will certainly have a look at Artless World.