Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a German-American architect who was one of the pioneers of modernist architectural design. Best known for “skin and bones” architecture, as he called it, he brought about a change in architectural design in the early 20th century that can still be seen today.
Early Life and Training
His original name was Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, but he added his mother’s maiden name van der Rohe after he had established himself as an architect. He was born in Aachen, Germany on March 27, 1886. His father was a master mason who owned a stonecutter’s shop. Mies grew up helping his father as the latter did construction work. He never had any formal training in architecture but did receive vocational training at the Gewerbeschule in Aachen. At the age of 15, he was apprenticed to a number of architects around town, for whom he sketched outlines of architectural ornaments. The outlines would then be used to form stucco decorations on buildings. This honed his talent and skill for linear drawings, a skill that he would use later in his life by producing some of the finest architectural drawings in the era.
In 1905, at age 19, he moved to Berlin where he worked for interior designer Bruno Paul for a time and later for architect Peter Behrens. In 1913, Mies opened up his own shop in Lichterfelde.
The outbreak of the First World War derailed his career for a little while as Mies served in the German military, where he helped to build bridges and roads in the Balkans.
Transition from Traditionalism to Modernism
With the end of the war, there was a shift in the design styles that was prevalent in Germany. The end of the German monarchy and the establishment of the Weimar Republic paved the way for the increase of modernist artists and architects in the country. It was also after the war that the Bauhaus school was established. Before the war, Mies’ work was more or less traditionalist, using the neoclassical aesthetics that were popular at the time. When he came back from the war, he started to design in a more modernist style.
His Work Post World War One
When Mies got back from the Balkans, he resumed his work and career. By the mid-1920s, Mies had established himself as a leading avant-garde architect. He would become part of a number of modernist artistic organizations such and would later join the Bauhaus movement. However, much of his work made during this time would only be on paper and remained unbuilt. Of the few that actually saw the light of day were the Expressionist memorial for the murdered communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; The German Pavilion for the Barcelona Exposition in 1929; and Tugendhat House in Brno, Czech Republic. It was also during this time that he designed the Barcelona Chair with Lilly Reich.
In 1930, Mies was appointed the director of Bauhaus in the midst of the political turmoil that was happening in Germany. Although he never saw himself as an able administrator, he proved to be a superb albeit stern teacher that won the respect of the students as well as the teachers. In 1933, only three years after he took over Bauhaus, the school was closed down, bowing to the pressure being exerted by the Nazi party. Modern design and Hitler’s totalitarianism did not mix.
Coming to America
After the Bauhaus closed down, Mies would continue working in Germany for a few more years, mostly on projects that were never to be built. However, in 1937, he got the opportunity to go to America, and he took it. Upon reaching the United States, he gained an appointment as the head of the architecture school of the Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology. It would later be renamed as the Illinois Institute of Technology. There, Mies would serve as director for nearly 20 years until his retirement in 1958. He would also be commissioned by the school to design new buildings and create a master plan for the school, a task that he did between the years 1939 to 1941. All the buildings he created stands there still.
It was in the United States that Mies career would flourish. He became a US citizen in 1944 and in the years after that, he would receive many commissions that would give him opportunities to create large-scale projects. Among his many commissions were the Promontory Apartments in Chicago, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Seagram Building, just to name a few.
Even after retiring from teaching in 1958, Mies did not stop working. He would go on to design some of the most distinctive structures of the 1960s. The Bacardi Building in Mexico, the Federal Center in Chicago, the Public Library in Washington D.C., are but a few of the buildings he designed after his retirement. Mies would pass away on August 17, 1969, in his apartment near Lake Michigan in Chicago. He was 83. The last building he designed, the IBM Plaza, was completed after his death in 1973.
While best known as an architect, Mies also did design quite a few pieces of furniture, often in collaboration with Lilly Reich. His furniture is well known for its fine craftsmanship as well as the mixture of traditionalist materials with modernist frames. A few examples of his designs are the Barcelona Chair, a chair that he designed for the German Pavilion of the Barcelona Exposition of 1929, the Brno Chair, designed for the Tugendhat House which Mies also designed, and the Tugendhat Chair, also designed for the said house. Mies favoured the cantilever design for his chairs.
Like most modernist designers, Mies followed a minimalist, utilitarian approach for his designs. He often used the aphorism “less is more” to define his work. However, he still paid close attention to details. Mies believed that every architectural and design element should contribute to the overall expression of a building. “God is in the details” is another aphorism that he often used.
Mies defined modern architecture and design through his work. It could be that no other legacy would be more fitting for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe than the buildings he had created, most of which can still be seen and visited and appreciated for the works of art that they are. It could also be possible that his legacy can be seen in his furniture designs that are still used to this day, a testament to their long-standing appeal.