The life and career of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

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Introduction

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is widely regarded as one of the most influential architects of our time. His work, along with that of other pioneering architects, gave rise to what we now call modern architecture. Here is a look at his life, his work, and his legacy.

Summary:

●     Born: Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, March 27, 1886 in Aachen, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire

●     Died: August 17, 1969, aged 83, in Chicago, Illinois, United States

●     Nationality: German (1886-1944), American (1944-1969)

●     Occupation: Architect

●     Parents: Michael Mies (father), Amalie Rohe (mother)

●     Practice: Mies van der Rohe Architects

●     Website: miessociety.org

About him

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is regarded as one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. He is known for his role together with famous architects Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright as the pioneers of modernist architecture and developing it as an architectural style.

Mies van der Rohe was born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies on March 27, 1886, in Aachen, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire to Michael Mies and Amalie Rohe.

Mies van der Rohe is also known for being the third and final Bauhaus Director before it was forced to close in 1933 when it was under pressure from the Nazi government.

He then moved to the United States in 1938 where he settled in Chicago, later becoming an American citizen in 1944.

Quick facts about Mies van der Rohe

  1. At the age of 30, Ludwig Mies decided to use his mother’s name and fuse it with the last name of his father with a “van der” in the middle.

  2. He got his first job in an architecture studio after designing a facade drawing in one hour that his director had been trying to resolve for weeks.

  3. He did not receive a higher education let alone any formal architectural education since his family could not financially support it.

  4. Mies got a lot of influence of the materials he used from working in his father's stone-carving shop as a stone mason.

  5. He got his first commission in 1906 in the form of a project in Potsdam for the Philosopher Alois Riehl.

  6. While working for Peter Behrens in 1908, he became a colleague with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, with whom he developed a cordial rivalry.

  7. Mies was named the director of the Bauhaus in 1930, the same year when the Barcelona Pavilion was taken down from its original location.

  8. After leaving Germany in 1937, Mies accepted the post of being the director at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago.

  9. Mies drew his inspiration from the Prussian Architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel who is famous for his Neoclassical and Gothic buildings.

  10. Edith Farnsworth chose Mies over Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier to design her weekend retreat house.

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Family

Mies van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany to Michael Mies and Amalia Mies (born Rohe).

His father was a stonemason who owned a stonecutter’s shop. Mies van der Rohe had 4 siblings: Ewald Philipp Mies and 3 others.

Early life

Mies van der Rohe was born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies on March 27, 1886, in Aachen, which was in the Kingdom of Prussia in the German Empire, present-day Germany. He was the youngest of 5 children.

His father was a stonemason who owned a stone carving shop. As a child, Mies van der Rohe would accompany his father to the building sites where he would work. He improved his skill by working with his father.

Education

Mies attended a local Catholic school during his childhood. He then received vocational training at the Gewerbeschule in Aachen. In the meantime, he was also working for his father who was a stonemason which further honed his skills. He also worked through several apprenticeships.

At the age of 15, he was apprenticed to several architects in Aachen. His main work was to sketch the outlines of architectural ornaments. These ornaments would then be used by plasterers as stucco building decorations. This helped him develop his skills in linear drawing which would be very useful in his career.

When he was 19, Mies van der Rohe left his job working for an architect in Berlin to work under Bruno Paul, a leading furniture designer, as an apprentice. Bruno Paul was a furniture designer who worked in the Art Nouveau, which was a style of that period.

Personal life

In 1913, Mies van der Rohe married Adele Auguste Bruhn, who was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist.

The couple had three daughters: Dorothea (1914-2008) who became an actress and dancer, Marianne (1915-2003), and Waltraut (1917-1959), who was a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mies also took a break from architecture to fight for Germany in the First World War. It is during his military service in 1917 that he fathered a son out of wedlock.

In 1925 he stated a relationship with a Lilly Reich, but the relationship ended when he moved to the United States. From 1940 until his death, his primary companion was Lora Marx.

He also had a romantic relationship with Mary Cullery, who was a sculptor and art collector.

He designed her an artist’s studio in Huntington, Long Island New York. He was also rumored to have a brief relationship with Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned his work for the Farnsworth House.

Mies van der Rohe’s grandson, who was his daughter’s Marianne's son, studied under him and later worked for him.

Emigration to The United States

Mies was the third and final director of Bauhaus, which is a seminal school in modern architecture. At around the same time however, the Nazi’s had risen to power, which with their distaste to modernism, led to Meis closing the school after realizing that the school would not survive in the new political order.

Although Meis was politically neutral the situation in Germany became unbearable. After negotiations with several institutions, Mies finally accepted an invitation at the Armour Institute of Technology (later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology) to head the architecture program.

Before his departure to the United States, however, Mies was harassed by Nazi officials over his passport. He migrated permanently to the United States to start his teaching career at the Armour Institute of Technology.

After moving to the US, Mies managed to get in touch with Frank Lloyd Wright who invited him to Taliesin, his private estate.

Later Wright would famously introduce Mies to the architectural community in Chicago as an architect he admired and as a man he respected and loved.

Mies van der Rohe settled in Chicago.

Early training and influence

In his early years, Mies worked under his father, who was a stonemason, in his stone carving shop. Interestingly he never received any formal form of architectural training. However at the age of 15, he was apprenticed to several local architects in Aachen to produce renderings and this developed his drawing skills.

Mies then obtained an apprenticeship with Bruno Paul after moving to Berlin. Bruno Paul was well known for his work in Art Nouveau and the design of his furniture. He got his first commission in the Riehl House in Potsdam. His work impressed Peter Behrens, who was the best-known architect in Germany.

Mies began his architectural career as an apprentice of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912 after being offered a job in his office. It was in Peter Behrens’ studio that he was exposed to current design theories and to progressive German culture.

While working for Peter Behrens, he got to meet Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, who joined Behrens’ office during Mies’ tenure. Mies van der Rohe, however, was frustrated while working under Behrens since they had conflicting opinions.

Mies van der Rohe had great admiration for Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage, whom Peter Behrens disliked. In addition,he criticized Behrens’ work. In fact, once, Meis claimed credit for one of Behrens’ projects, saying that Behrens’ “didn’t realize what he was doing.” 

Architecture career

Early Projects

The Riel House was the first building that Mies van der Rohe designed, at the age of 21, while he was working for Bruno Paul. The design and construction of the house were completed in 1907. The design of the house drew inspiration from English cottages and Japanese architecture.

The construction of the Urbig house was completed in 1917. The Urbig family commissioned Mies to design them a house after being impressed by his work with the Riehl House. He initially designed a building with a modern flat roof, but this was rejected. He, therefore, opted for the traditional hipped roof.

The design and construction of the Barcelona Pavilion, which is located in Barcelona, Spain, was completed in 1929. Mies built the Barcelona Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. It housed the ceremonial reception space for the German government’s industrial exhibits.

The Barcelona Pavilion portrays a fluid open plan, which when united with the sophisticated materials, endowed the space with modern elegance which was unprecedented.

The construction of Villa Tugendhat which is located in Brno, Czech Republic, was completed in 1930. The house is located on a site overlooking a broad valley, offering a magnificent view of the city of Brno. The house was designed for Grete and Fritz Tugendhat. It was the last major home Mies built in Europe.

The site that the house was to be constructed on was a steep slope. Mies dealt with this by dividing the front and the back of the house into private and public facades. The side facing the street is only one story while the side facing the garden is two stories.

The Lemke House was the last house that Mies van der Rohe designed in Germany before emigrating to the United States soon after. The private residence was built for Karl and Martha Lemke. The building was built on a site next to Lake Obersee in Berlin. Its construction was completed in 1932.

Career in The United States

Mies settled in Chicago, Illinois, United States, after being appointed the head of the architecture school at Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology (currently the Illinois Institute of Technology). He was commissioned to design the new buildings and the masterplan for the campus.

He became an American citizen in 1944. He introduced his style, which had its origins in western European International Style and the German Bauhaus. His architectural style was well received by the Americans, becoming an accepted mode of building for American cultural and educational institutions. 

Key and major architecture projects

The construction of the Farnsworth house was completed in 1951. The design comprised of two parallel planes held in suspension between the earth and the sky by only 8 steel columns. The building, whose design looks simple, took 167 drawings before Mies came up with the fearless design.

He designed the building hoping to create a space through which life unfolds both interdependently and dependently with nature. Mies designed the building for Edith Farnsworth, a brilliant doctor, who wanted a small weekend retreat on her 64-acre site on the banks of the Fox River.

The construction of the 860-880 Lake Shore Apartments was completed in 1951. The main materials used in the construction of the apartments was steel, aluminum, and glass. The building’s slightly offset perpendicular relationship creates openness with breathtaking lake views.

The towers resembled simple rectangular boxes that were raised on stilts. This design created a sense of freedom of movement at ground level. The design became a prototype for the design of new towers that were constructed not only by Mies van der Rohe but also by his followers.

The construction of the Seagram building which is located in New York City was completed in 1958. The building has 39 stories. Mies had to work around New York City’s zoning codes which mandate that skyscrapers set back as they rose by recessing the entire building.

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The design of the 2400 Lakeview Apartments was completed in 1963. The materials Mies used in the construction of the building were reinforced concrete, grey-tinted glass, and aluminum. The building derives its beauty not from ornamentation, but instead from the essentials of architecture.

The beauty of the building is derived from its materials and construction. In describing the building, Mies van der Rohe said, “Our imagination went into the construction. We used our ideas not for the form but for the constructional possibilities.

The design of the Chicago Federal Complex, which is located on Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois, was completed in 1964. The building has 42 stories and was commissioned by the General Services Administration of the United States government as part of a plan to update federal and judicial facilities nationwide.

The S.R Crown Hall is widely regarded as one of Mies van der Rohe’s masterpieces. Its construction was completed in 1956. Mies considered the building to be the best embodiment of his maxim, “Less is more.” Mies used the basic steel and glass construction style to beautifully capture openness and simplicity.

The building houses the Illinois Institute of Technology’s school of architecture. It is a two-storied building which has a pure rectangular form, 220 ft. by 120 ft. by 18 ft. tall. The design of the Crown Hall is said to have been derived from Cantor Drive-in Restaurant, which had earlier been designed by him.

What is Mies van der Rohe known for?

Mies van der Rohe is often described as the father of ‘less is more’ architecture. He used modern materials, especially industrial steel and glass to create his buildings while emphasizing on open spaces and simplicity.

Mies van der Rohe’s architectural style

Having worked for his father in his early days in his stone cutting shop, Mies was very careful in choosing the materials for his designs, which included bronze, fine stone, chrome, and even brick.

Many of his buildings are noted for their fine craftsmanship and industrial methods of construction.

In the early 1920s, Mies along with fellow architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius pioneered the international style which was the core movement of modern architecture at the time. He remained committed to the modern style for the remaining four decades of his career.

Mies referred to his designs for pavilions and houses which were horizontally-oriented and steel-and-glass skyscrapers as “skin and bones” architecture, due to their conservative use of industrial materials, rigidity of structure, definition of space and their transparency.

His architectural style promotes the dissolution between the exterior and interior, removing the feeling of being completely enclosed, and providing maximum flexibility in their spatial configurations, thus maximizing the spatial utility of the buildings.

Top 10 Buildings

  1. S.R. Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology, Illinois, United States

  2. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, United States

  3. Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany

  4. 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois, United States

  5. Seagram Building, New York City, New York.

  6. Farnsworth House, Illinois, United States

  7. IBM Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, United States

  8. Barcelona Pavilion, Barcelona, Spain

  9. Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic

  10. Lafayette Towers Apartments, Detroit, United States

Furniture

Mies van der Rohe apprenticed for Bruno Paul, who was a well-known furniture designer in Berlin. Through furniture, residential projects, and extraordinary designs for skyscrapers, Mies gained recognition as a leader of the German modern movement.

He designed furniture for most of his architectural projects. Most of this furniture was created in collaboration with Lilly Reich. Some of his furniture designs became iconic, such as the furnishings he designed for the Barcelona Pavilion and Tugendhat House.

He designed the Barcelona Pavilion which was an architectural marvel. Inside, Mies included some of the furniture which he designed himself. These included the Barcelona Chair and Ottoman, which was designed to offer the King and Queen of Spain a place of rest.

Tugendhat house was furnished with such pieces as the iconic Brno Chair and the Tugendhat Chair.

Mies van der Rohe Architects

Mies established his own office in Berlin in 1912. His office was primarily based in Berlin but also got commissions for projects in Spain, Czech Republic, besides Germany.

He kept his practice afloat through commissions for private residences for wealthy clients, which remained aesthetically very traditional.

He developed the now famous philosophy “less is more” which became a practice philosophy for many architects, especially in the mid-twentieth century. It encouraged the practice of simplicity, rationalism, and minimalism in design.

Influences

By working for his father in his stonemasonry business, Mies van der Rohe gained an early appreciation for material and culture. He also had a great admiration for Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage, and also gained a lot of influence from his fellow architects Le Corbusier and Frank Gropius with whom he had a friendly rivalry.

He was especially inspired by Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s use of post and lintel construction, and admired De Stijl, and the Russian Constructivism movements. This encouraged the use of architecture for the benefit of society, while the philosophy of De Stijl advocated for simplicity in architecture.

Awards

Mies has been awarded and honored numerous times for his contribution to architecture, both during his lifetime and posthumously. Some of the major awards he won include:

  • RIBA Royal Gold Medal Award for architecture in 1959

  • AIA Gold Medal awarded by the American Institute of Architects in 1960

  • Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963

  • Twenty-five Year Award in 1976 for 860-880 North Lakeshore Drive Apartments, in 1981 for Farnsworth House, and in 1984 for Seagram Building

Less Is More

Although Mies van der Rohe was not the first architect to practice simplicity in design, he carried to new levels the ideals of minimalism and rationalism. In 1947, Mies adopted the phrase “Less is more” to describe his aesthetic.

He enforced this philosophy by ensuring that all the necessary components of his buildings created an impression of extreme simplicity.

Later Years and Death

In the 1960s, Mies’ health became progressively worse, and he therefore began to not be able to take part in the day to day activities of his office. His firm, however, continued to thrive.

He spent a lot of time at his home since he was immobilized by arthritis, though he still received visitors. He also developed wall-eye or divergent strabismus, which made reading for long on a printed page impossible for him. Most of the time, it was his companion, Lora Marx, who read for him.

For many years, Mies was a smoker. In 1966, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, caused by his smoking tendencies. He could not be operated on because of his fragile health at the time.

Then later in August 1969, he contracted a cold which later developed to pneumonia.

Mies van der Rohe died on 17 August 1969, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Legacy

The reaction of the world against the International Style was already in full swing by the time Mies’ health started deteriorating. At around the same time, his architecture had began to receive negative critique.

He however, continued to be critically appraised in various retrospectives and exhibitions.

In 1968, the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Archive was established at the Museum for Modern Art in New York. The archive holds about 19000 drawings by Mies and 1000 drawings by Lily Reich.

Two exhibitions were also opened in 2001, focusing on the two halves of Mies van der Rohe’s career: Mies in Berlin and Mies in America.

In addition, collections of his drawings, correspondence, and books are held at the Art Institute of Chicago in the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

There is also The Mies van der Rohe Society which is based at the Illinois Institute of Technology which works to preserve buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe on the campus and to promote engagement with his work, primarily in Chicago.