Mies van der Rohe, Architecture and Structure

by Peter Blake

Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964, pp. 85-89.

Although the Farnsworth house was exquisitely simple and beautiful as an abstract statement about structure, skin, and space, it was hardly a 'house for family living'. Needless to say, it had never been intended to be that: it was meant to be a pleasure pavilion for a lady living alone, and it was a perfect and expensive solution for that. Unfortunately, as the house neared completion, Mies's friendship with Dr Farnsworth broke up, and there was an extremely unpleasant aftermath, involving lawsuits (which were decided in Mies's favour), recriminations in public and private on the part of Dr Farnsworth, and denunciations of Mies as a menace to American architecture. This latter campaign, a rather ludicrous and silly bit of hysteria in retrospect (though it did hurt many of those involved), took the form of a concerted attack upon the International Style by the Hearst magazine House Beautiful.

ln her April 1953 issue the editor of House Beautiful came forward with a ringing editorial denouncing the ' Threat to the New America ' . The gist of the editorial was that a sinister group of International Stylists, led by Mies, Gropius, and Corbu, and supported by the Museum of Modem Art, was trying to force Americans to accept an architecture that was barren, grim, impoverished, impractical, uninhabitable, and destructive of individual possessions, as well as of individuals themselves. There was a hin t or two that Communists were behind the whole thing. A list of International Style characteristics was published to warn readers of House Beautiful against the 'threat' - much in the same way that the F.B.I. warns the public against the 'ten most wanted' criminals of the day.

But the lady's principal ire was reserved for Mies's dictum: 'less is more'. This was the threat in a nutshell. 'We know that less is not more,' she wrote. 'It is simply less!' She was on pretty firm ground there, arithmetically speaking, though many of the great artists of all periods would have agreed with Mies on aesthetic grounds. For the purity of a miniature by Fra Angelico, say, is as much the result of a process of aesthetic distillation as is the Farnsworth house.

Although the attack was probably good for House Beautiful's advertising and circulation, it was, perhaps, a little less good for some of the people most directly involved. Mies was shocked and unhappy. To him, the concept of universality in architecture implied the highest possible degree of freedom. For, after all, a building reduced to 'almost nothing' (Mies's phrase) represents the ultimate in non-interference on the part of an architect with the lives of his clients. To Mies, the architecture of 'nothingness' suggests a maximum opportunity for free expression on the part of those who use the building: they can furnish it in any way they like, use it for anything they like, change its interior spaces in any manner that seems most suitable. If this theory does not always work out in practical terms, it does at least suggest a degree of self-effacing modesty on the part of the architect who formulated it that is somewhat at variance with the image of a totalitarian monster. A few years earlier Mies had designed an ideal museum for a small city [34], and here again he had tried to make the architecture 'almost nothing' and the paintings and sculpture (for which the museum would be built) everything. His beautiful drawings and collages for this project show a large, glass-enclosed space, lightly subdivided by free-standing walls and screens against which to hang paintings or place sculpture. Indeed, Mies's incredible modesty was never better expressed than in the collages he prepared for this project: for these the only elements visible at first are the photographic reproductions of important paintings and pieces of sculpture; one must actually search with a magnifying glass for any evidence of the architecture that is supposed to enclose these works of ar t, for the only indication of any building whatsoever is a series of fine lines suggesting a few slender columns and the paving pattern of the floor. How different from Wright's Guggenheim Museum, whose powerful, plastic forms overwhelm all but the most self-assertive works of art!

Nor was the House Beautiful episode very edifying for Dr Farnsworth. She let herself be persuaded to grant an interview to the magazine, and her quoted remarks were not in the best of taste.

Something should be said and done about such architecture as this [she told House Beautiful] or there will be no future for architecture . . . I thought you could animate a predetermined, classic form like this with your own presence. I wanted to do something 'meaningful', and all I got was this glib, false sophistication.

Her principal complaints were that the house cost far too much to build ($73,000), that it was terribly impractical in many ways, and that it was expensive to maintain. Many of her criticisms would have been entirely justified if her house had been meant to be a model for 'family living'. But obviously there was no such intention. The Farnsworth house was meant to be, and succeeded in being, a clear and somewhat abstract expression of an architectural ideal - the ultimate in skin-and-bones architecture, the ultimate in ' less is more ', the ultimate in objectivity and universality. And it was meant to show that even when architecture approaches nothingness, its spirit can be romantic and beautiful. The glass prism built by Mies for his friend was a mirror held up to a lovely landscape; it was not a very practical house for Levittown, say, and it was not intended to be. But it was a clear and precise statement that other, lesser architects have found very helpful indeed as a point of departure. Mies's insistence upon an all-glass skin was no arbitrary defiance of 'practicality'; it was an attempt to arrive at an absolutely clear, visual separation of structure and non-structure. All great houses by great architects tend to be somewhat impractical; many of Corbu's and Wright's house clients find that they are living in too expensive and too inefficient buildings. Yet many of these same clients would never exchange their houses for the most workable piece of mediocrity 'designed' by means of a consumer survey.

And, finally, Frank Lloyd Wright was involved in the House Beautiful affair as well.

The 'International Style' ... is totalitarianism [Wright announced]. These Bauhaus architects ran from political totalitarianism in Germany to what is now made by specious promotion to seem their own totalitarianism in art here in America . . . Why do I mistrust and defy such 'internationalism' as I do Communism ? Because both must by their nature do this very levelling in the name of civilization . . . [The promoters of the International Style] are not a wholesome people . . .

Wright's fundamental disagreement with skin-and-bones architecture was nothing new, and, in many respects, was valid indeed. But his personal attack upon Mies and others was both new and unworthy of him.

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