Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, German Architect

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a German-born American architect whose rectilinear forms, were crafted in elegant simplicity. He epitomized the International Style and exemplified his famous principle that “less is more.” He went further than anyone else regarding structural honesty, making the actual supports of his buildings their dominant architectural features.

His original name was Maria Ludwig Michael Mies. He was born on March 27, 1886, in Aachen Germany. He added his mother’s surname, van der Rohe when he became an established architect. He was the son of a master mason. In 1913 he married Ada Bruhn, with whom he has three daughters. After separating from his wife in 1920, Mies had several companions, notably Lora Marx.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe helped his father on various construction sites but never received any formal architectural training. Mies’s first commission, a suburban house, so impressed architect Peter Behrens that he offered the 21-year-old a job. Through Behrens, Mies made significant contacts that would later lead to academic roles and large-scale projects.

Some of his most famous projects included Farnsworth House, Crown Hall, the Seagram Building, and the German Pavilion (also known as the Barcelona Pavilion). For the German Pavilion, he designed a set of cantilevered steel chairs known as Barcelona chairs, which became an instant classic of 20th-century furniture design.

On November 20, 1938, the Armour Institute of Technology held a gala at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago to celebrate its new head of the architecture program, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He was introduced by Frank Lloyd Wright, who admired virtually no other architect alive. But this occasion was different. Wright went on to say “I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. Armour Institute, I give you Mies van der Rohe. You treat him well and love him as I do, and he will reward you.” The rarity of publicly receiving Wright’s unqualified accolades underscores the brilliance of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his vaunted place within modern architecture as one of the founders of the International Style in Germany. Over the next thirty years, he helped establish the International Style as the definitive architectural language of North American postwar modernism. He influenced hundreds of emulators worldwide. His steel and glass aesthetic became the archetype of the term “modern architecture” for decades even after his death. Mies’s buildings became the prime targets for postmodernists who later attacked the International Style.

Mies first called his designs for steel and glass skyscrapers and horizontally oriented houses and pavilions “skin and bones” architecture due to their minimal uses of industrial materials, the definition of space, the rigidity of the structure, and their transparency. His architecture promotes the dissolution between interior and exterior and the negation of feeling completely enclosed. Instead, they encourage maximum flexibility in their spatial configurations, which for Mies meant that they maximized their spatial utility.

Having grown up around his father’s stonecutting shop, young Mies was overly sensitive to the choices of materials in his designs, including fine stone, chrome, bronze, and brick. Many of his buildings, especially the Tugendhat House and Seagram Building were extremely expensive structures to build and are noted equally for their fine craftsmanship along with their industrial methods of construction.

Mie’s buildings often emphasize their own singularity relative to their surroundings, putting themselves-and through their transparency, their inhabitants-on view. This makes many of them, such as the Barcelona Pavilion ideal for public functions, but also makes some of them, such as the Farnsworth House, notoriously difficult to inhabit when privacy is needed.

Along with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, Mies helped pioneer the crystallization of the International Style as the core movement of modern architecture during the early 1920s. Unlike Le Corbusier and other early champions of the International Style who moved away from it, in part due to critiques of modern architecture in the 1960s, he remained completely devoted to the movement over the last four decades of his career.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a heavy smoker and was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 1966. He died in Chicago in 1969 at age 83 from pneumonia after lingering in and out of consciousness for two weeks. Mies was the last of the triumvirate of the International Style to die, following Le Corbusier in 1965 and Gropius just six weeks before him. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, within sight of the graves of Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.

At Scarano Architect, PLLC, we admire the accomplishments of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and we are always evolving and creating structures that will also leave a mark in the architectural industry. Visit our website to see our award-winning projects.

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