"Grand ideas, you know, we keep high in the sky when we are working. We don’t want them to come down. We are ourselves surprised at what comes out of it." – Mies van der Rohe, 1955
A profound thinker, painstaking artist, and one of the greatest architects in history, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1938, when he was already in his fifties and one of the recognized masters of his profession. Transplanted from the Bauhaus (of which he was the last director) to a technical institute in Chicago, from the European avant-garde to Midwestern steel mills, he embarked on an astonishing second career, in which he not only transformed his own building art, but eventually made a significant impact on the architecture of this continent.
Mies’s confrontation with American technology, and the three decades of evolution and achievement that resulted, are the subjects of Mies in America, organized by the CCA and the Whitney Museum of American Art with the cooperation of the Mies van der Rohe Archive, Museum of Modern Art, New York. It draws upon a wealth of archival material and recent scholarship to offer visitors a deeper immersion into Mies’s thought than has ever before been possible.
Mies in America is curated by Phyllis Lambert, whose association with Mies began in 1954 when she selected him to design New York’s Seagram Building and served as the project’s Director of Planning, and who subsequently earned her degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “The conventional version of Mies’s career in North America portrays him as a creative genius sprung fully formed into his new environment,” notes Phyllis Lambert. “He is seen, after the fact, as the magisterial designer of new building types: the mullioned high-rise and the clear-span steel-frame structure. Mies in America reveals to us a much different image: that of an architect engaged in a protracted and profound inquiry into structure, materiality and space. We see his slow, hard-won evolution from the European avant-garde of the 1920s, through the bluntness of primal industrial pragmatism, to a tough, hardened lyricism, which is uniquely American and yet still carries within it his earliest vision of architecture as ‘the will of an epoch translated into space.’”
To trace that evolution, Mies in America presents some 220 drawings made by Mies and members of his office; 60 photographs of Mies, his colleagues, and his projects; and models of four key buildings: the Resor House (Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 1937–38), the Convention Hall (Chicago, 1953–54), the Seagram Building (New York, 1954–58), and the New National Gallery (Berlin, 1962–68). An intellectual and artistic context is provided through presentations of books from Mies’s extensive library as well as works of art by Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Kurt Schwitters, which formed part of Mies’s noteworthy personal collection.
Artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle designed the exhibition and completed a new video work, Alltagszeit (In Ordinary Time), a sixteen-minute projection of footage shot within a period that began at dawn and ended at dusk inside Mies’s last architectural project, the New National Gallery building in Berlin. Together with three other video works directed by Manglano-Ovalle (with cinematography by Allan Siegel), and still photography by Guido Guidi and Richard Pare, specially commissioned for Mies in America, the accompanying art works capture through time-based imagery the sense of movement within stillness of Mies’s greatest projects. Atmospheres, a computer animation of Mies’s project for the IIT Library and Administration Building by architect Ammar Eloueini, envisions the way the building would have looked in the changing light over the course of a day.
“By looking closely at the buildings to which he devoted the greatest attention, we may understand that although Mies’s work was always grounded in reason, ultimately he was an artist,” Phyllis Lambert concludes. “Working within a metaphysical worldview, he practiced the difficult art of the simple. As he remarked toward the end of his life, ‘Spinoza has taught us that great things are never simple. They are as difficult as they are rare.’”
A 790-page volume, Mies in America, edited by Phyllis Lambert, accompanies the exhibition and is available in English at the CCA Bookstore.
Mies in America was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (21 June – 23 September 2001), and traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (16 February – 26 May 2002).