Less is more. These three words dominated much of Mies van der Rohe’s legacy during the early 20th century, in his quest to liberate a neoclassical America with the introduction of international style. This European culture emphasized appreciation for simple geometric shapes, a functional theory of architecture, and an eradication of unnecessary décor. One noteworthy example is the Caroline Wiess Law Building, completed in 1974 with the mastermind’s two extensions of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The building’s design showcases a strong shift in meaning in architecture and the way design was perceived at the time, stemming from contemporary themes of minimalism and modernity. This is most evident in the project’s form, structure, and ornament.
Mies van der Rohe is noted to be a strong advocate of the functionalist application of simple geometric forms. This concept was adopted as director at the prominent Bauhaus design school, and influenced by Louis Sullivan’s famous quote “Form follows function.” It meant that the purpose of a building should be the starting point of its design, and played a large role in his modern addition to the neoclassical museum (“Form Follows Function,” n.d.).
When arriving in Houston on a hot summer day, ready to initiate planning, he was baffled by the museum’s prefabricated agenda. “But in this climate you cannot want an open patio,” he remarked, immediately rejecting the Greek revivalism of the time. Instead he chose an unconventional approach, and designed a fan-like form with a curved glass façade (figure 1). Unlike the common designs at the time this was not orthogonal, and certainly ignored the standard open-air courtyard. However, Mies upheld his idea of pragmatism by constructing a form that not only achieved the museum’s original goals, but also made the space more efficient for its purpose and utility. The curvature of the building created more interior space for the museum’s exhibitions, while the modern usage of glass maintained the openness of its surrounding structures. In the words of Ann Holmes, fine arts editor of the Houston Chronicle, “entering Cullinan Hall was like walking from inside to the out-of-doors” (“The MFAH,” n.d.).
The structure of the Law Building further accentuates Mies’ concept of fluidity and open space. This is evident in the free floor plans of the building, which allow the unrestrained flow of interior spaces within an enclosed volume. With glass walls and minimal framework, the space may also extend around and beyond the interior walls, connecting indoors with outdoors, and uniting the structure with its natural surroundings. This grouping of functional sub-spaces within an overall space was known as Mies’ universal space concept, “an unobstructed clear volume enclosed by framed glass skin” (Kim 2009).
Perhaps the most obvious element of change in Mies’ building is ornament – there isn’t any. He was a minimalist, with a great appeal to simplicity. A supporter of Adolph Loos and a strong advocate of honesty, he claimed the structure of a building must never be concealed by ornamentation. He was convinced that a building should be “‘a clear and true statement of its times’ – cathedrals for an age of pathos, glass and metal cages for an age of advanced industrialism” (Whitman, 1969). This is why the Law Building at the MFAH focused on his concept of “skin and bones”, where a minimal frame of steel bones was wrapped in a skin of glass. This exposed every element of the building’s structure, abstracting it into its most simple form and leaving appreciation for simplicity over ornament that he felt was unnecessary. The idea of monumentality and representation was replaced by functionality and utilizing space to its greatest potential.
An interesting feature to take into account lies in the building’s overall organization. While serving as a symbol for modernism in American architecture, much of its organization surprisingly resembles that of its predecessor – the style it sought to divert from. One such cue is the fact that this building is symmetric. During the time of early American modernism, influential architects like Walter Gropius found harmony in asymmetry, and chose to abandon the previous concepts of order seen in neoclassical work. Furthermore, Mies’ tall structural columns of steel resemble the earlier concrete versions in of the Greeks, as seen in the original design of the building by William Watkin in 1924 (figure 3). In the façade of the same figure, there is a clear entrance to the building placed right in the center. This is another characteristic of the Greek style, and is also present in Mies van der Rohe’s modern extension.
While the three points mentioned in the previous paragraph bare some irony, it’s important to note that Mies did not intend to emphasize neoclassicism. While he does use a similar approach in his façade, he maintains modernism by using completely new materials, and thus altering the building’s appearance to an extent large enough to place his design in a separate and new category.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is widely acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, mainly for his emphasis on simplicity, open space and revealing the industrial materials used in construction at the time. Unarguably he played a large role in the Americanization of modernism through a minimalist approach. His work, specifically at the MFAH, proves how a designer can re-interpret the traditional elements of a past style; and, through abstraction, formulate new and more efficient relationships which push the boundaries of architecture to its full potential.
Mies van der Rohe Society. (2012, January 1). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.miessociety.org/legacy/
Fox, S. (1992, January 1). MFAH |The MFAH: An Architectural History. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.mfah.org/about/mfah-architectural-history/
Topping, D. (2011, August 17). AD Classics: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston / Mies Van der Rohe. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.archdaily.com/153819/ad-classics-the-museum-of-fine-arts-houston-mies-van-der-rohe/
Guggenheim. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=730&id=120
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Ludwig-Mies-van-der-Rohe.pdf
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Mies_van_der_Rohe
Mies van der Rohe Dies at 83; Leader of Modern Architecture. (1969, August 19). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0327.html
Mies van der rohe, biography. (2008, January 1). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.designboom.com/portrait/mies/bg.html
Architectural Research Quarterly. (2009). Architectural Research Quarterly, 13(3-4), 251-260. Retrieved March 30, 2015, from http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7280160
International. (2011, October 17). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://architecturestyles.org/international/
Merin, G. (2013, August 2). AD Classics: Modern Architecture International Exhibition / Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.archdaily.com/409918/ad-classics-modern-architecture-international-exhibition-philip-johnson-and-henry-russell-Hitchcock/
Review by Jodutt:
“Form follows function”, “monumentality” (which is a word not recognized by my Google Chrome browser, but I deem it a word!), and “…modernism through a minimalist approach”. These 2 phrases and 1 word, in reference to this piece, point out the importance of artistry and creativity for our humanity’s well-being. Advancements in all fields and occupations are manifestations of creativity and/or artistry, regardless of connotations and/or written rules. This piece, regarding an individual – Rohe – that broke the rules to make new ones, adds strength to arguments regarding the necessity of creativity and the requirement for it not to be dictated.
After reading this, I am inspired by Rohe’s art and architecture. It will serve to remind me everyday that I need to halt conformity. Thank you, Nadia, for writing this.