Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig (1886–1969)

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Modernist architect.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of a distinctive twentieth-century architecture, alongside such architects as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. The architect's extensive career covered more than six decades (1905–1969) in Germany and the United States, with approximately thirty years in Berlin and another thirty in Chicago. Mies van der Rohe commanded enormous respect for his rigorous approach to building problems, which he viewed as a series of interrelated material, structural, and spatial concerns. His avant-garde German projects introduced asymmetrical, dynamic compositions, shifting wall planes, and flowing, "universal" spaces that emphasized interior volume over exterior mass. In America his work achieved worldwide recognition in the 1950s and 1960s for its introduction of a monumental, dignified structural vocabulary for steel and glass highrise architecture and a series of dramatic, open pavilions.

Born Ludwig Mies on 27 March 1886 in Aachen, Germany, the young Mies was educated in part by his father, a stonemason, and at a local high school and trade school. Mies augmented practical building experience in Aachen with drafting and design work for the architect Bruno Paul (1874–1968) in Berlin, for whom he worked between 1905 and 1907. After completing his first independent commission for a single-family house in 1907, Mies accepted a position in the prestigious office of the Berlin architect Peter Behrens (1868–1940) in 1908. Behrens, Germany's most celebrated architect before World War I, was at the height of his creative output as chief designer for Emil Rathenau's electrical conglomerate, the AEG. Mies's experiences with Paul and Behrens familiarized him with the Prussian classicism of the early-nineteenth-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841).

After marrying Ada Bruhn in 1913, the architect adopted the name "Rohe" from his mother's side of the family to become "Mies van der Rohe." Bruhn bore him three daughters between 1914 and 1917, and the couple separated in 1921. In Weimar-era Berlin the architect joined progressive architectural groups, helped edit the short-lived avant-garde journal G, and worked closely with the talented Berlin interior designer Lilly Reich. Inspired by such avant-garde movements as Russian constructivism and the Dutch neoplasticism of Theo van Doesburg, Mies van der Rohe attracted attention in the early 1920s by exhibiting a series of provocative, large-scale drawings (some as tall as eight feet) for five theoretical, unbuilt projects. The best-known of these, produced in 1921 and 1922, were for startlingly original conceptions of irregularly shaped high-rise buildings. Mies van der Rohe emphasized the soaring verticality of these high rises through dramatically rendered perspective views and transparent skins of glass. His unrealized 1921 proposal for a high rise on Berlin-Friedrichstrasse, with its crystalline facades and concrete floor plates, has been called the most influential unbuilt building in the history of twentieth-century modern architecture.

By the late 1920s, Mies van der Rohe had solidified his reputation as a leading architect of Germany's "Neues Bauen" (New Building) with three accomplishments: the Deutscher Werkbund appointed him to oversee the construction of the polemical international exhibition, "The Dwelling," in Stuttgart in 1927; the German government selected him to design what became his tour de force "Barcelona pavilion" in 1928–1929; and Walter Gropius backed his application to become the third director of the Bauhaus school between 1930 and 1933. After leaving Nazi Germany in 1938 for Chicago, Mies van der Rohe accepted the directorship of the Armour Institute (the Illinois Institute of Technology after 1940), which he held until 1958. From his base in Chicago the architect produced such paradigmatic designs as the twin apartment towers on Chicago's Lakeshore Drive (1951) and, with Philip Johnson, the Seagram Building on New York's Park Avenue (1958). His best-known open-span pavilion designs of this time are the jewel-like Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois (1951); the S. R. Crown Hall architecture building on the campus he designed for IIT between 1939 and 1956; and the New National Gallery in Berlin (1967).

Understanding architecture as both a response to and a reflection of its epoch, Mies van der Rohe capitalized on the comparative availability of steel in the United States to perfect a building art of disciplined structural grids, modular steel frames, and elegant materials and detailing. His lifelong preference for opulent materials such as onyx, travertine, and chrome alienated him from some of the more socially minded European architects of the 1920s. By the 1960s in America, Mies van der Rohe's unwavering approach to building and his commissions from powerful corporate interests prompted disapproval from a younger generation of architects. This disapproval grew amid the profession's nascent postmodern reconsideration of historical form and its reawakening interest in architectural context. Mies van der Rohe was criticized somewhat unfairly for creating forms that inspired countless imitative yet far more cheaply built speculative corporate office buildings throughout the industrialized world. No other twentieth-century architect, in fact, so successfully dramatized the possibilities of pure modern form as an expression of meticulously handled structure and materials.

See alsoArchitecture; Bauhaus.


Lambert, Phyllis, ed. Mies in America. New York, 2001.

Neumeyer, Fritz. The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art. Translated by Mark Jarzombek. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Riley, Terence, and Barry Bergdoll, eds. Mies in Berlin. New York, 2001.

Schulze, Franz. Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography. Chicago, 1985.

Tegethoff, Wolf. Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses. Edited by William Dyckers. Translated by Russell M. Stockman. New York, 1985.

John V. Maciuika