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In Perspective: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

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German-American architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe accomplished his lifelong mission of creating a new architectural language, and today at Cobalt, we look back at his life and career.

Mies is widely acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, and a pioneer of modernist architecture. Mies is known for his various historical designs, which include Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial library. Also, he was an advocate of simplicity who embodied the phrase, “less is more”. The depth of meaning that Mies’s work conveyed, is still explored and speculated by contemporary philosophers and theorists today.

Born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies in Aachen, Germany in 1816, he was the youngest of five children. He received vocational training at the Gewerbeschule in Berlin and worked in his father’s stone carving shop to further develop his skills. His career in architecture began when he became an apprentice at the studio of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912, where he worked alongside Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. By the age of 20, Mies had already made significant progress in his architectural career, as he received his first independent commission for a residential home design, the Riehl House. Being his first building, he replicated much of the classic German style, with an austere stucco exterior design.

Mies embarked on an independent career when he set up his own shop in Lichterfelde, However, the outbreak of World War I disrupted Mies’s career and during the conflict, he served in the German military by helping build bridges and roads. Upon returning to work, he submitted his competition proposal for a glass skyscraper in 1921. This marked Mies’s modernist transformation and symbolically, he changed his name, adding ‘van der Rohe’.

Joining the Avant-garde movement, by the mid-1920s, he had established himself as a leading Avant-garde architect and was highly respected throughout Europe. His design of the German Pavilion, more popularly known as the Barcelona Pavilion, is one of his most innovative works and further elevated his reputation. It was designed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition and it was a landmark building for the modernist movement. Built from glass, steel and various kinds of stone, it has inspired several generations of architects.

Despite his accomplishments in Germany, Mies settled into Chicago, Illinois in the late 1930s, where he ran the architecture school in Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology. In his later years, he designed the New National Gallery for modern art in Berlin. The building received much criticism for relegating the lower story to a secondary position, which proved problematic for the presentation of artwork. Throughout his career, Mies did face much backlash from critics of modernism, many believing he was destroying traditional architecture and that he was anti-historical. The New National Gallery was one of Mies’s final projects, and it was emblematic of his modern aesthetic. Following a battle with cancer, he died in 1969, aged 83.

Nevertheless, Mies’s legacy and achievements remain timeless. Much of his work is archived in the New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. He was also awarded the AIA Gold Medal, which still to this day, is the highest award given by the American Association of Architects. Many of his buildings still stand today and all in all, he has designed a momentous number of residential homes and buildings all over Germany and America. What makes Mies’s life works so enduring and memorable, is that they were all built with a philosophy in mind. As Mies explained, “I am not interested in the history of civilisation. I am interested in our civilisation.” He aimed to express the civilisation we live in and although he often divided opinion, he is arguably one of the greatest architects of all time.

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