Mies van der Rohe (2007)

Excerpt from Mark Pimlott’s book, Without and within: Essays on territory and the interior (Episode Publishers: Rotterdam).

Mies van der Rohe

Through a long process that began in 1937 while Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was still in Germany, an architectural commission was secured from Stanley and Helen Resor, who both ran the great American advertising agency J. Walter Thompson (he was president, she a director and vice-president). Helen Resor was also an art collector and a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. [1] They agreed that Mies would design a ranch house in Wyoming— in the West— a country location with a view of the Rocky Mountains. Mies began work on the house and travelled to Wyoming very shortly after his emigration to the United States. There was already a house started by Phillip Goodwill— modern but un-Miesian— adjacent to a creek, which the Resors asked Mies to incorporate in his design. His project consisted of a living and dining room, bedrooms and service spaces which spanned the creek, and featured large plate-glass windows that looked towards both the landscape and the mountains.

Mies van der Rohe’s drawings of the project are abundant: there are sketches of spaces and details, hard-line perspectives and working drawings. Yet, exceptional among the drawings are the interior perspectives incorporating line drawing and photo-collage. Unlike the drawings by Le Corbusier’s for Villa Meyer. Mies’s approach to picturing the Resor House is not romantic and descriptive, but rather, symbolic and muted. The drawings, though abstract, are suggestive. The space between the elements within the drawings are signs for what might be and for what might be conceptualised.

In the collage of the interior of the Resor House, the description of projected architecture is minimal: there are pencil lines indicating a cruciform column (which had become a sign for itself in Mies’s work). window frames and the edges of the floor and ceiling planes. There is no indication of their materialisation. There is instead at once a statement of the components that are strictly architecture— ground, structure, shelter, enclosure; and pasted over and between these delineated components are three pieces of paper. These are dominating, nearly filling the prepared sheet. The drawn architecture is a frame for the play of these pieces of paper, each a different form of reproduction. There is an area of wood-grained paper, representing wood and indicating a piece of furniture. This is pasted over a colour reproduction of a painting by Paul Klee owned by Helen Resor, Bunte Mahlzeit (Colourful Meal), cut from an art book, that dominates the picture’s middle ground. [2] Both are pasted in turn over a black and white photograph of a rocky river-bed with two people on horseback. The photograph, representing a view from the interior, resembles a still from a Hollywood Western film. The representation of wood is asked to be a piece of furniture; the reproduction of the painting is asked to become a full-height partition through imaginary enlargment;[3] the photograph is asked to stand in for the view from the window. Despite the diverse qualities of each of these elements, all point to their frame, which, with its few pencil lines mastering expanses of blank paper, becomes significant. As the frame represents the projected architecture, the frame’s significance is to be taken for that architecture’s potential significance. The drawn frame is barely articulated, yet deploys elements that affect the viewer’s impression of space, scale and movement within it. Those elements, permitted to have their autonomy and their aura, reside in a featureless— beinahe nichts (almost nothing)— framework. The framework (which is taken to be the interior) defines a clearing made for these elements, a templum. Beyond this frame, beyond the clearing with its elements is the World, which the viewer (the drawing’s occupant) observes through the frame’s (the architecture’s) agency. The frame and its idealised interior scene make sense of the World in a precisely contrived way.

A picture construction of the Resor House looking towards a range of mountains features no free interior elements at all. A projected architecture of floor, ceiling, columns and window frame is symmetrically disposed around a photograph, the imagined view. Taken from the site, it resembles a post-card view, a cliché, a product of the American West’s pictorial mythification. The architectural elements, like the photograph, have been drawn on paper, cut out and mounted on illustration board, literally framing the photograph and its simulated view. The photograph infers a horizon between mountains and sky. The horizon is reinforced by the architectural frame and its own symmetry about vertical and horizontal axes. The frame captures the photograph and offers it as a picture to the viewer through its pictured architecture’s picture window, taking possession of the picture, the horizon, the world without.

The frame’s horizontal axis is of particular importance, insistent here and in the asymmetrical composition previously described. It is characteristic of Mies van der Rohe’s perspective representations of interiors. In all cases, the viewer’s views are controlled, using the architectural frame of represented floor and ceiling— usually blank— to reinforce the horizontal axis around which that frame is built. Robin Evans has written about Mies’s use of horizontal symmetries with particular reference to the Barcelona Pavilion (1927) and its paradoxical deployment of asymmetries in plan and its armoury of diversionary reflective materials in order to reinforce symmetry about an horizontal axis.[4]

In the conventions of Western perspective representation, wherein a construction of lines simulates a fixed view perceived by the human eye, there are vanishing points that represent points in space at an infinite distance from the eye where all lines meet. Constructed perspective drawing in the West uses either one central vanishing point, two vanishing points to the left and the right or, occasionally, three vanishing points, with the third being zenithal. In these constructions (informing the space of representational picturing since the Renaissance and Filippo Brunelleschi’s innovations), the vanishing point and the eye are symmetrically opposed and equivalent. The vanishing point is the eye’s counterpart, the eye’s other. In conventional perspectives, the view assumed by the viewer, which the perspective attempts to simulate, is horizontal, or towards the horizon. Thus the line of the simulated horizon becomes the line along which all views of the human eye converge. This line— the horizon line of perspective— is opposite the viewing eye, and so the perspective representation’s eye height.

Because of the relation between the horizon, the idealised space and the eye, the symmetry about the line of the horizon that is specific to the Barcelona Pavilion (and evident in many other projects by Mies van der Rohe) reinforces the perceived equivalence of the ground and the ceiling planes about a horizontal line at eye height. The line of the horizon is the same as the picture’s horizon line. As a consequence, the actual construction resembles a representation of a construction and thus throws the viewer’s perception of spatial and structural elements into confusion. In the actual construction, neither wall nor column behaves in ways one expects or one has been led to believe (the walls are not free from the task of load-bearing, they are obliged to contribute to supporting the roof; the thin cruciform columns are incapable of bearing the compressive loads on their own). The viewer’s position within the space is such that the horizon line (eye height), which is constantly obscured by the architecture’s various enclosures, is almost exactly half the height of the interior; the interior’s height is twice that of the horizon line. The consequence is that the similarities between the two horizontal planes are drawn to the point of equivalence, and one’s eye is drawn to mid-height, coinciding with both the horizon line (imaginary, reinforced) and the horizon (actual, denied). Evans likens this effect to that experienced by people when they try to see something far away: they raise their hand to shelter their eyes, to eliminate the sky and its glare so they can focus on a distant point of attention. The occupant of the Miesian space is locked onto the horizon line by the frame of equivalent floor and ceiling planes. The natural orientation and direction of the viewer’s view is outwards, towards the horizon and deep space (where all views vanish). The viewer cannot see the real horizon, but cannot avoid imagining one. The architectural frame invents a horizon and hence a world that it masters through its interiorising devices.

In the case of the Resor House, whose floor to ceiling height was to be 11’ 8" (3.563 m), the picture windows exaggerate the architectural frame’s orientation to the view. The height halved, 5’ 10" (1.782 m) is close to eye height. The window becomes a lens through which the landscape can be viewed, like a picture. In Mies van der Rohe’s drawing, the landscape is viewed like a photograph. It is significant that the project is in the West. For his first visit to the site, Mies, rather than taking a plane to Wyoming, took the train and stopped in Chicago, which he would later make his home.[5] In so doing, he followed the trail of American expansion into the West, inspired and driven by the railway and photographs of the West publicised and sold in Eastern American cities. Photographs of Yosemite (the photographs contributed to its designation as the United States’ first National Park) were very popular from the 1860s and fired the Eastern imagination for the Western promise of wealth, freedom and limitless possibility. In one sense, it is natural that Mies should have used photographs that bore resemblances to these well-known representations of the West. These pictures repeat an aspect of the performance of the earlier photographs (known as views): the images allowed the Eastern viewer to take possession of that which was pictured. In Mies’s collages of the Resor House, the photographs do something similar; the gaze as framed by the architecture territorialises and takes possession of the view, representing the world, without.

Mies van der Rohe was aware of the artifice that was implied by the mere presence of a frame, that a view would be inevitably transformed into something more distant to the viewer by having architecture mediate between individual and view. Through the picturing capacities of the architectural frame, Mies consistently encouraged apparently contradictory experiences at the same time: forcing the occupant to a world without; and reinforcing, by turning the view into a form of decoration, the world within.

Mies van der Rohe’s office and the department of architecture at IIT were involved in hypothetical research and development of long-span structures.[6] This had been an interest of Mies for some time and was signalled as a specific interest in his well-known collage for an auditorium, where a few pieces of paper and a photograph of a sculpture are pasted onto a photograph of the interior of a factory by Albert Kahn.[7]

The paradoxes raised in Mies van der Rohe’s work, which could accommodate the co-existence of both an infinitely expanding space and hermetic interior seem symptomatic of the work that occurred under and around Mies at IIT. Research by graduate students of architecture in the studio directed by Myron Goldsmith experimented with all sorts of ways of spanning very large spaces. The projects were for museums, airports, arenas and civic centres.[8] In such projects, large scale spaces would be designed to accommodate many people without any structural obstacles. It was an exercise devised to teach innovative construction, but was also directed at producing a particular kind of appearance and space, one which, in its most ambitious forms, would transcend commonplace limits of measure and scale. One is reminded of early appreciations of the Crystal Palace (1851), where the limit of the building was found difficult to comprehend in relation to the artefacts it contained, such as complete structures and large, mature trees.

Reginald Malcolmson’s perspective of a Museum of Natural Sciences (Malcolmson was a student under Mies van der Rohe at IIT 1947-1949; member of faculty at IIT 1949-1964; 1958-1959),[9] belongs to the culture of clear-span projects produced at IIT (the span was to be 504’ x 780’ or 153.9 x 238.2 m). One might call it a caricature of Miesian space. The pictured space presents itself as being capable of infinite extension to the horizon. The ground is represented by a grid. There are two people, one very small and one even smaller, far in the distance. A ceiling is represented by only a horizontal line. The symmetry of ground and ceiling planes seen in Mies’s house projects, particular to the scale of the domestic interior, is absent. It is impossible to tell from the drawing what the height of the space might be. The presence of a photograph of the moon and a photograph of a dinosaur skeleton suggests that in this abstract place of indefinite extension and height, space and time are rendered equivalent in one field, designed by man. The interior seems determined to include, enclose and dominate everything.

Mies van der Rohe’s collage of the interior of the Convention Hall for Chicago achieves something similar, yet conveys something quite different. The interior is clearly vast, capable of holding 50,000 people. A gathered multitude is seen to fill the space, celebrating the communality of a political convention. The structure at the top of the drawing seems to consist of an infinitude of elements. Between these twinned detailed planes is the view. The view is controlled, as has been discussed in the cases of the Resor House and the Barcelona pavilion. It is not a view of the World, but of the intrinsically ornamental surface of the interior marble wall, further decorated by [seals of various States]. An American flag hangs from the ceiling. The Convention Hall’s occupants— a crowd— are dominated by these implicit and explicit signs of Authority. The depiction of the Convention Centre describes a political scene, a space for potentially associative democracy [10] confined within an authoritative framework. Whether this reflected or represented the American political condition from a Miesian perspective is moot. It is, however, an excited, hysterical drawing:

’... the familiar photomontage from 1953-54 for the interior of a project for the Chicago Convention Hall can be seen to manifest a concept of "the public" that has more to do with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s fateful concept of the "general will", or Elias Canetti’s more recent idea of "the crowd" than with the much more pluralistic notion of “voluntary association" that (Hannah) Arendt and others have taken over from Jeffersonian political theory.”[11]

Mies van der Rohe: 1 | References: 2