Mies’s Pieces

With their simultaneous blockbusters on Mies van der Rohe, MoMA and the Whitney are operating beyond their respective walls in an expanded field. But to put Mies in a comparative, rather than self-referential, context, let’s go a couple of blocks farther afield by including the current Frank Gehry show at the Guggenheim, and then, by way of protest, let’s reach on down to the National Building Museum in Washington, to the Rudolf M. Schindler exhibition that opened June 29.

Mies famously declared that “God is in the details,” and indeed the Whitney, exhibiting the work the German architect did after he emigrated to America in 1938, chronicles his search for joints that are godly – the stately way steel meets glass, brick, and more steel. A Platonist who was more interested in ideals than in process, Mies went on to build the joints he perfected, which are undoubtedly the most intense part of his American buildings. When the buildings get too big for their joints – when the planes between them are too expansive and lose sight of their edge – they start becoming boring. Mies’s smaller buildings, like the sublime Farnsworth House outside Chicago, are taut and tense because no parts are distant from their defining moments at the corners.

Now focus on the fifth-floor terrace of the Guggenheim, where Frank Gehry built, as part of the installation for his current show, undulating titanium canopies over a temporary café. The superstructure of steel beams rests on a steel joint, in an apparently chaotic crash of angled flanges. Somewhere amid this battle of the two joints, architecture quaked, and perhaps the seismic shift started in the seminal but underestimated work of R. M. Schindler, who was actually the first European modernist to move to the United States and the reigning talent in Los Angeles when Gehry came of architectural age.

Since World War II, MoMA has staged no fewer than nine exhibitions, large and small, devoted to Mies’s work, not including the International Style show of 1932, which introduced him to America. Schindler, who was born in 1887, a year after Mies, was deliberately excluded from that show by a now-contrite Philip Johnson, who has called the omission a mistake. (Schindler is not alone in the un-moma pantheon – others “disappeared” from MoMA’s retrospective list include Carlo Scarpa, Gio Ponti, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Hans Scharoun, Pier Luigi Nervi, and a host of Russians, including Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky.) MoMA apparently prefers to confirm its judgment with repeat curtain calls on architects it has already canonized, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier (about nine shows each) and Alvar Aalto (three).

Mies, however, stands out as the house architect, and now he has also colonized the third floor of the Whitney, which has never even held a retrospective of its own architect, Marcel Breuer. Why Mies? Why now? What are the cultural politics of this aesthetic rigging? In his New Yorker review of the Seagram Building, completed in 1958, Lewis Mumford called that perfectly pitched bronze tuning fork a masterpiece, but a cold one. The architectural temperature of Schindler’s masterpieces – and there were many among his unexpected hillside houses – is much warmer because he rejected the machine as the basis of design, believing that the nature of life is diversity rather than repetition. Schindler was not a denizen of exhibition society, like Mies, who made his reputation on the walls of shows in Berlin with hypothetical projects in the early twenties.

But Schindler, who had studied with early Viennese modernists Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos and worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, actually had the more distinguished pedigree, and while Mies was still producing heavy masonry villas into the twenties, Schindler had already written a 1913 manifesto declaring that space, not form or matter, was the architectural material of the new age: Reinforced concrete and steel liberated architecture from bearing-wall construction.

Early on, Schindler built some of the enduring modernist works of the twentieth century – his pinwheeling house on Kings Road (1921-22), the dense puzzle of interlocking spaces at the Pueblo Ribera Court Houses in La Jolla (1923-25), and the structurally hybrid Lovell Beach House (1922-26). Often working on hillsides, Schindler upended Wright’s floor plans, which extend into the landscape, so that the houses flow vertically. As we see in the “Mies in Berlin” show at MoMA, Mies – despite his elegant De Stijl floor plans – never penetrated the low ceiling planes, which compress space. He handles hilly topography stiffly, always establishing a plinth, as though building a temple. Despite the abstract modernist language, Mies carries the repetitions of the classical into the open arms of industrialized architecture.

Schindler released control of his projects to the site, which incited the complexity of mixed geometries and idiosyncratic conditions that is a basis for the architecture of specificity over universality that Gehry so brilliantly practices. The most animated parts of Mies’s drawings are the trees. Gehry draws buildings with the same gestural lines, interested in building trees. Computers make this complex architecture possible, obviating the simplicities of serial production. Schindler, arguably, is the more timely choice for a New York blockbuster because he is a forerunner of the new complexity. This is not to say that Schindler was a greater architect than Mies; at their level of achievement, ranking is meaningless. But MoMA has backed itself into arguing for a conservative, fundamentalist position, doing its best to stage a counter-reformation against freedoms not easily stuffed back into the box. MoMA may want to promote Mies as a way of selling its misguided Taniguchi expansion, but the museum should not compromise its program in the name of that lackluster design. Both Mies shows are highly informative, presenting new material and scholarship. But they are the heirs of institutional prejudice dating from MoMA’s first architecture show 70 years ago. It’s time for some fresh air.

Mies in America
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Mies in Berlin
Mies, again, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Mies’s Pieces