Widely regarded as a pioneer of 21st Century architecture, German-American Ludwig Mies van der Rohe made substantial contributions across design disciplines. Born in Aachen in 1886, he completed several apprenticeships in local stone-carving shops before joining the studio of Peter Behrens, (another pioneering architect of the time) in 1908. The role marked the beginning of a long architectural career for the young Mies van der Rohe. While there, he was given a hand in several large-scale projects, including as construction manager of the Embassy of German Empire in St. Petersberg, Russia.
Despite his lack of formal architectural education, people soon started to notice Mies van der Rohe’s talent and he began to accept independent commissions. Much of his early work displayed elements of early 19th Century German domestic styles, however throughout much of his career the architect became famed for his uncluttered and ergonomic creations; something he himself likened to as “skin and bones” design. This approach catapulted his early career designing upper-class German homes into something of a revolutionary in the architectural world.
After the First World War, Mies joined with his peers in the search for a new architectural style that would speak for the modern, industrial era that succeeded the two World Wars. In 1929, he worked on the temporary pavilion for the Barcelona Exposition (a creative space for architectural experimentation and exhibition) and a year later (1930) he completed the elegant and now famous structure – the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic.
Though there was much speculation about the new design movement in Germany, Mies van der Rohe continued with his pursuit of the avant-garde design effort and in the early nineteen-twenties he joined the Bauhaus School as Director of Architecture. Here, he really began to drive the idea of using basic functionalism and geometry to industrial design. He revered greatly in the use of planar forms, full colours and clean lines in his work; it was said he was greatly influenced by the no-nonsense, clean-cut work of Austro-Hungarian architect Adolf Loos.
Nazi-ruled Germany spelled great difficulties for the Bauhaus; in April, 1932 the Gestapo raided the School. Political pressure eventually forced Mies and his colleagues to relocate to a disused factory in Berlin. This move, however, was to make no difference and in July, 1933 the faculty voted to close the Bauhaus completely. Mies van der Rohe was the last Director.
The 1930s, then, spelled probably the most challenging era in Mies van der Rohe’s career, as it did for many contemporary ‘European’ designers of the time. His style considered not ‘German’ in character by the Nazis in Germany, the architect was forced to relocate to the United States in 1937. As with many things in life, however, great tragedy and pain often brings greater opportunities. In the USA, Mies flourished. Soon after moving there, he became Head of Department for the newly-established Illinois Institute of Technology.
This period began a lifelong residence in Chicago that would last until his death. The architect, indeed, is said to have worked in the same studio for the entire tenure of his 31-year career. He worked on several major projects, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the National Gallery of Berlin. Many of the furniture pieces created as part of his large-scale architectural work, indeed, went on to become popular in their own right; such as the Barcelona and Brno Chairs, both of which are a nod to his architectural work with projects of the same name.
Mies van der Rohe never returned to Germany. Throughout his work, however, one can see not only the early elements of minimalism he so greatly prided, but a raw functionalism that was perhaps a product of the pain and tragedy he saw in his Homeland, in Nazi-Germany. Discarding the underlying philosophical influence in his work, however, the success and legend of his work to this day is a reflection on the timelessness of his work; and of his abilities as a creator.
For someone who never had a single day’s formal training in architecture school, who learnt everything from practical experience and self-study, his legacy as one of the greatest architectural minds that ever existed makes him even more formidable. On August 17th 1969, Mies van der Rohe passed away in Chicago. His life and legacy, however, still resonate in the design community and beyond to this day.