A Reflection on the Formalism, Politics and Beliefs of Mies van der Rohe
For each commission Mies’ designs embody the very ideology for which he is creating. For the November Revolution, his plan is deliberately and intensely communist, functional, violent and dynamic. For skyscrapers, beacons of the future, he maximizes the effect of height, futurism, projection, the Space Age and technology by using only glass. For his residential houses he intensifies the concept of living by creating a streamlined, simplistic, modern, minimalist box in which every movement is aggrandized by the interior void and visibility from and of the exterior. In the Barcelona pavilion Mies exemplifies and magnifies a recovering Germany’s focus on simplicity, austerity, hope, serious legerity and importance of solid foundations and materials through his open-aired but dark and clean structure made of fine marbles and with a theme of flowing, clean water throughout. Unlike Gropius’ piece and many other modern architects’, Mies’ pieces, more than being deliberate, always evoke one feeling in particular. They go over-the-top in their execution of a commission or the ideology behind it. So what does this mean for Mies’ inner beliefs?
Blake approaches the proposed alternative conclusion when he quotes Mies as citing St. Augustine as “the aim and meaning of our work…’Beauty is the splendor of Truth’” [i](156). This shows us that Mies does in fact believe in the power of architecture to show truth to the world. He is also quoted as saying, “Building art…is always…the spatial execution of spiritual decisions.”[ii] Arthur Drexler says, “For Mies architecture is merely the visible expression of a point of view which others naturally will want to share.”[iii] Mies’ designs are expressions of his point of view, also known as his spiritual decisions, and because everyone naturally wants to share this point of view, these decisions are universal. If they are universal then they are also encapsulating the idea that the beauty his is creating is the splendor of truth. Mies supports modernism and technology, so it then follows that this truth is really the truth of his time, his era.
Mies’ pieces published in the journal G speak about the importance of the industrialization of the building industry. Industrialization, Mies says, needs to come before any other architectural reform and all else will follow.[iv] He also adamantly and consistently throughout his life condemns formalism as an approach to architecture. We have, however, seen how this idea does not pan out in his work. Mies condemns formalism while at the same time presenting the most extreme examples of it. We now see how Mies’ designs not only contradict his anti-political statements they contradict his anti-formalist statements. We know his words cannot be taken at face value. So, everything must be analyzed in concert in order to gain any sort of conclusion from all the confusion.
Mies should at least be trusted in the idea that he is focused on the truth and the best way to portray that. This is a fundamental goal of any artist of any time period. A quote of his, made in a speech in Vienna at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power, presents a sword to cut through this Gordian knot: “The new era is a fact. It exists irrespective of our ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Yet it is neither better nor worse than any other era. It is pure datum, in itself without value content …Let us accept changed economic and social conditions as a fact… All these take their blind and fateful course."[v] It is remarkable that an artist who has expressed his love for St. Augustine and his quest to exemplify the truth through beauty would also contend that the world is pure datum, to be accepted no matter what, and that it does not matter how a human being perceives it or acts. It is especially chilling to hear such a sentiment coming from a successful, German, formally charged modern artist just at the rise of the Nazis.
This statement cannot be seen as supportive of any regime, and everyone knows Mies was not a Nazi. Nor can the conclusion of Mies’ politics fall on the side of any one established political ideology. Even considering everything discussed, it is possible to say that Mies was apolitical in the sense that he did not identify solely with one political party. However, considering what it seems like he really did believe, Mies seems more like a hyper- or super-political being, in that he was able to observe and involve himself in all politics in order to better view the political world from afar.
Unlike the beautiful, utopic truth of the present and future of Gropius or St. Augustine, Mies is pessimistic about the truth of the era, and all other eras. The problem, as Mies may have seen it, with the existence of this new era is that, despite the political activists and ideologies swirling in Europe at the time, no one seems to be doing enough to keep a fascist regime from coming to power, or to make anything better happen.
Mies may not believe that our era should be accepted as pure datum, but he is reflecting on the idea that that is what is occurring. Perhaps he sees humanity as complicit with the idea that its accordance or disapproval does not matter to reality. Mies’ designs are all each a strong ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the pure datum of the era. He manipulates form to create a political statement, or ideological statement, in whatever way he chooses. He is saying yes or no, he is politicizing formalism, and yet anyone that looks at his body of work still sees him as apolitical.
The conclusion we can come to from this analysis is that his pieces intend to hold up a mirror to a society that is accepting that their actions and words do not matter. Mies wants society to see that it is our attitude that creates an era of pure datum. He is the artist trying to make all of the left- and right-wingers see that their mindset is creating what they claim to be fighting. Even in all of Mies’ efforts to reflect this cold, bitter attitude that he is seeing in the world, he is received as if an exemplification, as opposed to a reflection of the attitude. Any scholar looking at Mies’ words and actions and seeing a truly apolitical, opportunistic man, is simultaneously completely missing and getting the point. To see pure, uncomplicated apoliticism, and thus see the reflection of society he is trying to present, is to see the attitude itself within Mies, without realizing one is just looking in the mirror.
[i] Blake, The Master Builders, 156.
[ii] Cohen, Mies van der Rohe, 44.
[iii] Drexler, ludwig mies van der rohe, 9.
[iv] Jennings, Mertins, eds., G, 120.
[v] Hochman, Architects of Fortune, 52.