“Mies van der Rohe’s greatest achievement is the creation of a steel architecture ... He has arrived at structural clarity ... and found a harmony between the material means and his spiritual aims.”  Ludwig Hilberseimer, 1956

STEVEN KENT PETERSON This article was first published in the May 1977 issue of Inland Architect, Nory Miller, Managing Editor, as: Idealized space: Mies-conception or realized truth?

A Mies-Conception of Idealized Space

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s seldom-discussed philosophical preoccupation, viewed as the basis for his architecture, seems to reveal a disparity with many who limit the definition of his principles.

Perhaps Mies himself intended this philosophical interpretation when he said, “The role of the critic is to test a work of art from the point of view of significance and value.” “Truth is the significance of facts,” implying that architecture embodied philosophical ideas.

It may have been in this sense that he described architecture as “the battleground of the spirit,” and it suggests that the meaning of Mies’ formal propositions are to be found in relation to his philosophical values.

If we can interpret Mies’ statements to indicate that he understood philosophical significance to be transcendental, to go beyond apparent reality, then a corresponding formal proposition is that architecture should be dematerialized. Its specificity as object and its tangible reality should be reduced as far as possible to reveal the more essential understanding that is beyond form.

The usual evaluations of Mies, however, seem to present him differently. We receive either frustrated dismissals from his critics or descriptive categorizations from his admirers.

Those disapproving of Mies cannot tolerate the limitations of Purism and find too many of their own values missing. As Charles Jencks, pointed out, in the 1977 Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Mies’ “critics cannot talk about place, identity, climate, symbol, culture, etc., except to deplore its absence,” in frustration.  With most Mies criticism, we do not learn what Mies is, but what he is not. His own values and terms often are not really identified.

On the other hand, apologists justify his work, but also narrow the focus of understanding with simplistic and often contradictory categories. Mies’ systematized pavilions are seen as Neoclassicism while his attention to construction is seen as structural-expressionism. In general, it is assumed that technology is the message.

However, no simple category is entirely satisfactory. Neoclassicism is insufficient, since the plans aren’t organized hierarchically. There are solid central cores with free perimeters and no vertical, multistory centralizing volumes.

Labeling him strictly a technologist is inconsistent with his avoidance of advanced techniques in construction and his refusal to express mechanical systems or to expose ducts and pipes. Also, while structural expressionism seems to explain Crown Hall, it doesn’t clarify his decision to suppress the structural frame on every high-rise building after 900 Lake Shore Drive.

In a way, both sides represent Mies’ terms in the same way: they assume that his Platonic images only stand for a pure and objective representation of those familiar predicates of modern architecture — determinism, functionalism, structuralism and technology. Mies’ work is assumed to be a poetic version of these ideas, an intense puree of modernism. But, this label just obscures real appreciation and understanding.

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Part of the problem in coming to grips with Mies may lie in this continual identification of a single concept of “modern architecture.” We imagine the modern movement to be one thing easily recognizable, with a limited number of formal propositions and an apparently clear set of shared values. However, a single concept can’t account for such dissimilar buildings as Mies’ Crown Hall and Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners’ Building (figure 1).

The familiar concepts of “modern architecture” can be recognized in Le Corbusier’s vigorous formal exercise in India, composed as a “free plan” articulated in a reference frame of round columns, and celebrating the object through assertive shapes and curved surfaces. But, Crown Hall has the exact opposite characteristics; it is an unarticulated void — free of columns, largely transparent and without composed surface or shape. This suggests a very different set of values, a fundamentally opposed theory about form.

  1. 1)Plans of the Mill Owners’ Building (top) and Crown Hall (middle and bottom) shown at the same scale. The two ideas of freedom in Modern Space: one, a compact canvas for the free play of independent interacting forms, the other, a formless expanse of universal emptiness, open to change and flexibility.

  1. The real entrance to Crown Hall is not the gracious platform of floating front stairs, but the four straight runs hugging the building wall behind; one pair goes up to a narrow stoop in the middle and the outer two go down into the ground to separate basement entrances. There is no classical grace of movement, no subsidiary vestibules, no common foyers.

These two opposed propositions emanate from different philosophical concepts. For Le Corbusier, the essential knowledge and principles of architecture are found in aesthetics, which can be defined as the study of things perceivable and experienced by the senses (as form). Specifically in the case of Cubism/Purism, it is the search for understanding through the appearance of objects or phenomena.

In contrast, Mies found the essential knowledge and principles of architecture in metaphysics, which can be defined as the study of being in essence beyond the physical. (The Platonic ideal is beyond perceived form). This knowledge is deduced from axioms claiming to be universal and certain, in contrast to empirical knowledge, which claims only to be probable and relative. Mies’ conception of architecture as metaphysics is exemplified by his belief that while “architecture depends on facts ... its real field of activity is in the realm of significance ... It has nothing to do with the invention of forms ...”

Thus the abstraction in Mies’ work is not a preference for pure simplicity as such, but a philosophical method applied to architecture, it is philosophical abstraction, the logical isolation of aspects from the total in order to reveal essential relationships.

What we experience in a Mies building, as a result of this abstraction, is both the flat fact of material elements and the idea of an “unformed and limitless” space. The bare fact as percept and the silent, empty space as concept are held together through the assumed axiom of geometry.

This architectural abstraction, in addition to isolating architectural elements, also can isolate the observer through a lack of familiar symbolic forms. The result is a certain kind of information is conveyed just because of this emptiness, the isolation and the sense of familiar missing values. A unique sense of self-awareness is promoted in confronting Mies’ minimalism.

  1. The point of view shifts its reference from the insistently neutral thing to oneself, stimulating contemplation about the nature of the conditions one is experiencing.”

This is José Ortega y Gasset’s description of The Dehumanization of Art in 1925. It refers to the elimination of human content in modern art as a positive necessary step towards the contemplation of an abstracted pure aesthetic.

Similarly, as the architectural historian, William H. Jordy suggests:

  1. “In a Mies building, the mind goes from fact to inmost essence, which nevertheless holds onto the factual starting point; the tense ambiguous existence of what is at once within the work of art yet remains a fact outside it ... the brute thing, belligerently and mysteriously exists within its extra-human realm.”

For Mies, architecture as metaphysics was not a question of form, but philosophical abstraction, given significance through our speculation on the ideas it represents, an idealization. For Le Corbusier the emphasis of architecture through aesthetics was form given authenticity through our perception of it as phenomenon, a realization.

Mies and Le Corbusier agreed on what architecture must do, but differed on what architecture was. They shared the modern image of architecture as a mechanism of salvation from two important modern crises: the dilemma of man’s relationship to technology and the role of the isolated individual in relation to a mass society. The urgency and inevitability of these tasks surely comprised their common vision of “the spirit of the times.”

In Mies’ own terms of “significance,” metaphysics appears to be the framework for evaluating his work. And this statement by Mies indicates that Thomas Aquinas must be the starting point for our understanding of his philosophical values.

  1. “Only a relationship which touches the essence of the time can be real. This relation l like to call a truth relation. Truth in the sense of Thomas Aquinas, as adaequatio intellectus et rei. Or as a modern philosopher expresses it in the language of today: Truth is the significance of facts.”

Aquinas’ great achievement was to formulate the first reconciliation of the facts of science with the idealism of the Catholic Church. The parallel here is with Mies’ scientific attitude toward the facts of construction and the idealism of his visual and verbal presentation.

In both cases, we are presented with the dilemma of contradictory methods and origins for the realization of knowledge.

Aristotelian science sought truth through experiment with empirical facts, an intellectual process of inductive reasoning leading to general knowledge: from facts to ideas. The Church, however, proposed truth derived from general knowledge (God), spiritual faith in this leading through deduction to the explanation of facts: from ideas to facts.

Aquinas’ reconciliation of this dilemma over the source and condition of knowledge involved the “philosophical problem of universals.”

In other words, an attribute such as whiteness can be considered to exist in three ways: first, independently, as an idea (ideal); second, only in things white (real); and third, only in the mind of the perceiver (phenomenal).

Which is correct? Aquinas begins by assuming the universe as a unity imitating God. In this way, all three forms of existence are acceptable and must be in some way interrelated. Given this a priori idea of unity, it became unnecessary to choose among the three. For if the universe is singular, hierarchical and wholly integrated, then all things, minds and ideas must be one spiritual entity.

Thus Aquinas could declare a rational triangular linkage between the three existences: “It is the mind which realizes the whiteness in white things,” or “it is thinking that penetrates through the particular to the universal.” This is the precise equivalent to Mies’ carefully composed statements: “Truth is the significance of facts” and “God is in the details.

It is possible, then, that Mies intended the essential experience in his architecture to be this mental one of placing us into the abstract condition of contemplating the triangular relationship of universal existences.

We are confronted with ourselves as participants in an abstract representation of this relationship of idea and thing: space as idea (conceived by Mies as universal), construction and material as facts in their most undifferentiated forms — “brute thing, belligerently and mysteriously within its extra-human realm.”

This Thomistic conception is the essential significance of existence, understood to be the rational “structure” of the order of knowledge in the world regardless of time. It is Mies’ “truth relation” and its presentation in the purest condition allows it to be best understood. As Aquinas says,

  1. “The most persuasive sort of composition to be found in the whole creation is that of essence and existence, while the composition of matter and form belong only to the corporeal part of creation.”

This analysis starts to give us a better understanding of the apparent contradiction of Mies’ early “expressionism” in relation to his later “classical” period. In a sense, the expressionism never really disappeared from his work. It was simply transferred from an early expression in form to a later expression of “ideas” through a lack of form.

The expressive use of walls which first comprise the 1923 Brick Country House (figure 2) later becomes in effect only the characterless neutral outer boundary in the courtyard houses and finally just infill at IIT. The masonry starting as a formal objective compositional element in 1923 becomes a boundary frame in 1935 and finally disappears both inside and out at the Farnsworth House, 1950.

This transformation progressively abstracts the wall, unfolding the structure of the space more and more as a static geometric grid. For in the courtyard houses, just because of the continuous boundary walls, the house as identifiable object really goes away in one’s perception. Each interior emerges with its own outdoors. The recognizable autonomy of the house parts themselves are obscured by the continuity limiting the entire precinct. The boundary is so bland, without tangible aspects that it neutralizes all context into a universal condition of stasis (figure 3).

Also, we can understand why Mies would be reluctant to design ideal cities, since a specific “formal” image of society contradicts and obscures the more essential relationship of existence and knowledge. So, while Le Corbusier’s work might be seen as a progressive furnishing of the “Ville Radieuse”, or Wright’s as a constant buildup to “Broadacre City”, Mies cannot be examined in this way.

He must avoid the utopian proposal in order to emphasize the non-physical idea that each building and every detail represents a realization of the ideal in the particular.

However, we still cannot completely account for what one can only call Mies’ style. For scholastic Gothic architecture would seem to easily satisfy the requirements of an Aquinas architecture. Mies goes further than we might expect necessary. He rejects hierarchy; his work is aggressively neutral and nondirectional, both objects and space are undifferentiated, unformed. There is no figurative symbolism. It is stringently “minimal” as well as abstract.

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To account for this minimalism, we must turn to Mies’ concept of “the spirit of the time” when he says, “only a relation which touches the essence of the time can be real.” This temporal notion would seem contrary to an a priori timeless universal unity, imitating God.

The rationality of Aquinas’ triangle of universals conceivably remains constant through time as a solution to the conflict of spiritual and scientific ideas, only if the underlying assumption of one hierarchical universe can be maintained. But, this faith in unity came into continual conflict with the emerging notion of the individual in the 19th and 20th centuries — the individual self with separate rights in opposition to the ideas of traditional political and religious hierarchical systems. An important part of the “modern theme,” according to Ortega, is that man in the twentieth century found himself alone, confronted with his own individual life as the basis of reality.

The idea of an autonomous self carried with it the individual’s right to equality. This generated the concept of collectivism, which provided a social and economic role for the individual, but did not establish the validity of his philosophical or spiritual existence.

Two general philosophical attitudes toward this definition of the individual’s existence emerged: a differentiated one based on rational doubt (existentialism), and an integrated one based on spiritual certainty (mysticism).

Existentialism accepts that there is no certain reality beyond the individual’s own existence, which is understood as a condition of appearances or phenomena. Authenticity of the self is the relationship among separate existences, a resonance of circumstantial relationships.

  1. 2)Brick Country House plan, drawn 1923

  1. The symbolic space of drafting rooms upstairs is a precise and elegant dematerialization of architectural form, but the effect comes at a price; the dehumanization of the school as a whole institution, relegating half of it to the basement, lit only by clearstory windows with no outlook.