Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mies Tweets! (and he's got a great new website, too)

click images for larger view
The Mies van der Rohe society has just launched a new website, designed by Scott Thomas, whose credits include serving as 2008 design director for Obama for America.

It's an impressive piece of work, and a major addition to Mies on the web. It's centered on a timeline of Mies' life and work, from his 1886 birth in Aachen, Germany; his years as an infant removing unnecessary parts from his high chair, and a comprehensive account of designs, from the 1907 Riehl House, his first project,  to the legendary 1921 proposal for an all-glass Friedrichstrasse Office Building, the path-breaking 860-880 Lake Shore Apartments (many photographs), all the way through to the posthumous IBM Building.

Although the entry page is the usual black-and-white, there's also a generous sampling of color photographs that provide a less abstracted, more real feel of what the buildings are actually like.  There's also a generous sampling of of models, as well as of Mies' own drawings.

There's also a related blog, which features such interesting stuff as this poster for a benefit from earlier this year.    In addition to the 1958 Seagram Building being listed among the projects, there's also a link in the blog to a fascinating 1968 documentary created  and narrated by urbanist William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, centered on an intensive study of why the Seagram's plaza is one of the most popular in New York.

whyte styles from chris woebken on Vimeo.

The website is both an impressive work of scholarship and a valuable research tool. Perhaps most striking, however, even beyond the buildings, is the full text of various speeches made by Mies, including what he had to say at a 1938 banquet welcoming him to Chicago, after Frank Lloyd Wright introduced him by saying "I give you my Mies van der Rohe. You treat him well and love him as I do," and then left the room and retreated to the bar.

Mies was far from humourless, but you won't find any of those humanizing anecdotes on the website.  It would be easy to have a bit of fun with Mies' portentousness, but in an age where it often seems that our core values are little more than to be entertained and diverted, and where our architecture frequently appears all too happy to cater to those attitudes just to escape the anonymity of a supply-chain economy whose relentless drive is to reduce everything to an interchangeable commodity, it's bracing to read what Mies had to say as he took on leadership of the IIT School of Architecture, at a time when seriousness was something, not to be deprecated, but embraced, however imperfectly:
Any education must be directed, first of all, towards the practical side of life. But if one may speak of real education, then it must go farther and reach the personal sphere and lead to a molding of the human being.

The first aim should be to qualify the person to maintain himself in everyday life. It is to equip him with the necessary knowledge and ability for this purpose. The second aim is directed towards a formation of the personality. It should qualify him to make the right use of his knowledge and ability.

Genuine education is aimed not only towards specific ends but also towards an appreciation of values. Our aims are bound up with the special structure of our epoch. Values, on the contrary, are anchored in the spiritual destination of mankind. The ends, towards which we strive, determine the character of our civilization, while the values we set determine our cultural level.

. . . If education has any sense whatever, then it is to form character and develop insight. It must lead us out of the irresponsibility of opinion, into the responsibility of insight, judgment, and understanding; it must lead us out of the realm of chance and arbitrariness into the clear light of intellectual order. Therefore we guide our students over the disciplinary road from material through function to form.

. . . Here the problem of technology will come within the student’s compass. We will try to propound genuine questions: questions on the value and meaning of technology. We will demonstrate that it not only offers us power, and magnitude, but that it also embraces dangers, that it contains good and evil, and that here mankind must decide aright.

 . .  We will make the organic principle of order clear as a scale for establishing the significance and proportion of the parts and their relation to the whole.

We will adopt this last principle as the basis of our work.

The long road from the material through function to form has only one goal: to create order out of the unholy confusion of today. We want, however, an order which gives everything its proper place. We want to give to everything that which is its due, in accordance with its nature.

We are determined to do that in such a perfect way, that the world of our creation begins to flower from within. We want no more – nor can we do more.

Nothing will express the aim and meaning of our work better than the profound words of Thomas Aquinas:

"Beauty is the Radiance of the Truth."

You can read the entire speech here, and visit the Mies van der Rohe Society website here.

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