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SATURDAY NIGHT - 06 / 16 / 2001

The Methods of Mies

The methods of Mies: curator Phyllis Lamber’s fascination with master architect Mies van der Rohe has lasted a remarkable fifty years. Mies in America, an exhibit celebrating his work on this side of the Atlantic, makes it clear why.

AS EDGAR BRONFMAN WOULD LATER TELL IT, WERE IT NOT FOR HIS SISTER Phyllis’s inspired intervention, the Seagram Building in New York would not have been a modernist masterpiece, but rather a run-of-the-mill office tower, about as noteworthy as the average insurance-company building. Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of liquor baron Sam Bronfman, was then twenty-seven years old, a recent Vassar College graduate studying art in Paris. Aware of her father’s plans to build a corporate headquarters, she asked to see the sketches, and when she did, wrote a letter entreating him to build something more distinguished. He asked her to come back to North America to help commission an architect.

The day Lambert met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in 1954, she knew he was the one. Dressed in his daily uniform — a dark, elegant suit — he said very little, but his language, like everything he built, was assured, uncomplicated, and well-structured. She knew his history — how, in anticipation of his career to come, he’d added his mother’s maiden name, “van der Rohe,” to his less-than-remarkable “Ludwig,” and how he’d received his first major commission at nineteen, in 1905, a house so perfectly executed that Peter Behrens, Germany’s most prestigious architect, offered him a position in his office. Lambert was also familiar with the German Pavilion Mies had designed for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, a sleek single-level, flat-roofed building of glass, marble, onyx, and chrome. And she’d seen his glass-panelled apartment towers on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, whose architecture, like that of ancient Greek temples, depended on the repetition of a single form. “His work made such an impact,” Lambert, now seventyfour, recalls. “And it’s visceral, not abstract.” She soon persuaded her father to give Mies the commission.

Lambert is sitting at the head of the boardroom table at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), the museum she founded in 1979. Dressed in a black suit, her hair cut short, her only accessory a rope of dark beads, she’s telling the story of how Mies won her father over. “Mies was always very respectful of what the client wanted. He asked what my father would like for his building. My father answered, ‘Bronze.’ Then my father said, ‘This building has got to be your crowning glory.’ He didn’t give any more instructions than that, other than to say, referring to the nearby Lever House, ‘Just one thing, Mies. I don’t want a building on stilts.’”

Later, when the architect and the patron reviewed a model, Sam Bronfman said, “Mies, I thought I said I didn’t want a building on stilts.” Mies respectfully walked his client around the model and said, “Mr. Bronfman, come over here and see how beautiful it is.”

The Seagram Building’s stark simplicity, its walls of polished marble and pink glass, and its well-defined open plaza space made a bold new statement. But executing Mies’s vision proved difficult. Soon, Lambert began to witness discord between the architect and Seagram management — “the worms coming out,” as she puts it — over the details of the construction. She de-

vised a plan. “I got myself into the building company,” she says, referring to her appointment as director of planning for the Seagram Building. “I had one thing I wanted to do — and that was one thing: I wanted to see the building that Mies wanted to build built. People would say to him, ’I want to do this, and I want to do that.’ I just kept them away. I didn’t allow for any kind of referenda.”

Lambert spent four years on the project. She made sure Mies was able to give his building all the details he thought necessary, an expensive luxury seldom afforded to architects. “Mies wanted a tinted glass,” Lambert says. “We found a company that could make it, one that did glass for an automobile company. There was a huge assembly line and to do the Seagram Building took three days’ production. There were lots of things about the building that were industrial.” The revolutionary design forever changed the urban landscape of North America, influencing city planners and architects ever since. It also encapsulated Mies’s credo: “Create form from the essence of the task, with the means of our time.”

This week, Mies in America opens at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum. A co- production of the Whitney and the CCA, the exhibit features the architect’s work and reveals his working methods with drawings, photos, collages, and even books from his personal library. It will come to the CCA in Montreal in October.

Discussions about producing a Mies exhibition began in 1996, on the anniversary of the architect’s hundredth birthday. Although many were interested in curating shows about him — including the Museum of Modern Art’s Terence Riley, who mounts Mies in Berlin next week — Phyllis Lambert knew that when it came to presenting Mies in America, she was the one.

Not only did Lambert work closely with Mies on the Seagram Building, she went on to study with him at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and to work in his practice in Chicago. For more than fifty years, she has remained his champion; the CCA, under her strewardship, has amassed one of the world’s largest collections of Mies drawings, many of them unseen prior to the preparations for this exhibit. “I think there’s a big difference between looking at the work of an architect when you’re a scholar and you don’t know how things happen in an office,” she offers, “than when you’re aware of the methodology of a practice…. When it came to the work of Mies,” she adds, “I knew how to interpret it.”

LAMBERT EXPLAINS THAT THE exhibition will challenge the conventional take on Mies, which is that he arrived in his new country with his genius fully formed. When asked what might have become of him had he not come to North America, Lambert is succinct: “The Barcelona Pavilion was beautiful. And maybe he would have done some more beautiful things like that. But I think if he had not come to America, we would not have heard much about him.”

Mies van der Rohe moved to the United States from Germany in 1937, after it became apparent that the practice of modern architecture would be hopeless under Hitler. Mies’s reputation, to that point, rested largely on the Barcelona Pavilion and a number of small-scale commissions, mostly domestic residences.

He had designed the Tugendhat House in Brno, Czechoslovakia, a modernist jewel built in 1927 whose boxy single-storey street front and rear two-storey garden facade featured full-height windows, while the interior boasted chromium-cased steel columns and dividing walls of onyx and ebony. When the curator Philip Johnson saw the house in 1930, he linked the experience to visiting the Pantheon, calling Mies “prophetic.” In his 1932 New York exhibition Modern Architecture, which he co-curated with H. R. Hitchcock, Johnson showcased Mies alongside the recognized masters Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, and chose the Tugendhat House for the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue, thus heralding Mies as the harbinger of a new movement.

Despite these triumphs, many of Mies’s most significant works of the inter-war period were plans done only on paper, featured in journals but never executed. Among them was his 1921 ”Study for a Glass Skyscraper in Berlin,” which foreshadowed the towers he would build in the U.S. But rather than harm his reputation, his lack of constructed works merely heightened his mystique. One of his contemporaries, Herman Peter Eckhert, wrote to a colleague, “I’d be interested to know … who is this Mies van der Rohe? I have seen his works published, but there are wicked tongues who maintain that he has never actually built anything, and that his real name is Lehmann. But this is strictly in confidence!”

Mies arrived in New York on the S. S. Berengaria, escorted by his clients Stanley and Helen Resor, who ran J. Walter Thompson, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies. They travelled with Mies to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where they had commissioned him to build a house.

Within a year of his arrival, Mies became head of the architecture department at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). He also received the contract to design its new campus.

“It was the crucible that defined his career,” says Lambert, “a rare opportunity, perhaps only comparable to the challenge met by Thomas Jefferson in designing the University of Virginia.”

The campus was built gradually, starting in 1942, in the urban slums of Chicago’s Near South Side, and took more than ten years to complete. The project was daunting, not only because of its immense scale, but because Mies had to build within an American city using domestic materials and methods. Whereas in Europe an architect could make structural decisions once work on a building had begun, Lambert says that in the U.S., “it was necessary to draw and specify every detail for the bid process well in advance of construction.”

Mies collaborated with other architects in Chicago and they pushed him to consider a variety of structures, Lambert says: steel girder and steel columns, concrete slab and steel girder, concrete slab and steel columns. He ultimately decided to use the same materials — steel supporting structure filled with brick and tile — in a variety of ways, giving each building its own appeal and the campus a unified look.

In putting together Mies in America, Lambert came across a series of sketches Mies had done for the IIT campus. “He did them on Apex pads — about 5 x 8 inches and perforated at one edge — which he would hold in one hand while drawing with the other” she says, explaining that he often sketched while wandering around the site. “You can actually trace how Mies moved around the campus. You look at Mies’s drawings and you start to see that his approach was cinematographic. Then you realize that his own architecture is an architecture of movement.”

For Mies, another part of his conviction that he must be an “architect of his time,” Lambert says, meant not only building with modern materials but “knowing how to connect technology to the spiritual. Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t doing it. Le Corbusier was doing something else. Mies had a reverence for materials. It’s a very philosophical thing, to say, ‘What’s that material and how do I use it right?’ It’s spiritual.”

These elements came together in the Farnsworth House, which Edith Farnsworth had commissioned to be a simple home in the country. Removed from the urban context, the elevated, stripped-down form of steel and glass gives the building the purity of an ancient temple. Lambert identifies it as being “a work of elevated purpose. Since 1921 [with his plan for the glass skyscraper], Mies had been thinking of the idea of expressing the sheer power of a building,” Lambert says. “With the Farnsworth House he understands how to use steel in the manner he wants, in a way to express structure. Later in his life, in reference to the house, Mies quoted Goethe, explaining that it was the inside and the outside. It was the shell. And you can not have the inside without the outside. They’re interdependent.”

WITH THE COMPLETION OF THE Seagram Building in 1959, Mies had finally built the glass skyscraper he’d set down on paper thirty-eight years earlier. The building defined the International Style — a movement characterized by its stark simplicity, open uncluttered space, and unadorned glass facades — and marked the beginning of Lambert’s lifelong devotion to Mies.

After studying architecture under Mies at the IIT, graduating with an MA in 1963, she joined his Chicago office. The more she worked with him, the more her respect for him grew. “A side of him I loved so much,” she says, “was that he dealt with his own times. He would say, ‘Okay, you have drive-in restaurants on the strip — I’ll deal with that.’” He once designed plans for the Indianapolis Center Drive-In Restaurant that included a roof overhang to shelter cars, though it was never built. For the Mannheim Theatre competition entry, Mies built a model that proposed five eight-metre-deep stainless-steel trusses placed across the eighty-metre width of the building to support the roof over the seating shell of the hall. Lambert remembers how poetically Mies described it: “the large theatre juts out from its concrete base like a hand from the wrist.”

Lambert worked in his office until the mid-1960s, when she left and began to design independently, winning the Massey Medal of Canada — the country’s top architectural award — for her plans for the Saidye Bronfman Centre, a branch of the YM-YWHA in Montreal. A colleague from Mies’s Chicago office, Peter Carver, has remarked that the building is highly Miesian: ”You can see it in the quality of the materials, and in its openness and clarity.”

Following Mies’s death in 1969, and her own father’s death two years later, Lambert returned to Montreal, where she founded the CCA and has worked at preserving heritage buildings around the world, from Montreal’s Vieux Port to Cairo’s oldest synagogue, Ben Ezra — accomplishments that have earned her the title “Joan of Architecture.” In the mid-1990s, she was named to the selection committee dedicated to commissioning a new $25-million campus centre for the Illinois Institute of Technology. The committee selected Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus, who was also commissioned by Edgar Bronfman, Jr. — a decision blessed by his aunt Phyllis — to build the new headquarters for Universal Studios.

LAMBERT HAS REMAINED MIES’S interpreter and protector for longer than the span of most marriages. Next week, with Mies in America, she renews her commitment both to his work and to bringing it to the public. In the 750-page catalogue that she edited and co-authored for the exhibit, she begins her essay with Mies’s own words: “I am not working on architecture, I am working on architecture as a language, and I think that you have to have a grammar in order to have a language. If you are really good at that, you can be a poet.”

The exhibition shows the trajectory of his career, which Lambert explains was devoted to building “works that would expand the mind and the heart.” It begins in a room that resembles a studio, featuring Mies’s sketches and books, and takes us through the IIT years, and onward to the architect’s clear-span structures and high-rise buildings, including the 1967 Toronto Dominion Tower and the Gallery of the Twentieth Century in Berlin, which opened the following year.

“People think they know Mies,” says Lambert, referring to the post-Seagram proliferation of Mies-inspired structures across the North American urban landscape, “but they don’t know him at all.” What Lambert wants the exhibit to reveal is the methodology behind the buildings. “He had the deepest reverence for everything he did.”

Lambert pauses for a moment before picking up a perfectly sharpened pencil to illustrate what she means. The room is so quiet that I can hear lead move across the pad of paper before she begins speaking. “No matter what material Mies used, he believed it had to be used right.

When he was teaching, the first thing a student had to do was to take a sheet of beautiful white paper. Not just any sort of sheet — a beautiful white sheet.”

Then Lambert begins to talk and it’s as if she’s hearing Mies instruct her. “You have to sharpen your pencil with an abrasive pad. You have to get down to the lead. You have to keep your drawing absolutely clean. You have to roll out your pencil so that you keep that point.” She stops. “You don’t have to know anything else about Mies other than his reverence for simplicity and for the real. You can see it in his work.” Through Lambert, and the exhibit she’s created, we’re all now able to look in on the master.

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