In the 125 years since Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born, his pioneering effect on Modern architecture changed our lives. Now steel and glass scrape the sky while simplicity and wide-open built spaces are championed among tastemakers. It’s all part of a distinct twentieth-century aesthetic. In honor of Mies’ 125th birthday, we’ve asked a number of cultural innovators for their thoughts on Mies.
Here’s what the blogger, architecture critic and culture journalist Edward Lifson had to say:
Describe Mies in a nutshell (remember, less is more).
Beyond is and is not. (With thanks to the c. 4th century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao Tze, whose work Mies appreciated.)
Does Mies help you or haunt you?
What do you think? Such perfection drives me mad! The physical world is not supposed to be so perfect! Life would be easier had I never encountered his beautiful works. And I’m haunted by the angels in his angles.
Why do Mies’s simplicity and clarity generate such controversy?
They deny the purchased pleasures with which some seek fulfillment. They subtly and powerfully ask the viewer to fully participate. They erase distraction, and represent ideals. Visually, we may find them “ugly” in a shocking and terrifying way; so you confront being, emptiness, ruin,mortality, what is no longer or never was, and nothingness. Their truthful, ideal beauty awakens a place inside of us that must be shut down to get through daily life. Yes, his architecture dignifies us, but it also asks us to improve our selves. His works make you physically realize your existence and ponder it, with difficulty. In the end, if you’re lucky, you understand yourself in new ways; but those ways carry greater responsibilities, for your self, and society. You internalize these messages, and they gnaw at you. Mies said, “I don’t want to be ‘interesting,’ I want to be good.” His work asks those who know it, to be good.
If Mies could come to dinner at your house, what would you serve? And what would you want to discuss?
I’d serve martinis, to get him talking, philosophy, I would hope. If appropriate, I’d ask about the political aims in his work. I’d like to ask him about the role of nature in architecture, and why the Federal Center in Chicago isn’t designed to let more sun into the plaza. Where does he feel most comfortable, and why? As a young man from Aachen, with little formal education, did he always feel like an outsider among the intelligentsia of Berlin? Then for dinner, it’d be fun to take this Übermensch (Nietzsche’s super-man) to Superdawg or to the Wiener’s Circle, for a square meal. But why do I think Mies might like waffles?
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