When the Cathedrals Were Black: Miesâ€™s Spatial Cosmology Daniel Luis Martinez
Altar In the years immediately following the First World War manifestoes served as the conduits of spatial change. It was, despite the immense need for large-scale rebuilding and the onset of rapid industrialization, a time driven by shifting ideologies. Even Modernism’s great champion of construction, Mies van Der Rohe, built surprising little during this time, choosing instead to set the limits of what he would not build. As early as 1924, we find Mies declaring that, ‘Although our understanding of life has become more profound, we will not build cathedrals.’1 The statement is not all together surprising. By the early twentieth century the cathedral had become one of many inherited architectural typologies that Mies and his avant-garde contemporaries decided to reject outright. The gothic cathedral in particular, though conceived in a genuine moment of architectural poignancy, came to symbolize the antiquated will of a past epoch. For Mies, the superficial imitation of such a language could only result in ‘formal emptiness’2, which had to be replaced by a new logic far more attenuated to the spirit of the current age. In fact, it was this early period in Mies’s career when, armed with a few radical collages and some rather terse essays, he resolved to reimagine architecture all together. These heroic intentions seem to culminate rather nicely in that now classic ceremony at Barcelona in 1929, where the king and queen of Spain christened not just a pavilion but an entirely new spatial paradigm. The chronology of events conceived with such linear clarity, coupled with Mies’s emigration to America in the 1930’s, has by now produced a wholly separate phenomenon. It is the fully accepted norm to split Mies in two and the modes of bifurcation are multiple: Berlin and Chicago, De Stijl and Minimalism, Rational and Mythical, Berlage and Berehns, Nietzsche and Hegel, moral and amoral, relevant and not. The list goes on and the story, quite honestly, seems to fit; for it is the Chicago years that produce something more streamlined and focused than the earlier, asymmetrical compositions of the 1920’s. This is the time, after all, when Mies’s practice took on a series of autonomous explorations continuously for thirty or so years. Yet even then the aim was split in two. According to Mies’s biographer Franz Schulze, these can be categorized as ‘the distillation of architectural structure in the universal tower’ and the ‘universalization of architectural space in the clearspan pavilion.’3 The question seems inevitable, whether it is possible to find some connective tissue at the source of such deep cuts. In 1968 Mies cast a life-long glance back at his career when prompted by his granddaughter Georgia in a rare interview and expressed the desire to have, at least once in his lifetime, constructed a cathedral.4 Though seeming to contradict his earlier position, it is, I would contend, far more theoretically
revealing to assume it expresses an evolution of the very same doctrine; a doctrine essentially concerned with form, though in Mies’s hands the issue slips into matters of formlessness. He was in fact engaged in a very peculiar kind of spiritual building from the beginning. If an altar frames the threshold of delivery, generating a place where ritual acts unfold and beliefs are effectively sermonized, then Mies built his altar from the immaterial worlds of doctrine and drawing. It is the assumption that Mies remained anchored to certain convictions which allows us to gain an important foothold in our understanding of his work today, though you’ll have to permit one last dichotomy. There are, as I see it, two avenues leading towards a richer understanding of Miesian space: experience and faith. That is to say that we can gain access by being there or we can endeavor to believe what he did for a moment and, more importantly, make something of it. The scope of this essay deals entirely with this latter path and yields one possible articulation of his uniquely spatial cosmology. If anything at all stands to benefit from this type of investigation it is the architectural process, which I believe makes the perpetuation of such beliefs possible in the first place. Given that Mies commonly defined architecture as, quite simply, the ‘Building Art’ [Baukunst], it will be necessary to traverse the world of art along the way. This might also serve a more practical purpose because the truth is, aside from a very small chapel on IIT’s campus, he never constructed a sacred space in the literal sense. What we do know is that Mies increasingly dedicated his late career to the production of immensely singular volumes, the most impressive of which, at least in terms of sheer scale, was his proposal for a Convention Hall in Chicago. The last incarnation of this process is the New National Gallery in Berlin which, beyond its symbolic value as a return to Germany for an estranged native son, also embodies a particularly interesting point in the architectural evolution of some quite substantial and austere roof planes. Furthermore, and here I am following Schulze’s suggestion, the New National Gallery, as, ‘a house of art and thus the secular counterpart of a sacred space,’5 deserves, at least provisionally, the analytical shift from museum to cathedral in order that we might uncover the near religious fervor of Mies’s views. Ad Reinhardt once suggested that, ‘No one in his right mind goes to an art museum to worship anything but art.’6 Let us go then and make our pilgrimage. Iconography It is telling that Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism does not end but begins with the black square. This is more evocative still when considering that he is not the only one to have turned to this daunting gesture in the previous century. In fact, it is after the Second World War, with Ad Reinhardt for instance, that the black square occupies an ultimate and final position for painting.
The difference arises as a matter of context and ideology. Malevich, at the beginning of the twentieth century, is looking to reduce formalism to a ‘zero point’ in order to engender new spatial possibilities. The black square is the embodiment of his will towards a newly reasoned intuition and a critical point of departure for his most influential work. There is an obvious link to Mies here. Malevich was also thoroughly enmeshed in the politics of his time, but it is not until mid-century that the direct commodification of abstract art becomes a truly socio-political issue. This was the most influential factor pushing Ad Reinhardt’s artistic process towards total reduction. In this broader context, political consciousness fuses with something totally ‘imageless’; an act of ‘art-as-art’ in Reinhardt’s own words versus any recognition of the ‘artist-asartist’, which usually indicated that familiar first step towards the process of commodification that he despised.7 By the 1960’s modernist architecture had also begun its decent into the whirlpool of the free market. We are all familiar with its eventual associations with the highly competitive world of big business; that era of mad men whose identity became intertwined with glass and steel. None really ever reached an apex like Seagram’s but there are some reasonably good exceptions, along with a generous outcropping of shallow imitations. Actually, the Seagram building is no stranger to conflicts of authenticity. Remember that the Four Seasons, a lion’s den of business transactions for its ring leader Philip Johnson, proved in the end too unethical a setting for even the most ominous of Mark Rothko’s paintings. Nonetheless, what is relevant here is the inherent cultural climate around which certain responses were inevitably framed. Both Malevich and Reinhardt at one point hinge their creative output on the production of an icon and it is interesting that they might choose to describe their work with this term. An icon, above all else, is a symbol. It stands for something which it is not. Malevich’s answer to the question of space is based primarily on process. ‘The artist must create as the universe creates, not what the universe creates’.8 The black square represents his commitment to begin this process with a void, yet the residual painting itself acts as, ‘The single and frameless icon of our time.’9 I have already mentioned Reinhardt’s political invocations which situate painting as a form of activism. But his desire to create, ‘a free, unmanipulated and unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icon,’10 also insinuates that an artistic process of negation can nonetheless form the means towards creating something beautiful. The paintings still stand on the merit of their subtly manipulated tones and sense of structure. I want to be careful not to touch on the symbolic role of icons too much though, despite that symbolism has long been bound to the history of cosmology.
This is mostly because, if the New National Gallery is, first and foremost, the gesture of a black square, it is most likely for its spatial promise rather than any symbolic content at all. We can trace the basis for this claim all the way back to Mies’s sparse writing of the 1920’s, which is ripe with aphorisms like, ”The building art is always the spatially apprehended will of the epoch, nothing else,”11 or, “Not formal trends but the mastery of real relations stands in the center of our efforts.”12 [My italics] These ‘real relations’ are, for Mies, undoubtedly spatial. The black square or the idea of making something out of nothing relates to architectural discourse primarily through a kind of spatial indeterminacy. Like the black canvases of Malevich and Reinhardt, whose dark swaths induce perceptions of stability and fluctuation, the deployment of Mies’s black roof on the site of Berlin’s Kulturforum allowed him to elicit a reading of multiple possibilities from within the darkness. For Mies, the black square becomes a new kind of iconography. However, it is not enough within his cosmology to simply swap one object for another [the cross for the square or, for that matter, cathedral for museum]. Mies was compelled to architecturalize such transactions. The New National Gallery expands the particular depth hinted at by Malevich and Reinhardt on canvas into something more resolutely sectional and in no way less suggestive. Here the black square is raised up for us to enter and, while the open space of the main gallery is in fact a continuously revolving theater for the arts, there is always one permanent player. Mies’s roof, the imageless mark of a gridded continuum, presides over it all. There is nothing new about a Suprematist reading13 of Mies’s work. In fact, Mies’s early days in Berlin introduced him to multiple avant-garde personalities and ideologies, all of which exerted some degree of influence on him and not the least of which was Kasimir Malevich. And it is through a shared cultural and political background that Ad Reinhardt’s ultimate paintings find a point of commonality with Mies’s own final work. It is significant that both men posed a made response to the inevitable onslaught of postmodernism’s cultural backlash just before leaving us for good. The stories here are all connected at one point or another through an engagement with the black square. However, it seems crucial to also draw that discrete distinction between art and architecture; one that Mies regarded as a ‘service to value’ and which is surely an offshoot of H.P. Berlage’s, ‘Building is serving.’14 But what exactly is the value to which Mies found himself unceasingly tied? Confessional We know that the New National Gallery is the long distilled outcome of a process of ritual making. This process sought the repeated deployment of a broad and overarching roof plane which granted certain possibilities
for expanding and contracting space simultaneously [a radically different approach compared to Loos’s Raumplan or Corbusier’s notions of plasticity]. Mies’s atelier built model after model, all variations on the same theme until reaching the outcome in Berlin: eight pin-joint connections, symmetrical on axis but staggered from the square’s corners. More than all the other previous versions the roof is not part of a unified tectonic gesture but rather held up and objectified. Once hoisted into position, with the space of the main gallery encased in glass, Mies’s space began its partial recession into the background of events unfolding. This movement is heightened by instants where a carefully measured tectonic repetitiously dissolves into a larger whole. That a highly rational and internalized language can, at a larger scale, oscillate between itself and a greater context of activity requires a reevaluation of autonomy all together. Detlef Mertins found similar ground when he wrote that, ‘Mies understood autonomy not as an isolated autopoiesis but as a kind of self-fashioning that is embedded in and responsive to context.’15 It is highly relevant here to point out an important contrast between the views of Neumeyer and Mertins. According to Neumeyer, Mies, ‘aimed at liberating things from their isolation and transposing them into an ordering system that imparts a higher meaning to… otherwise disparate elements.’16 It is through the rigor of such tectonic commitment that we are brought to believe in, ‘an architecture of spiritual references.’17 For Neumeyer, the emphasis is placed on Mies’s ability to bring the modern elements of his architectonic language into hierarchical unity. The premise is not unlike an analysis of a gothic cathedral, whose principles of construction, commensurate with a particular epoch’s means of production and material technology, evoke transcendental qualities. Yet we have, from the outset of this essay, endeavored to always take Mies at his word and therefore assumed some reciprocity between his early conviction not to build cathedrals and his later desire to have done just that. Mertins’ reading is especially relevant here because it shifts focus to the, ‘open space that demands and facilitates the production of being, as close to pure presence as possible.’18 Mies’s cathedral is empty. It requires something outside of itself, yet at the moment of intervention is able to push back and influence the activity. If there is holiness here, it is based on the process from which it was never really cut off. Mies is no upstanding moral hero to be sure, but his architectural methods contain the hallmark of something uniquely spatial and ethical. This idea seems to contradict current trends in architectural thinking, which in the name of ethics, reject autonomous systems as too internalized to relate to the specificities of place and the needs of others. Yet in Mies there seems to be a certain exception to this way of thinking. If we can shift towards an understanding of ethics not as a generalized philosophy of morals, but as a tacit and articulated background to our actions then ethics finds a
means to anchor itself at the very heart of spatiality. Architecture strives on the investigation of something this multiple and engaging. Mies was not infatuated with architectural structure in a traditional sense so much as he was concerned with the structure of our given forms of life. It is the reason why he knew already in the 1920’s that, ‘The building art is only vital when it is supported by life in all its fullness.’19 It remains the corner stone of his spatial cosmology, which as a process of ceaseless making renders architecture capable of sustaining its rather unique epistemological model. There is a telling passage in a book that Mies valued enormously and kept in his personal library for years. It contains several drawings of the great cathedrals in France by Auguste Rodin, most of which are represented as a series of isolated details rendered rather beautifully in black ink. Despite their fragmentation, the most provocative drawings still manage to offer a sense of their embeddedness within a larger whole. The juxtaposition between drawing and text also reaches certain levels of interconnectedness when, as for instance, in the very first chapter Rodin writes that, “A cathedral is built on the principal of living bodies.”20 I can imagine no better adage for Mies’s final work.
1 Mies Van der Rohe, The Artless Word: Mies Van der Rohe on the Building Art, ed. Fritz Neumeyer (Cambridge, MA and London, The MIT Press, 1991), 246. 2 Ibid. 3 Franz Schulze, Mies Van der Rohe: A Critical Biography (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1985), 299. 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid, 300. 6 Ad Reinhardt, Art-As-Art in Art and Design Profile, No. 34 ( London, Academy Group Ltd., 1994), 21. 7 Ibid. 8 Charlotte Douglas, Suprematism: The Sensible Dimension, in Russian Review, Vol. 34, No. 3 (July, 1975), 278. 9 Kasimir Malevich in Douglas, 280. 10 Ad Reinhardt, The Black-Square Paintings (1955), reprinted in Art and Design Profile, No. 34 ( London, Academy Group Ltd., 1994), 31. 11 Mies Van der Rohe in Neumeyer, 245. 12 Ibid., 262. 13 See Keneth Frampton’s entry for Mies in his volume, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London and New York, Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992) or Ludwig Hilberseimer’s brief essay Kasimir Malevich and the Non-Objective World in Art Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Winter, 1960-1961), pp. 82-83. 14 Mies Van der Rohe and H.P. Berlage quoted in Neumeyer, 57. 15 Detlef Mertins, Mies’s Event Space, in Grey Room, No. 20 (Cambridge, The MIT Press, Summer 2005), 64. 16 Neumeyer, 47. 17 Ibid. 18 Ibid., 71. 19 Mies Van der Rohe in Neumeyer, 262. 20 Auguste Rodin, Cathedrals of France (Conneticut: Black Swan Books, LTD, 1965), 3. *Images were collaged by author based on existing photos from the MVDR Archive at the MoMA, NYC.