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IUAV Venice, Architecture Design Studio 1I, Academic Year 1991-1992 Student: Francesco Sgrazzutti A Discussion on the Essential Themes in the Architecture of Mies van der Rohe Figure 1: Tugendhat House, plan

Every project of Mies van der Rohe is a system of distinct elements associated to distinct functions. As a home is basically a covered and protected place suitable for dwelling, through a process of refinement of its elements Mies reduces it into a basic system consisting of two horizontal planes (the ground and the roof) separated by vertical segments (the supports), and an enclosure. The combination of these four elements defines the essential character of the project while a limited number of additional ones contribute to its further characterization. These elements relate to each other and together create a place for dwelling and yet they each maintain a formal individuality. This allows the architect to take advantage of not only the role they play as part of a system but also their primitive expressive potential.

Spatial Model and Free Plan The plan of Tugendhat House (built 1929-30) aspires to a limitless spatial freedom, void of obstacles and acting instead as a filter to spatial movement ordered along given, fluid trajectories. The regular, orthogonal grid of supports is what suggests that the plan ideally projects beyond the limit of the enclosure. In fact, given a finite series of equal elements, while a perimeter disposition is perceived as a closed figure with an inside and an outside drawn onto

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a pre-existing space, a Cartesian disposition describes the space itself and the abstract order that generates it. Fig. 2: Disposition on a Grid and along a Perimeter

In Tugendhat House, the supports which are all identical, rising with no articulation in elevation, as perfect extrusions of their cruciform plan which confirms the rule from which they originated. They allude to the infinite space of which they are a limited sample. Accordingly, their chrome plating makes them reflective of the surrounding and accentuates their responsiveness to the ever-changing chromatic values of the environment rather than their presence as physical objects. Light seems to be their prevailing constitutive matter and, similarly to their own mirrored images on glass and other reflective planes, they tend to be abstract forms, geometric entities infinitely replicable, like the points of a Cartesian plane. Fig. 3: Farnsworth House, plan

In the Farnsworth House the supports accentuate the limit of the roof by aligning along its perimeter. In such a relationship between roof and supports, the former has the leading role, and the accent is placed on the covered space that is free of supports and on the tectonic role of the elements which are rigidly and univocally bonded. This system does not contain the 2|P ag e


infinity of the grid represented by the space as we found it in the Tugendhat House and the supports are not abstract forms: there are eight of them and they are welded to two sides of the roof’s perimeter.

As stated above, while the space of the Tugendhat House ideally extends beyond the limits of the house itself and embraces the landscape adding to it its abstract limitlessness, Farnsworth House, more traditionally, is a new figure added to the ground now articulated in a positive, the space of the house, and then a negative, the space of nature.

Free Plan and Vertical Supports The examples of Tugendhat House and Farnsworth House show that for Mies van der Rohe the vertical structure plays a central role in defining the spatial quality of architecture. Mies states: “the ‘plan libre’ and a regular structure cannot be separated”, “without this skeleton the plan would not be free but chaotic.” If the supports followed an irregular pattern or they were different from each other they would turn the attention away from the space and towards a collection of different individual episodes.

The spatial freedom of the Tugendhat House and the Farnsworth House, even though as we have seen are different in approach and purpose, have in common the clear distinction of functions and the correspondence to distinct architectonic elements. While in the Farnsworth House the fatigue of the structure is exhibited in the eight supports tangent to the perimeter, in the Tugendhat House it is absorbed in the nodes of the Cartesian grid, ideally indifferent to the extension of floor and ceiling. As per the aesthetic quality of the verticals elements in the Tugendhat House, it is invisibly carried along their axes, away from our awareness. The effect in Tugendhat House is that architecture is freed from the tyranny of gravity and that, like a blank canvas, the space between floor and ceiling is ready to be characterized in obedience to our aesthetic, finally relieved from the concerns of weight and obstacles.

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Fig. 4: Mies van der Rohe, Collage

Glass and Natural Space With the insertion of glass, the Tugendhat House turns from abstract to physical. The glass mediates between these two dimensions that coexist in the project. Moreover the glass is the case preserving the Cartesian order, which through the glass, emanates to the natural surroundings. It is the only trace of an inside and an outside, and the exception to a space without obstacles that surprises us with its lack of limits.

Once the project becomes a physical object, not only is an idea concretized in livable forms, but mutually, the physical site is also enriched by the abstract order provided by the project. Since the house doesn’t stop at the glass but extends over the surrounding landscape, the territory as a whole becomes the dwelling space. On the other hand, the ever-changing colors of nature pass through the big glass walls and become an integral part of the dwelling experience. Traditional windows, however, are only secondary elements necessary for letting in air and light from the outside world that is otherwise excluded from the domestic one, and glass is applied as a tap onto these openings as if they are little more than a void.

In Mies’s buildings, glass replaces walls, it has the dimension of walls, is rather a wall with a specific quality that makes it unique: the permeability to light. It actively contributes to the architecture, capturing any transition of form and color in nature and carrying it both inside and reflecting it back outside at different measures depending on the hour of the day, the luminosity of the sky, the angle of light rays and its own transparency. The outside world enters the house after having been filtered through the glass which only lets in the desirable features 4|P ag e


and keeps out what we don’t like. Nature doesn’t become part of the house because it’s simply there as it happens through terraces and patios, but because of the glass is there; and if an open space is obviously unified, a space divided with glass shows the will to be unified. Fig. 5: Collage by the author

The architecture of the Tugendhat House metaphorically alludes to the domestication of nature by man. And while our everyday domestic activities are immersed in nature, our admiration of its beauty from our privileged point of observation behind the glass screen is also accompanied by a sense of domination, as we, for instance, sip our tea in the middle of the woods. In the Tugendhat House, nature, completely controlled, becomes part of architecture, without any distinction from the other elements of the project.

Isolated Elements Associated by the Function of Dwelling To the observer from the outside, objects and activities contained within the glass case appear special because of their privileged location. They are obviously on display but at the same time they are not within reach. Among the objects, there are beautiful panels of natural materials, spanning from floor almost to the ceiling, some planar and others curved, freely located in space and from each other. The first time the visitor enters the Tugendhat House, they will be surprised that those objects on display are also devices for the organization of the dwelling space, which in the traditional house is the task of walls and partitions.

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Fig. 6: Mies van der Rohe, sketch of house with patio (1934)

In his project for a museum for a small city, Mies locates Picasso’s Guernica as if it is a partition that is free all around. In this way, the painting stays isolated, benefiting greatly from its location, while at the same time it is firmly united with the rest of the building as one of its constitutive elements. Similarly, the natural panels of the Tugendhat House are the means through which the free plan becomes a home, while their individuality emphasizes their value.

Relationship: Glass - Walls The experience of the Tugendhat House is followed by the project of the model house for the Berlin building exhibition (1931). Here Mies implements a variety of septa that are located not only within the glass enclosure but also outside it and and times even projecting out through it. Fig. 7: Model House at the Berlin Exhibit, plan

This project explores how walls can be used as space unifiers, as much as they can be used in their traditional role as dividers. The two effects happen simultaneously since a wall dividing a space creates on one hand two sectors and on the other hand, each of these sectors is 6|P ag e


endowed with a stronger identity than the original open space simply due to its constant relationship and juxtaposition with its equal counterpart beyond the wall.

In the model house at the Berlin Exhibition this effect is amplified by the combination of walls and glass. They only align as an exception. For the most part, they meet at an angle of 90 degrees with the effect that anyone who looks through the glass experiences a double connection with what he sees beyond it: one is visual, thanks to the glass, and the other is physical since the wall he can touch on this side of the glass continues on to the other side of it. Glass, as we have seen, has a double nature: a unifying one which is visual and perpendicular to its plane and a physical one that separates, parallel to it. These two opposite features coexist in an equilibrium of mutual accentuation. Once a septum crosses the glass at 90 degrees, its direction competes with the plane of the glass, but it accentuates the direction of vision which results as more emphasized. On the other hand, when glass and wall are aligned, the physical separation induced by the glass is absorbed in the effect of the wall and the visual connection resulting by the contrast with the glass as a solid plane is also weakened. Fig. 8: Glass – Wall Combinations

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Like in the Tugendhat House, the free plan is made possible by the use of punctual supports, while the septa are not structural and along with the glass screens are exclusively used for articulating the space. The freedom with which these elements are located in plan and the mutual relationship that they have with each other creates a dwelling where enclosed spaces, patios and covered terraces blur into each other in such a way that talking about inside and outside loses its meaning.

Brick Country House, 1923 Also in the project for a country house Mies uses walls that freely extend outward for tens of meters. These walls, like roots, bind house and nature. The difference with the model house and Tugendhat house is however essential: here there is no use of a system of punctual supports and the walls also function structurally. Fig. 9: Brick Country House, plan

However, the plan of the brick country house aspires to an abstract composition in as much as the space, even though not generated by a punctual system, originates from another primitive element of geometry: the straight line. Now, we have seen how the use of a Cartesian order in these projects is the basis for the free plan and the question remains whether the latter could be created by the use of an order based on lines instead of points. We think that the abstract model works as long as we can imagine it extending indefinitely and with infinite variations. 8|P ag e


But once the lines become walls the allusion to spatial freedom is contradicted by the fact that they are finite elements of a finite composition, unlike the cruciform supports of the Tugendhat House that do not participate in the composition and leave the characterization of the space to other elements. Therefore, like in the Farnsworth House there is no metaphor of an abstract space, and the extending walls of the brick country house cross the natural space of the site dividing it into multiple sectors. Moreover, since each point on the site is simultaneously included in several such sectors, the senses of enclosure or openness and exclusion smoothly transition from one to the other as in the model house at the Berlin Exhibition. This puts the Brick Country House ideally in an intermediate stage between Farnsworth House and Tugendhat House in Mies’s development of a dwelling based on the free plan.

The themes of Mies’s architecture analyzed above show how the research of the architect was focused on the re-interpretation of the elements of the composition in a post-classical manner. Thanks to the possibility offered by modern production and the freedom it allows in construction, the role of the traditional elements of architecture (walls, structure, openings, nature) and their mutual relationships have been brought to their primitive potential through a process of abstraction. This renders possible the creation of a new form of plan originated from a continuous space, free of boundaries and alternate to the classical interpretation of architecture as a counterpart to nature, and represents a crucial contribution in setting the base of the Modern Movement.

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Bibliography

Ludwig Hilberseimer, Mies van der Rohe, ed. CLUP, Milan, 1984 Franz Schulze, Mies van der Rohe, ed. Jaca Book, Milan, 1989 Werner Blaser, Mies van der Rohe, ed. Zanichelli, 1991 Arthur Drexler, Mies van der Rohe, ed. Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1960 Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, New York 1947, 1978 Max Bill, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Milan 1955 Norberg Schulze, Mies van der Rohe Bruno Zevi, Storia dell’architettura moderna Wolf Tegethoff, Die Villen und Landhausprojekte von Mies van der Rohe, Essen 1981 Domus magazine, 678 (1986) Ludwig Glaeser and Yukio Futagava, Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois, 194550, Global Architecture magazine 27 (1974)

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Essential Themes in the Architecture of Mies van der Rohe