Mies van der Rohe and Modern Architecture

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The history of modern architecture and its enduring legacy are due in large part to several influential architects working during the 19th and 20th centuries. Modernist designs of architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and his declaration of “less is more,” continues to play a key role in current architectural theory and design (Curtis, 2011, p. 110). Socio-cultural circumstances such as World War I, World War II and the industrial and technological revolutions all contributed to the design principles of modern architecture. As a key figure in the development of modern architectural design, Mies van der Rohe was considered the master of structural grid designs that were focused on straight lines and right angles. Most notably, van der Rohe was the designer of the Main Campus Building of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The focus of this paper will be to introduce Mies van der Rohe and the influence his ideas and designs have had on modern architecture as well as to reference some of his works and design aesthetics.

Biography and Legacy

Van der Rohe was both a student and teacher of architecture, most importantly, of the German Bauhaus School of Design. With the rise of Nazism during the 1930s, van der Rohe found his position as a master of his craft, transferring to the United States soon after. Heading the Department of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology allowed van der Rohe the opportunity to develop his theory on the philosophy of the Bauhaus movement, first by synthesizing aesthetics and then incorporating technology to build the foundation for modern architecture and design.

The same principles of design allowed for movement and flow, the first implementation in van der Rohe’s original design. Importantly, van der Rohe was the first chairman to board the architecture department at IIT, spending his time to enhance twenty buildings on the sprawling campus, paying particular attention to encompassing all the buildings in one main area. In 2005, the area was designated an architectural landmark of Chicago, having been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. To say that van der Rohe influenced other architects would be a gross understatement, as he influenced many architects throughout his career.

Mies’ long-lasting career spanned six decades. Upon his death, he left behind a substantial amount of work yet to be completed, both partially constructed projects and those still in the form of blueprints. From his work and his plans, students of architecture have been left the gift of modern architecture, “with meticulous, organic simplicity” (Zimmerman, 2006, p. 7). Mies’ buildings show consistency in planning, particularly the latter half of his career, as “visibly composed reactions to the architectural challenges of the 20th century (Zimmerman, 2006, p.7). Before that, his German architectural designed was quite different and more traditional than the modern designs he brought to Chicago. As Zimmerman notes, throughout his lifetime, however, Mies remained focused on a single endeavor: “finding solutions to the new architectural problems of an industrialized age” (p. 7).

Mies van der Rohe was born the son of a stonemason, working with the most primate form of building elements. His first job was working at his father’s shop in Aachen, Germany. Mies relocated to Berlin in 1905 at the age of 19 and began working with architects and learning from them. Bruno Paul was one of Mies’ teachers; he studied under his directions from 1903 to 1908. Shortly after moving to Berlin, Mies received his first independent contract at age 20. The same year Mies began working with Peter Behrens, one of the most reputable architectural firms in Europe at the time. Mies credits Behrens for teaching him the importance of ‘the Great Form.’ (Zimmerman, 2006, p7-9).

Additionally, it was under Behrens’s leadership that Mies came across the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel. This man would have a lasting impact on Mies’ work for the rest of his life. Just a few years after moving to Berlin, Mies was introduced to the architecture of the renowned Frank Lloyd Wright. His work also became a strong influence on Mies’ own design and architectural theories. Other influences include the writings of Hendrik Petrus Berlage. Mies credits Berlage for inspiring in him the “idea of clear construction as one of the fundamentals we should accept.” Later on in his life, Mies conceded: “Behrens taught me the Great Form, Berlage the structure” (Zimmerman, 2006, p7-9).

Mies opened his first office in Berlin in 1912, still holding the tradition design aesthetics of his early work on German homes and estates. The German villas commissioned to Miles are markedly different and yet one can not deny their impact on his conception of space and particularly use of space, i.e. areas designated for particular purposes. After World War I, Mies’ perception of design moved radically towards the notion of form follows function, inspired largely by the industrialization of Europe. Machinery was built for a specific purpose, and he realized his designs should mimic this philosophy. It was during this time that his new architectural language of the grid and simplicity in design took root.


The Structural Grid

Mies van der Rohe is credited for two famous statements that help describe both himself and his work: “I don’t want to be interesting; I want to be good,” and, of course, “Less is more,” which were primary guiding principles for all of his designs that were both functional and stripped down in their simplicity (Trachtenberg, 2002, p.505). Mies’ focus was consistently on the perfection of structure, detail, and balance or proportions. (Trachtenberg, 2002, p. 505). Mies cared less about aesthetics and more about simplicity and utility in a design that would simply serve its purpose. Mies’ would never be found adding ornate details to his designs that were not necessary. While his goal might have been to create something understated, the sheer beauty in the simplicity and structural clarity make his designs something to marvel at. (Trachtenberg, 2002).

Relations to International Style

Mies van der Rohe is considered to be the father of International Style. ‘Fitness for purpose,’ elsewhere called form follows function, was the fundamental goal of the designers who advocated for this style. Buildings taking this approach have the qualities of basic simple forms, asymmetrical features, and “their white rendering interfered simply by horizontal window strips” (Kuhl, 67). Functionalism in modern architecture is a clear approach to efficient utilization. Modern architecture can be considered functional by the means by which it accommodates the specific uses for which it has been created, so that all fundamentals of the design “provide balanced and utilitarian boundaries”; or like Louis Sullivan succinctly put it, “form follows function.” Functionalism itself “is more of a theory of production than utilization” (Kuhl). Principals of functionalism the International Style context were: “an understanding of structure in terms of geometric volume (grids, matrices, cubes) in order to economize structural stability and maximize interior space; a utilization of regularized and standardized elements in construction operations in order to promote the use of pre-fabricated components and also as a way to drive down construction costs” (Read). As the initiator of International Style, Mies’s values adhere to the doctrine of International Style quite exactly.

Architecture and Civilization

Mies van der Rohe held that architecture was a result of and eventually turns into an expression of the particular culture of the society it was dictated by. He also believed that its objective comprehension was to be achieved by using clear and simple construction; According to Carter (1974): “Architecture at its best, Mies believed, can be nothing more than a mirror image of the advancing and sustaining forces of an era.” Furthermore, “Architecture is not a style, nor does it last forever; it is a fragment of a period; is what Mies van der Rohe believed” (Carter, 1974). With technological advancement and societal change, Mies sensed a need for universality in the period in which he lived in and he adopted this belief as truth: “I have tried to make an architecture for a technological society”, he stated, “I have wanted to keep everything reasonable and clear—to have an architecture that anybody can do” (Carter, 1974, p. 7).

Construction and Use of Material

Mies van der Rohe’s understanding of both the potential and the limits of the materials with which we build, especially the materials commonly used in his time such as steel and glass, permitted him to cultivate his own unique understanding of the possibilities of these elements in regards to constriction. He endeavored to use these simple and often harsh materials in a poetic and yet organized way. According to Carter, “He considered construction as a primary characteristic of architecture that he would frequently include the German word ‘Baukunst’ into a discussion on the subject so that he could explain his meaning of it more clearly. The ‘bau’, he would clarify, “is the clear building construction; while the ‘kunst’ is the refinement of that and not anything more.” (Carter, 1974, p.7). As Mies believed: “Architecture begins when two bricks are put carefully together” (Carter, 1974, p. 7).

Although Mies focused on the simple and available elements commonly used in construction and reimaged their portrayal in a construction project, he did get fancy from time to time. Wherever he had the opportunity, Mies used more refined architectural materials, such as travertine, marbles tinted glass, bronze and water elements, which produced the juxtaposition of “sharp sensitivity and elegance” (Trachtenberg) The notion of space itself was a vital part of Mies’ designs. Space and lack of space were the most basic of architectural materials and yet it’s impact was largely overlooked by other architects. Mies was able to evoke a sense of luxury in his modern designs through the use of simplicity in his construction along with these more refined and richly applied building materials. It is of note, though, that Mies favored the use of steel and glass since it was best able to show off the structural grid employed in his designs and yet also the simplicity of his projects.

Form, Functionalism, and Modernism

Rather than the typical associations of modern architecture with “form follows function,” that was first declared by Luis Sullivan, Mies went beyond functionalism, creating his own preference for the clarity of the structural grid in his design. (Frampton, 231). Since the purpose of a building would inevitably change over time, a clean grid design would allow for multiple purposes on a single structure. Mies’ functionalism, therefore, was to create a universal structural system in which form provided for any function, rather than specifics of the buildings primary purpose; his designs would easily translate from one type of building to another, perhaps from warehouse to home or to campus building—they all followed the same structural grid pattern in his later designs. The only fixed elements in his building were the fundamental design aspects (Carter, 37).

Mies van der Rohe believed that technology was born out of the culture in society. His work fluctuates between asymmetry and symmetry; this distinction could be found by comparisons of two of his designs, or even within one building. The discrepancy between space and structure fascinated Mies and is evident in all of his designs that use the lack of solidity—i.e. transparency—to create balance and his own unique design aesthetic. When structure is needed, Mies often uses glass to uphold the feeling of space and open design. Glass also allows for reflection, another form of symmetry. He used it in such a way that allows the material to transform under light from ‘the appearance of the reflective surface to the disappearance of the surface into pure transparency’ (Frampton, 232). Modern glass materials made with special glass treatments to ensure durability was used extensively in Mies’ designs.

Mies tried to put one of his design principles in words when he said: “I believe that architecture has little or nothing to do with the invention of interesting forms or with personal inclinations. True architecture is always objective and is the expression of the inner structure of our time from which it springs.” Mies’s mode of representation appealed to ‘efficiency, cleanliness, organization, and standardization’, and as a result was suitable for a ‘big-business’ country like America (Curtis, 407-9).

Major Projects

Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Mies van der Roehe arrived in Chicago in 1938, becoming the Director of Architecture at the Armour Institute, which is now Illinois Institute of Technology, with the assignment of redesigning the curriculum (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.). It wasn’t long after that he was also given the task of redesigning the campus as well. According to the Mies van der Rohe Society (2013), “The campus excels in defining the relationships of campus to city, buildings to campus, and voids to buildings” (n.p.). The first outline developed in 1939 necessitated the removal of State Street in the city to allow for an open plaza surrounded by buildings elevated on steel columns (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.). The society explains, “In the realized plan, clusters of buildings placed on a grade create a series of informal open spaces through a playful shifting of solid (i.e. buildings) and void (i.e. green space). A 24-foot square grid invisibly overlays the campus to guide its order. Then, by sliding the building volumes beyond one another rather than aligning them, Mies created expanding and contrasting views, which offer a variety of unexpected experiences, reflecting the spatial concepts in the Barcelona pavilion on a much larger scale”(Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.). Kim (2006) describes this similar building principle in the following way: In his building art, the framing construction was not a concept contrary to that of space but rather one incorporated into space, as evidenced in correlation between Mies’ evolving framing forms for spatial openness to nature and verbal description of each built space.” It is clear that Mies’ use of open space was as significant in the layout of the campus as was space to be designated building areas, in turn having structure and lack of structural balance and complement one another.

The placement of the buildings defines the plaza areas without enclosing them, “combining the intimacy of a Harvard quad with the openness of Jefferson’s U.Va.” (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.). The campus plan has its own legacy as does Mies van der Rohe; it represents the first time in which Mies used the grid as an organizing design principle. It is surmised by Phyllis Lambert, that the design was "perhaps an idea derived from the 5-acre Chicago city block, an American urban grid distinctly different from the winding streets, enclosed squares and axial alignment of European planning." (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.). Others have commented on the enduring value of the design: “It is the beautiful ambiguity of the IIT campus that the status of its built substance oscillates between object and tissue, that its modules imply potential extension yet end emphatically, that its structures hover between recessive foreground and prominent background." (Rem Koolhaas, 2001) (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.)

One of the features of the design not often noted is a kind of side effect of his master plan for the IIT campus. Tierney (2008) comments, “It was found that the adoption of Mies' language of architectural modernism for IIT abolished the sidewalks, cafes, homes, and businesses of the "Black Metropolis," the incubator of Chicago's African American Renaissance of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.” (p. iii). Rem Koolhaas' “postmodern intervention” on the IIT campus was based upon his idea of globalization and market-based approaches that he used to stage so-called urban spectacles on campus and in the Bronzeville area of the city, once the physical manifestation of a Black renaissance based on the cultural creations of artists (Tierney, 2008, p. iii). Koolhaas was the first architect after Mies to design a building on the IIT campus for forty years (Wright, 2008).

S. R. Crown Hall

Crown Hall signifies the first large-scale recognition of Mies van der Rohe’s idea for a ‘clear-span’ building. It is surely the most exceptional building built by Mies at IIT; Crown Hall looks particularly different from the other buildings on campus. As he had established a particular language and a system of order for the whole campus, Mies then allowed himself to change that order in his plan for the architecture building, which was Crown Hall (Zimmerman, 70). Because of his repeated use of glass and steel, to apply transparency and order, his concept of the structural grid is always evident in his buildings.

S.R. Crown Hall is an IIT campus building considered to be Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece. Perhaps van der Rohe’s greatest achievement in terms of his designs was the Senior Crown Hall of the Illinois Institute of Technology designed in 1941 (it would later see a $15,000,000 renovation effort in 2005, which was intended to improve the structure with advancements that are still in use today, more than sixty years later). Mies van der Rohe’s “home for ideas and adventures” has inspired students, architects, and admirers. (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.)

The purpose of the building project was to create a new home for the School of Architecture and the Institute of Design. Originally, the cost of such a structure caused a delay in breaking ground until 1954 when “Henry Crown, an IIT Trustee and industrial mogul, donated $250,000 from the Arie and Ida Crown Foundation (named for his parents)” (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.)

The University officially began construction of Crown Hall on December 2, 1954. Some problems initially arose with the design. According to The Mies van der Rohe Society (2013),“IIT professor, David Sharpe, recalled that city inspectors told Mies he ‘couldn’t build it as a classroom building, because the [steel] columns would have to be fireproofed’ with sprayed on concrete.” Of course, this went against the design aesthetics Mies intended as so instead of giving in, they negotiated to have the building designated as a warehouse instead. Inspectors created further problems for his design by mandating that railings had to be added to the porch. According the society, “Mies strongly resisted on the grounds that the porch, modeled after the one at Farnsworth House, was meant to float and railings would interrupt the illusion” (2013, n.p.) Despite his rebuttal, the railings were eventually installed on the porch of the building.

After a couple more construction obstacles, Crown Hall was completed in 1956, “and has since become the place where aspiring architects come to worship at the altar of Mies” (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.) In conjunction with Mies’ design principles, the building has a low rise and columnar steel frame. The Mies society’s website boasts, “Crown Hall looks like what the Greeks might have built for Zeus, had they known about I-beams. The translucent glass at floor-level speaks to contemplation and curiosity, while the clear glass higher up encourages visitors to lift their gaze upward and outward” (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2013, n.p.).

Mies’ life story mirrors the development of his design principles. Born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, Mies moved to Berlin at the young age of 19. His first architectural project was Riehl House in Potsdam, Germany. He completed this modern take on a somewhat traditional German design at age 21. It is perhaps in this project that we get the first glimpse of the modernist in him in terms of form follows function. The pronounced roof of the building was meant to emphasize its existence as a shelter—the epitome of what a home is and should be. The next series of buildings commissioned were mostly apartment buildings in a much more obvious modern, “less is more” aesthetic. These designs are very functional and boxy, without the frills of the homes he designed in his early years. 1930 was an important year for Mies when he became the Director of the Bahaus School in Germany, preparing him for his eventual role at IIT. When the school was shut down by the Nazi regime after 15 years of operation, Mies completed a few more modern, factory-like buildings in his home country before moving to Chicago in 1938, upon which we know he took over the schools architecture program and the campus in whole, reimagining and redesigning the functionality of this unique campus.


Mies’ legacy as an influential architect is apparent in modern designs that take into consideration his ideas of how industrialization and urbanization affect the need for standardization by using the aesthetic of simplicity. This is achieved through both his grid formations and through the materials he used to create structural clarity and transparency. Mies van der Rohe had an enormous impact on design theory of the 20th century, and both enduring works and nods to his style can be seen all over the world.


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