Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Less is More : More is Good?

Above: Crown Hall and Me. Below: Campus Building IIT

"Less is More" - Mies Van Der Rohe

"I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good." Mies Van Der Rohe

In my opinion it seems Mies Van Der Rohe followed Durand’s concepts most fully in the campus buildings that he made at IIT in Chicago (aside from Crown Hall). These were his first built works in America, and utilized a system of bays and units in plan and bays and units in elevation to create a framework for all the buildings. This was very similar to Durands’ ideas of systematized building units. Mies also cut away all flak, using in his stripped down buildings a factory aesthetic that arose from the outgrowth of his design process. He eliminated any hint of ceremonial space in these buildings. They were truly utilitarian. That’s why they don’t carry the grace as most of his other built works. Aside from the beautiful corner steel details and the interesting coloring of the glass and brick, these buildings really seem to lack in charm. But that is one reason I find them fascinating. I mean how did a German coming to a very conservative country like America convince a college campus to create utilitarian box classrooms that looked like factories? Indeed, the first building he built on the campus was a factory! It’s fascinating and it’s boldness and daring bring it up a few points in my book. Mies could have easily theorized that he had created a unitized building system, just like Durand did, and declared he would use it for all other buildings for the rest of his life. Indeed he refined a different type of building with his skyscrapers. An undiscerning eye could probably not make out the subtle refinements between Lake Shore Apartments, The Seagram Building and The IBM Building. These skyscrapers were very much in Durand’s spirit as well.

But what compelled him to break away from type in Crown Hall? It does not share the same units as the other buildings, instead it freely floats on the inside supported by giant exterior beams that do all the work out of sight. The ceiling is high and grand, the staircases are detailed to float, and it is symmetrical. These do not seem like Rationalist choices of the like he did with the other university low-rises. It seems Mies was doing something else, and was willfully creating a spiritual space. A space dictated by aesthetic, not pragmatics. What was the lesson he was teaching his students? In comparison to the other buildings they would see on campus, I imagine they felt a little confused, or maybe even deified. THE ARCHITECTURE BUILDING was a grand space and everything else was lesser. Even the Chapel was a humble building that had more in common with the other buildings than Crown Hall! Perhaps he was commenting on his esteem for architects. Despite it’s lofty aims, Crown Hall is still created of units and is rigorously disciplined. It is a logical building to itself. All pesky functional rooms are relegated to the basement out of sight and out of mind. The main floor is for studio, the sacred act of creating architecture.

Mies was an interesting contradiction. His most famous line was Less is More. If we look at the phrase for a second it is confusing. If less is more, then is more good? Was he actually advocating more? It does not appear that way in his buildings. But it is more a spiritual phrase than a rationalist phrase. The less a building does in the real world, the more spiritually fulfilling it is? But Mies had do to so much to create Less. He had to hide utilities, he had to arrange program to fit in cores, he had to develop better facade technology, and he used industrialized ornamentation to articulate the parts of a building. Honesty was not his goal, but a concept of honesty. Which is interesting when looking at Mies the man. He was fat, indulged in expensive suits, and constantly smoked cigars. Outwardly it appears he lived an indulgent lifestyle. I marvel at the demons he tackled in his life.

Taken with all his other built works in America, in Crown Hall we see the creation of the third building type Mies created: The Open Pavillion. This along with the utilitarian low-rise and the skyscraper were all refinements of basically the same vocabulary over decades. So the question remains, was he a rationalist or a spiritualist?

Another interesting question lies in his transformation of approach between his European work and his American work. What about America caused him to curb his overtly avant-garde tendencies? ......

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