We know that Mies was aware of the ambiguous nature of glass based on his interest in its reflective possibilities for the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922. Further evidence of the elusive qualities of glass can be seen in the Barcelona Pavilion where he uses shallow water pools to magnify the mystifying qualities about each material. Mies would have you believe that his liberal use of glass in his projects in America achieved a clarity and honesty about program and structure. Indeed, for the most part, this is true. It appears his American projects sought to downgrade the mystical qualities that he was exploiting in his Avant-Garde period, but this is specious. What Mies did was assimilate the residual effects of minimalist architecture into a more subtle and sublime whole. The effects and illusions of materiality were framed within order for maximum viewing of their mystical qualities.
A building that is fraught with angles and strange juxtapositions competes with the natural mysteries of the materials it’s clad in. A building specifically made to highlight a material may go overboard in its architecturality and lessen the very qualities it was trying to enshrine. An example that comes to mind is the metal cladding found on many Frank Gehry Projects. The shiny qualities and games that are played with the reflectivity of the metal are both heightened and hindered by the form of the building. In other words, the form of the building competes with the inherent qualities of the materials. Materials framed in less intrusive forms have their qualities heightened because they are not competing with the architecture itself.
Firstly, in the Barcelona Pavilion we find a much more conventionally ordinary plan compared to the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922, however the games played with the reflectivity of glass are stunning. Planes of glass float past one another, and in the interstitial space between the overlaps we get mirroring effects. The glass envelope, which is ambiguously shaped in a De Stilj type diagram, gives the illusion of virtual space. Materials beside glass also obsess over reflectivity: columns are sheathed in chrome, the marble walls are glossy, and the travertine floor on a rainy day becomes a mirror reflecting the entire building. A rainy day would be ideal to see the Barcelona Pavilion, the maximum in spiritual space; it’s material qualities as elusive as it’s program! These residual effects of minimalism unimpeded by obstreperous architectural form are the “more” part in the idiom Less is More. The rippling water, reflectivity and matchbook marble almost give the building a quality of Baroque-ness, which is certainly unexpected when describing a Mies building.
In the Chicago Federal Center in Downtown we have an interesting example of the games that glass plays within Mies’ less Avant- Garde and more classically inspired buildings he did in America. What is interesting and inescapable when looking up at these skyscrapers are the mosaics of the surrounding buildings reflected in the black sounding board of the glass and I-beam grid. The reflections seem part of the buildings, as if they were applied decoration! What’s interesting and jarring at the same time is seeing the adjacent Mies tower reflected in the other one. Unlike the decorated and more solid surrounding buildings that survive the reflectivity relatively unharmed, a Mies reflection of a Mies is engulfing. The building is swallowed up like a black hole; light is absent from the void reflection, like an ominous doppelganger from the other side.
The large sculpture, Flamingo, by Alexander Calder is an integral part of the building, and is perfectly framed by the austerity of Mies’ facades. But, the buildings do play games with the sculpture. The Post Office reflects the sculpture, and upon approach from the southwest, it is unclear whether the half we see on the post office is a mirrored reflection or if we are just seeing completely through the building to the rest of the sculpture. Upon closer inspection, it is indeed a reflection. The Post Office has distorted the reality of the sculpture.
Reflectivity in glass is mostly an outdoor game with facades, except at night where this is reversed and the inside becomes reflective. I imagine this can be unsettling to a person, not being able to see outside, but knowing that anyone could be watching them. I would guess a night in the Farnsworth house after a horror movie with the lights on, obscuring the outdoors would be an unsettling experience.
Glass is a material that on the surface appears to clarify the nature of a building. The more glass used, the more we understand about its program and structural diagram. However, an overabundance of glass can undermine this purpose and create major ambiguities with reflectivity. A master architect will understand this and embrace the contradiction. I know Mies did. His Less was always More.