PURITY VS PRACTICALITY An Interview with Mies Van Der Rohe

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The day that William had been waiting for had finally come. He had gotten the news about a month ago so he had had ample time to get to grips with it. But in the last 24 hours he had gone through a range of emotions from panic to fear to sheer terror. He paced up and down the living room trying to shake the onset of nerves washing over him. Before he knew it he had made his way to the kitchen and had poured himself a cup of coffee. He took one sip of it and promptly threw it out. He would need his wits about him today and coffee made him to jittery. He settled instead for tea. The butterflies in his stomach seemed to settle down for a moment. His kitchen was unusually messy, his white countertops were littered with remnants of last night’s meal and he had forgotten to take out the bins for collection. He sat down at the table and decided to ignore the untidiness, after all today of all days he had more pressing matters at hand. From his kitchen he had a good view of the canal that wove in and out of the street he lived on. His view was unencumbered by the lack of bulky concrete walls that was once a staple in American housing design. He sat for a moment and watched as people crossed back and forth on the bridges over the canals, he was mesmerized by their seemingly carefree attitude. The chime of the clock brought him out of his thoughts. 9am, it was time. He went down the hallway into the living room, picked up his portfolio and nervously glanced at the mirror one last time then made his way out the door.

As he made his way down the road he was at odds with the business men hurrying up and down the street. They were eager to get to their destinations and he was still unsure about his. Overhead a cable car whisked by and disappeared into the thick tree canopy. He glance up briefly as it passed but he didn’t really pay any attention to it, another would be along soon. Across the road his favorite sycamore was begin to turn colours, signs of autumn. Children were playing underneath its leafy cover, jumping in and around its low hanging branches. Autumn really brought the city alive. Chicago more so than any other American city with the changing vegetation colours integrated into the cityscape. As he crossed over one of the mini streams stemming from the Chicago Lake he contemplated how he thought the day’s events would unfold. William had always been weary of making fruitless predications but on this occasion he let his mind wander. When he had gotten the confirmation last month that he had been granted an interview, he had felt nothing but joy. He was a confident man and very little could shake him. Of course he was the best person for job any idiot could see that and they’d be fools not to hire him! On the other hand he was interviewing for perhaps the most influential person in the city. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe the German born architect. No one had had more impact in the city in recent memory and with good reason. The American iconic building had been created by him and that style was now being copied and used all over the world. His philosophies and ideas which at one point had seemed radically, had been accepted and implemented over and over to the point where whole cities had been transformed into this new “Nominal Purist style”. He recalled the newspaper clipping he had seen a while back.


One of the most notable figures of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe will be honoured at the Museum of Modern Art with an exhibition being held from the 19th of September through to the 23rd of November. After its New York showing the exhibition will be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago then off to Berlin and Barcelona respectively.

This country may now be assisting in the birth of architecture as expressive of the industrial age as Gothic was of its age of ecclesiasticism. Designed and installed by the architect himself, the exhibition will consist of a range of work done from 1912 to the present day. Both realized and unrealized projects will be shown together, which show the breath of exploration undertaken by Mies. The exhibit will comprise of plans, renderings and models spread out over 3 floors of gallery space. On a few standing walls as well as the rear and sides of the museum will be enormous 20 x 14 feet photomurals. Furniture designed by Mies will also be on display.

One of the key elements of the exhibition will be the architect’s new campus designs for the Illinois Institute of Technology where he has been Director of Architecture since 1938. When completed the campus will be a unique example of planning by a great modern architect. Simultaneously with the opening, the museum will publish a definitive volume on the architect and his work by Philip C. Johnson. Although a lot of his work was already well known by individuals in the architectural world, it was Mr Johnson who made the American public aware of Mies and his accomplishments. In the new book Mr. Johnson presents the first complete analysis and appreciation of Mies van der Rohe’s work. He acknowledges the impact Mies has had in shaping American cities and express a kinship with him through early training and artistic vision. Mr. Johnson writes:

“Ludwig Mies - he later added his mother’s maiden surname, van der Rohe was born in 1886 in the city of Aachen on the border of Germany and the Low countries. He never received any formal training in architecture, learning instead from his father a master mason. By actually working on building sites he learnt as a boy what many school trained architects never learn: the endless possibilities and limitations of construction. As he grew up he began to question the practice of separating nature from architecture. After all did the ancient man not once live amongst the trees? And thus he began to develop his architectural position. A pure design aesthetic, design the building in the most minimal way possible and let nature fill in the gaps.”

His best known works abroad were the Barcelona Pavilion, where he used the idea of waterfalls and moats to create a natural screen and protective border around the property. And the famous Tugendhat House, Czechoslovakia with its open plan and “missing” wall which allowed for the conservatory to breach the interior of the house providing a natural transition to the outside space. Of this Mr. Johnson writes:

“It is truly one of the few manifestations of the contemporary spirit that justifies comparison to the architecture of the past. Here we have Mies expressing design ideals so many have been tentative to pursue. Without restriction he has fully shown the extent of what he considers pure architecture, the melding of the artificial man made with the natural. A return to ones roots. The expert craftsmanship, and rich materials responding to the whims of nature, which is no longer a mere background player but now fully thrust onto the center stage. Such imagination has redefined how we consider space.”

Mies’s position as a pioneer rests on his implementation of what he calls the “Nominal Purist style” The design of minimal steel skeletal structures that allow for nature to breach what would normally be considered internal space. Mies van der Rohe has been –

And the rest of the article had gone in in the same sort of celebratory fashion. While William didn’t necessarily agree with all of Mies’s ideas he couldn’t deny the impact they had on the architectural community. His Nominal Purist style had caught on like wild fire and where developers couldn’t get Mies to design something for them they got someone to design in his style. The fundamental aspect of the Nominal style being that vegetation and nature shouldn’t be contained in safe little compartments or only trotted out to provide a somewhat predictable backdrop for architects to play in. Instead it should be at the forefront, the same level as the architecture around it. Could a tree not make an adequate column? Or a boulder be a cornerstone? Now if only there weren’t so many birds leaving their droppings the city would be a utopia. Without really realizing where his feet had been taking him he had reached his destination. Mies’s downtown Chicago studio.


Stepping into the office William glanced around the room taking it all in. The office was full of movement and life, scarcely less quiet than the busy street he had just come from. All around him people were rushing up and down with papers and documents exchanging hurried conversation. The reception desk was empty, not knowing what to do or who to talk to he sat down in one of the chairs by the entrance and waited for someone to notice him. On the walls were framed images of some of Mies’s most notable work, each one had Mies posing somewhat nonchalantly in front of the building cigar in hand. But as you moved further away from the front door the drawings on the wall changed from more defined photographs and images to sketchier concepts. William wondered how many of these sketches would become realized projects.

“Charlie!” A young man sitting close to William called out to a colleague across the room.

“Charlie! Come here a moment”

Another young man hurried over with a look of slight irritation on his face.

“What is it Harry”

“Charlie, do you have the plans for the Farnsworth House, they were on my drawing board yesterday but I came in this morning and they were gone.” He sounded harassed and never stopped rifling through the mountain of papers on his desk as he spoke.

“Mies scooped them off your table to have a look at them” replied Charlie

“What! I was still working on them their not ready yet!” moaned Harry “he’s not going to be happy with them in their current state”

In reply Charlie shrugged and turned to walk away. At that moment a woman came up to William and said

“William, William Handsen”

“Yes” William replied sounding a little more nervous than he wanted to appear. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Yes, I’m William”.

“Follow me” she said barely glancing at him.

He followed her down the length of the room trying to keep his chin up and appear more sure of himself in doing so. As he walked past he could feel the questioning eyes of the employees following him. Instead of staring back he focused more on the office. It seemed to function more like an artist’s atelier than a commercial business. People were sitting in groups discussing ideas, some were sketching away at their desk while others were critiquing work that was pinned up on the wall. The room itself seemed to embody everything that Mies and his style stood for. It was a big open plan room with very few defined spaces. The perimeter was studded with chrome cross shaped columns holding up a roof with a foot long overhang. In the center of the room was an open atrium with a massive tree stretching out of it. Till that moment William hadn’t known the building was raised up off the ground. He could see the roots of the tree intertwining with the buildings columns in some sort of symbiotic relationship, which one was supporting the other?

The woman he was following stopped abruptly at the only fully enclosed room in the office. William looked at the name on the door. Mies van der Rohe, in bright gold letters. This was it. She knocked curtly on the door, there was no reply. She opened the door tentatively and revealed the empty room.

“Have a seat, Mr. Van der Rohe will be with you momentarily”

Before William could ask her any questions she had whisked herself out of the office.

William sat down in the not so comfortable chair and waited for Mies to appear. True to form the room was furnished very minimally especially compared to the chaos of the studio. All that was in the office was a glass desk with a majestic black leather swivel chair behind it. On the other side were two smaller leather chairs one of which William was sat in. In the corner was what appeared to be a half finished model of an ongoing project. The table was more or less empty except for a few pieces of paper. William could just make out the name at the top, Farnsworth House. The unfinished plans poor Harry was working on. He leaned over to study them. The housed subscribed to the nominal purist style but something about it seemed different to the other work he had seen from Mies in the same style. There seemed to be a subtle shift in emphasis. Whereas before architecture and nature had shared the foreground, in these plans it seemed that nature had more or less taken over completely, or was that a result of Harry’s incomplete work? Curiosity got the better of him and he stood up so he could get a closer look at the other drawings to see if they corresponded to what he was seeing in the plans. As he was rummaging through the papers, Mies himself walked into the office.


William was mortified, he had just been caught snooping around Mies van der Rohes desk by the man himself.

“I was just…” he began mumbling.

But Mies held up his hand shutting him up in an instant. He strolled to the other side of the table and sat down in the imposing leather chair. Not saying a word he contemplated William for a moment. William began to feel hot around the collar under the scrutiny of his gaze, should he apologize?

“I’m sorry for –“ he started but once again Mies cut him off with nothing more than a flick of his wrist. He rummaged in his desk for a moment and dug out a cigar. He lit it up and within seconds was engulfed in a cloud of smoke. William dared not make another sound. After what seemed like an age had passed Mies finally spoke.

“So” he started. “What did you think?”

William didn’t know what he was expecting but certainly not that.

Mies repeated himself “the plans, what did you think, I saw you looking at them.”

William found his voice “are they complete?” he asked

“The drawing is partially done but all the design elements are in there” said Mies, once again subjecting William to his intense stare.

William knew that to win over this uncompromising man he must tell the truth.

“It seems to be an extreme response, after all there are no walls” William said “I understand that it is a pure expression of your style but is it practical? How can someone live in it comfortably? How can you separate a work of architecture from the use that architecture is going to be put?”

William wasn’t sure how Mies would react to such a bold statement. He watched him to see how he would respond.

“Ah a man with an opinion” Mies said a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth “I’m sure you must know a bit about my work, after all you are here seeking a job. But I have only begun to scratch the surface in my explorations. In the tug of war between purity and practicality, purity wins every time. To advance the art of architecture one must continue to evaluate one’s self and take risks. Never be comfortable, never be complacent, always search for the truth in what you are doing, that is the only way we advance. We architects must lift our designs out of faux styles and passing fancies, and create architecture that would last forever, never appearing dated or foolish or as the result of some trivial preoccupation. It is up to every architect to figure out on their own how they plan to achieve that. For me the way forward is architectural purity and what is more pure to us as human than nature? Before we inhabited this earth, it was there and long after we’re gone it will remain. So why separate it from us when we should exist together.”

William listened to Mies with rapt attention, the man really believed in his philosophies.

“But what about privacy” he asked “with nothing but trees surrounding the building the occupants will feel exposed and unprotected”

At this statement Mies got up and moved to the model in the corner of the room and beckoned for William to follow.

“Take a look at this model, on the South Eastern side the trees grow so thickly that they provide a natural protective cover, this is where we will house the more intimate aspects of the dwelling, like the bathroom and bedroom. While on the opposite side the trees are a bit more sparse which will provide magnificent views for the living room and kitchen. The river on the southern side floods periodically, so the house was lifted up on stilts to allow the water to flow underneath it. And to take advantage of this flooding we designed a hidden moat around the house for the flood waters to empty into, which only becomes visible when it has water in it.” He finished his speech and stared at the model so intensely that William was sure his gaze would bore holes into it. After a while he looked at him and said emphatically “never be afraid to push the envelope! Advancement will not happen unless people themselves push for it. Beauty is in the splendor of truth, the honesty of the material and the simplicity of design.”

With that finishing statement he made his way back to his desk and sat down. After that, the interview went more the way William had expected of it. Mies asked to see his portfolio, which he flipped through deliberately stopping to ask the odd question about design and craftsmanship. He was particularly interested in the drawings William had done. He seemed to like them. William remembered an article he had read saying that it was Mies’e love of drawing that had pushed him towards architecture. The interview ended somewhat ambiguously, William couldn’t tell exactly what it was that Mies was looking for and if he filled those requirements. But all the same he was glad to have met him. Mies shook Williams’s hands and led him towards the door of the office.

“It was a pleasure Mr Handsen we’ll be in touch.”

The meeting was over and that was his polite dismissal. William lingered for a bit not wanting to leave this wonderful place just yet.

“Denise” he heard Mies call “get me Harry, he needs to redo these plans they are not acceptable”

He had picked up the drawings on his table and was studying them while puffing on a second cigar.

“Denise never mind” he called after her.

As William turned to leave he heard him say to no one in particular.

“I’ll draw these myself, just the way they need to be done.”

Leaving Mies’s office William had a new appreciation for the Man and his work. It was one thing to spout ideologies but another thing to really believe them with such conviction and actually follow them through. The architecture of the day had shifted thanks mostly to the man he had just met. New possibilities were available to those who had the guts and willingness to pursue them. And although William wasn’t sure whether or not he had gotten the job he was happy he had met Mies and eager to see how his latest project would turn out. As he walked home he wandered to himself how they were going to keep the bird droppings out of the Farnsworth House.

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