Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Less Is More: Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Glass Houses, and Immigration

Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Less Is More: Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Glass Houses, and Immigration

Article excerpt

When the Armour and Lewis Institutes of Chicago merged in 1940 to form the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), the director of architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was asked to develop plans and design the buildings for the newly expanded 120-acre campus. Not since Thomas Jefferson's design of the University of Virginia in 1819 had a university campus been the work of a single architect. This responsibility was accorded to van der Rohe just two years after his entry into the United States and foretold the pivotal impact that his architecture would have on America and the world. Soon after his retirement from IIT in 1958, van der Rohe was awarded Gold Medals by both the Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Association of Architects. Five years later, President Lyndon Johnson presented van der Rohe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award.

The featured document for this essay is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1938 Declaration of Intention to become a citizen of the United States. Immigration documents like these provide interesting and valuable information about future citizens of the United States. While the information provided might appear to be straightforward statements of fact, in many cases an interesting story of intriguing question lies behind every completed blank. For example, on the first line of his declaration, van der Rohe lists his name as "Ludwig Mies, formerly Ludwig Mies van der Rohe." However on the form, at some point in the process, "formerly" was struck out and replaced with "alias." In 1921, when his marriage of eight years ended, he changed his name from Ludwig Mies to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe by adding the Dutch "van der" and his mother's maiden name of "rohe." But why was "formerly" replaced by "alias," and why did he indicate that his name was formerly Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, when in fact his name was formerly Ludwig Mies? Also, the document is dated August 29, 1938, but he did not become a citizen until 1944. Is there any significance to those dates? Van der Rohe indicated on the form that he was a resident of Berlin, Germany, but that he entered the United States from Cherbourg, France. Why was that? The vessel named was the SS Europa. Research indicates that this particular ship was German and had a fairly long and illustrious record. No, this was not one of the common transports that carried thousands of immigrants to the United States just prior to World War II; this was a semi-luxury liner, capable of record speed for the time. What does this suggest about why and under what circumstances van der Rohe left Germany? Below is the story behind the document.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany, on March 27, 1886. His father operated a construction business, and at a fairly early age van der Rohe acquired some experience in stone carving. As a teenager, he was also employed as a draftsman for architect Peter Behrens, who specialized in building modern industrial buildings. Walter Gropius, who later became the famous founder and director of the Bauhaus school of design, was also employed with Behrens. While with Behrens, van der Rohe was exposed to the current design theories and to progressive, avant-garde German culture. Having no formal architectural training, he nonetheless gained considerable experience and confidence through several independent commissions. In 1912, at 26, he opened his own architectural firm.

After World War I, van der Rohe continued to successfully design traditional custom homes, but began experimenting with steel frame-glass wall designs that culminated in his stunning proposal for ah all-glass-faceted skyscraper in 1921. In future designs, he increasingly integrated the concepts of open floor plans, simple lines, pure use of color, space rather than mass, asymmetry, functionality, cubic shapes and right angles, the extension of space beyond the interior, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's style of free-flowing spaces that take in the outdoor surroundings. …

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