Magazine article The Spectator

Artist and Visionary

Magazine article The Spectator

Artist and Visionary

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2

Mies van der Rohe 1905-1938

(Whitechapel, till 2 March)

When the Whitechapel mounted retrospectives of giants such as Pollock and Rothko in the late Fifties and Sixties, these painters seemed to have sprung fully armed into our world. Uncluttered by faltering early works, these shows had come more or less from the head of Zeus, but in the form of that Olympian institution the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The current regime at Whitechapel has wisely renewed its relationship with MoMA but do not expect images of Mies van der Rohe's iconic 1950s Seagram building, for example.

The exhibition limits itself to the architect's less familiar but rather fascinating early work in Germany, around Potsdam and Berlin between 1905 and 1938.

Tom Wolfe's amusing book, From Bauhaus to Our House, pointed out how certain modern architects seem to hate the untidy way normal people actually live, thereby ruining their perfect buildings; but Wolfe - even Prince Charles - should find something to approve of in Mies's early work. There are not only conventional bricks, pitched roofs and Neo-Classical origins; there are also cosy Biedermeier features and English Arts and Crafts movement influences on the client-oriented houses and their matching gardens which he created for the German intelligentsia -- as often as not cultured Jewish art collectors who became friends and helped to educate this Prussian prodigy from the lower-middle class. Aged 20, Mies built the Riehl House, described by one critic as 'faultless', for the philosopher Alois Riehl and his wife Sophie.

It is said that Le Corbusier used to paint every day. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, born in Aachen in 1886, had no formal architectural training but learned how to carve stone in his family's stone-carving business - and how to draw. He wore beautifully cut suits, smoked cigars, invented his own rather grand Dutch-sounding name, and was not unlike Le Corbusier in being fundamentally an artist and a visionary as distinct from a jobbing architect. He won his spurs working under Bruno Paul and under the even more progressive Peter Behrens before evolving his striking, minimalist ethos of `less is more'.

The modernity of his skyscraper designs and his pioneering use of glass, concrete and steel impressed many influential people, including Goebbels. …

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