Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.


Sorry Mies



In 1937, Mies van der Rohe arrived in New York on his first journey to the US. He was the most enigmatic of all the European architects who were leaving Nazi Germany at that time - either because of persecution (most of the others) or convenience (Mies). Mies was renowned as an artist-architect through a few small projects. The most famous and published the German pavilion at the Barcelona Expo - known as the Barcelona pavilion: a building without a function, but a series of contemplative spaces formed by planes of glazing, marble and a moment when Modernist architecture came of age. Despite (or perhaps because) of his reputation for this most exquisite and unusual architectural project, a number of luxury homes, and some drawings of experimental skyscrapers, and an unsuccessful period running the Bauhaus.

The Barcelona Pavilion made architecture out of reduction - of almost nothingness and vanishing. A new and opposite way from 19th century architecture, which was full of stuff. And that stuff was all about history and meaning. Modernism proposed an escape from history through abstraction - or the evaporation of meaning and narrative from architecture. The Barcelona Pavilion doesn't tell a story; rather it is intended to be an experience of material and space.

Mies' Chicago was something new, something that had only been dreamt have in pre-war Europe. Mies found himself in enormous, simple, innocent America. The cranks, and nooks and soon-to-become ruins of 19th century European cities a long steamer ride away. Europe: organic, dirty, old, riddled with History, and plunging into catastrophe.

Four years before Mies arrived in Chicago, Americas Most Wanted Man was gunned down in an alleyway after leaving a movie theatre with a woman on each arm. John Dillinger was the dashing heartthrob of Chicago's gangland. Dillinger optimised the glamorous and chaotic romance of jailbreaking, heist pulling, on-the-run city of rooks nests, alleyways, and safe houses, of Al Capone, of no-go zones and J Edgar Hoovers nascent FBI G Men. His death marked the decline of Chicago's gangster culture which had grown up around Prohibition, supplying the liquor that the government had tried to ban, but the citizens just couldn't live without.

Hoovers dogged pursuit of Dillinger and gangsterism was a victory of a certain kind of urbanism. One that is reflected in Mies' Chicago projects. Mies is on the side of Hoovers bureaucracy, rather than the ad hoc opportunism of the gangsters. But there is mysteriousness and an impenetrability to his architecture too, just as Hoovers bureaucracy of power was, deep down, dark and paranoid. Mies made bureaucracy into a form of poetry, monumentalising though precision and a ruthless editing of architectural possibility.

In Robert Anton Wilsons 'Illuminatus Trilogy' - a sprawling hippy/counterculture/conspiracy epic, John Dillinger becomes a kind of super spiritual guru of the forces of chaos. His break outs from captivity are retold as a supernatural victory over matter. Dillinger dematerialises the prison walls by the power of concentrated thought - a little like the attempt to raise the Pentagon building by the Chicago led yippies and zippies. The Illuminatus Trillogies retroactive dramatisation of jailbreaks describes that weird Miesian dematerialization of solid stuff. Mies' concentration of architectural vision beams out of his eyes like X-ray vision, vaporising the corner of buildings so that enclosing walls seem only like planes, emptying city blocks so that gigantic buildings and plazas feel as lightly arranged as still lives. Chicagos history of chaotic freedom and incarceration is mutely articulated through Mies' architecture.

As Mies left Europe behind, he left a country and a continent full of ideological problems. America, comparatively, was new, was innocent, and was only just coalescing as an urban form. In the vernacular grid of Dodge City, perhaps Mies saw new possibilities of his formal and highly architectural use of the grid that had obsessed his urban visions. There is an intersection between an American pragmatism and an intellectual European avant guard. And this unlikely paring built big and raw in Chicago.

Having first arrived in New York, Mies was drawn to Chicago because of pragmatic issues - looser controls on architects licensing, and the offer of a job as head of the AIT architecture school. But perhaps there was something else. Perhaps Mies recognised something of himself in the flat plains and the gigantic skies of the Midwest. That strange Miesian absence in comparison to the dense narrative of his native German countryside - a sentimental and nostalgic narrative which had become central to Nazi symbolism. Perhaps he saw in a landscape made up of city grid, the flat expanse of Lake Michigan and the plains stretching out beyond the horizon a vision of nothingness that mirrored his architecture of reduction.

His Chicago projects might be read as remakings of this landscape. The Federal Centre plaza remakes the midwestern plains as a grid of tiles - a plainer plain, with a flatter horizon, and a bigger sky, with corn and dust abstracted away. The regular joints between the tiles encouraging an exaggerated sense of perspective. A big flat space for the wind to blow across.

At Lake Shore Drive he made cliffs for Lake Michigan. As iconic and immovable as the White Cliffs of Dover but shorn of sentimental narrative, a blank silhouette against the shore.

As well as versions of nature, other projects in and around Chicago are about the modification of nature by architecture. The boiler room became the centre of the IIT campus, as it should always be if we could only think clearly enough. After all, it is the thing that enables all of these buildings to be habitable during the freezing winters. It's the heated water flowing through pipes that allows all of this architecture to happen. It's the thing that modifies nature into architecture.

This idea is developed at Farnsworth House, in rural Plano in what Peter Smithson describes as "ruburb" - a mixture of rural and urban. The house is as invisible as architecture can be. A glazed box with no internal walls and a central service unit that houses all of the servicing. Essentially, it is a raised platform of temperature controlled air, with sanitation and running water held between two slabs of whiteness. As though the winter snows have been quarried like the marble of the Barcelona Pavilion.

The Farnsworth House is nice, its cute, its luxurious. It's small and desirable. The Federal Centre, IIT and Lake Shore Drive are hard to like. Their beauty is almost invisible - we need to be guided to understand it. And it feels like it's our fault - for not noticing, for not looking or thinking enough. Mies' architecture recedes behind a veil of everyday banality.

When you see the piles of dirty snow piled up on the plaza of the federal Centre, the photocopied notices sellotaped to the walls, you see the logic of architecture verses the logic of badly organised, underfunded, unenthusiastic, wishing it was on holiday life. Abstraction lapped by endless waves of dull narratives of everyday banality. The ever-growing blobs of chewing gum dotting over the grid like spits of rain before a storm. The metal detectors at the entrance to the Federal Building as additions to an architecture which couldn't foresee backwoods white supremacists or fundamentalist religious opposition to the rational bureaucracy of democracy. The A4 printouts taped to the marble elevator lobbies are additions and modifications to Mies' architecture. Since Mies left the building, the life that fills it every day has added to the architecture. Forming like a crust over the surface of the building. Interrupting, diverting, these are part of an architecture that is entirely opposite to the completeness of Miesian vision. They are ad hoc, amateur, ephemeral, unaesetheticised, confused. From missing persons notices to gonks on top of monitors, we've made something new out of Mieses place.

Small yellow plastic cones that warn us of wet floors as the teams of cleaners that polish Mies's vision. And perhaps the cleaners are the only people who use the building in an appropriately Miesian manner - schedules of floor polishing, timetables of bathroom cleaning, the regular and precise application of cleaning products to the surface of the building - spraying, wiping, sponging, sweeping, sucking. The same regular human actions choreographed through out the landscape of the building. And what they are removing is the dirt, the spills, the crumbs that have fallen, the detritus of activity. Wiping up the coffee breaks, bits of salad dropped from a lunchtime sandwich, piss from the floor, and shit from the bowl. Straightening piles of paper, rewinding the building to its immaculate state, returning the building into beautiful Architecture.

Like Prohibition, temperance and abstinence motivate Mies' architecture. And just like Prohibition, the attempting to exclude behaviours only serves to highlight our vice. Mies' Chicago landscapes are a kind of sober architectural or urban "lack". It's only through our use of them that they become part of and engaged with the city. Perhaps we should recognise our own creative co-authorship of Mies' architecture, encourage the build up of ephemera across the surface of the buildings. Somewhere between the extremes of confused intoxication of ephemera and the rational sobriety of architecture that the essential uniqueness of these places can develop.

Mies, you cut precise slabs of marble from the earths crust, you rearranged iron ore into long straight lines. You took the ground and made it new. Stacked things one top of the other lined things up next to each other more neatly than anything had ever been stacked.

Mies. Forgive us. Mies, we couldn't handle abstraction, we wrote banal stories across your plazas, around your lift lobbies. Maybe our only excuse is that we had to live. That we couldn't resist eating French Fries, that we felt an uncontrollable lust, that we were too lazy, too dishonest, too busy, too human.



Posted by anothersam at May 16, 2004 10:20 PM.



Contents:

More Scenes In Cartoon Deserta

Eiffel X-Rays

Beyond: Values and Symptoms

Sub Plan

Shenzhen: Window of the World

White Power

Generic Powerpoint Template: Delivering Bad News

Duplicate Array

The Best New Building In London

Book Review: The Infrastructural City

A Balloon in the Pantheon

Letters From The Pantheon

Henry Moore in Motion

On My Steel Horse I Ride

The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition

Now Showing: John Baldessari Sings Sol LeWitt

Obscure Design Typologies: Life Guard Chairs

Osama bin Laden Cigarette Lighter: Novelty Products as Congealed Culture

Absurd Car Crashes: A Eulogy for J.G. Ballard

Candy Pistol

Now Showing: Dan Grahams 'Rock My Religion'

This Concrete 'O': On Serotonin, the M25, and the Motorik Picturesque

Church of the Literal Narrative

Philadelphias Floating Architecture

Now Viewing: Married To The Eiffel Tower

Le Corbusiers Image Hoard: Poeme Electronique

Giant American Signs: Original Learning from Las Vegas Footage

Giant Soviet Signs Cut Into Forests

Bricks Melted Into Icicles: Napalm Decorative

C-Labs 'Unfriendly Skies' & 'Bootleg' Volume

2 The Lighthouse: Self Storage & Architectural Hallucinations

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.

Viva Sectional Cinematography!

Now Showing: The Installation of an Irreversible Axis on a Dynamic Timeline

Plug: Junk Jet

Sim Seasons Greetings! The Rise of Neo-Winter

Geography in Bad, Festive Drag.

The Ruins of the Future

High Tech As Steampunk ...

On The Retro Infrastructural

Simulations of Industry: High Tech Architecture and Thatcherism

David Greene: The Big Nothing

From The Factory to the Allotment: Tony Wilson, Urbanist

Koolhaas HouseLife / Gan Eden: The Revenge of Architectural Media

Ruburb-ric: The Ecologies of the Farnsworth House

The Architecture of Divorce

Flagrant Delit: The Movie

Landscape as Clothing

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham Redux

Acts of Un-Building: Timelapse Demolitions

Yard Filth: Next Years Hot Look

Stonehenge: A Black Hole At The Heart Of British Architecture

The Popemobile: Mechanised Robes & Motorised Architecture

Tarmac Adam, Tarmac Eden

The Secret Language of Surface

Some Housekeeping

Information Fields: Agriculture as Media

My Bloody Valentine: Sound as Substance

A Cubist Copse: Gehrys Serpentine Pavilion

Olympic Model Protest

Spouting Off: Some Thoughts On The Fountainhead

Form Follows Dysfunction: Bad Construction & The Morality of Detail

Floating Homes

Vintage Tradeshow Surrealism: International Grune Woche

Moving Houses: Buildings In Motion

Desktop Study: The Strange World of Sports Studio Design

Married to the Eiffel Tower: More Objectum Sexuals

60 Years of The Crazy Horse Memorial

Married to the Berlin Wall: "The Best and Sexiest Wall Ever Existed!"

Inflatable Icebergs: Sublimated Guilt Has Never Been So Fun

The Cinderella Effect: Phantom Architectures of Illumination

Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture

If London Were Like New York: Antique Schizo-Manhattanism

If London Were Like Venice: Antique Geo-Poetic Speculations and Hydro-Fantasy

41 Hours in an Elevator: The Movie

NASA: Mapping the Moon with Sport

Lemon Squeezy: Design Tendencies after the Juicy Salif

Stadium Seat Mosaics

The Nihilistic Beauty of Weapons Arranged in Patterns

Light Vessel Automata

Dogs: Britains Greatest Design Obsession

Madison Avenue Modern

Detroit Sucks: The Motor Shows Last Gasp

Mies' Grave: Cut Out Model

All You Can Eat

Valentine Machine

The Tools of Re-Geography

Floating in a New Town Sky

Authentic Replicas: Football and the Franchising of Place

Folk Football: Landscape, Space and Abstraction

Haystack House

A Wishing Well with a Fat Up Pipe

The Camoufluers and the Day-Glo Battleship

Pseudoccino: Instant Coffee Foam

Yesterdays Technology, Today

Blown Up: More Inflatable Military Stuff

On Christmas Trees, Folk Forests and Staples Office Supplies

Hampton Courts Shrouded Sculptures

Named Fabric: 20 Sponsored Pieces of Architecture at the New Museum

Form Follows Felony: The Secret Home of the Un-Dead Canoeist.

Architectural Magazines: Paranoid Beliefs, Public Autotheraphy - More on Clip/Stamp/Fold

Little Magazines Seen Today

James Bond Lives Next Door: Suburban Imagery as Industry

The Ghost of Christmas Futurism

Petrified War Machine

Military Deceptions

Chapters for an Imaginary Book About Architecture

Shrouded Plinth - Urban Striptease

In the Night Garden - Surreal Landscape of Nostalgia

Kim Jong II, The Great Architect

Pill Box Picturesque

Un Clear Monument

Place Faking: Instant Heritage for the Thames Gateway

The Marc Bolan Memorial Crash Barrier.

Warped Domesticity

The Nuclear Heritage Coast

Enjoy The Silence: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Story of O (2)

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham

X100: A Design Exercise

How to Plan A New Town

Carpet Bomber

In Search of Britains Vehicular History

Scenes in Cartoon Deserta

Scary Suburbanism: Why Horror is at Home in the Suburbs

Re-Make Re-Model

I Like Your Manifesto, Lets Put it to the Test-o

How to Become a Famous Architect

Northampton - Sci-fi Pop Planning Promotion

Advertising Central Milton Keynes

Baltic Exchanged

Festival of Nostalgia

The Clapham Trainwash

Airports as Music

Test Card Dummies

The Velvet Underground at the Glass House

Duplikate: Kate Moss on the Production Line of Individuality

The Museum that Ate Itself

Hollow Inside: Starbucks Foam and the Rise of Ambiguous Materials

Revisions to the Architecture of Hell

Crufts: Dogs, Design and Aesthetic Genetics

Eos Airlines: Executive Bubbles over the Atlantic

London's Ugliest Buildings

1.51 Miles Of String

Google Earths Vertiginous Mapping

Church of the Ascension and Descension

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Replica Bombs

The Invisible Bungalow

House / Boat

Reading Lines: Skateboarding and Public Space

Mountain Sculpting

Sint Lucas in BD

Bat House Competition

Old Walton Bridge

Kiruna: The Town That Moved

Spray On Magnetic Defense

Chris Cornish: Prototyping History

The Jubilee Gestalt Vase

The Most Visited Location in the UK

Anything to Feel Weightless Again: The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort

'Its beauty will know no season'

2000 Years of Non Stop Nostalgia. Or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again.

Inside-out Aldwych

Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture

Miss Selfridges' Feeling for Fake Snow. The Oxford St. Lights and Why We Need Artificial Winter

Nelsons Cavern

Foam Gargoyle

New Tory Logo: A Hazy Shade of Politics

Jeff Koons, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine

Souvenir Empire

Celebrity Scents: The Bittersweet Smell of Success

Imperfect Pitch - Football, Space and Landscape

Product Placement: Making the Impossible Possible

Suburban Growth: Matthew Moores Field of Dreams

Perfect Sound Forever: The Secret Function of High End Stereos

Picture of the Week 1

A Little Light Product Placement

Some Advice To A Young Designer

London and on and on

In the Gallery of Ice Creams

Useless Proclamations for a Beautiful City

Mini Mies Chair

Topsy Turvy VSBA: Inverted Heros of an Upside Down Avant Guard

Harvest III: Buried Things

The Harvest II

The Harvest I

Estuary Urbanism

The Royal Families Trees

Everything Flows: ideological cartography

How Geostationary Was My Valley?

The Psychotic Utopia of the Suburbs and the Suburbanisation of War.

LegoLand London Cluster

In a Lonely Place - Under Construction

Design Will Eat Itself

Mach 3 Nitro Gel - Design that's foaming at the mouth.

Marchitecture. Architectural things to do in London this March

Metallic Jet Powered Cloud

"When we got married I had no idea he would do something like this, he just said he was going to do some decorating."

The Electric Cenotaph

Russian Rok

Commitment ...

Dinner in the Iguanadon

Trace

What happens when you cross a pen with a car?

Leg Table Leg

Florentine Building Sites

Good Morning Britain

Football Pitch: Best of British

The Sad Photographer

The First Cut is the Cheapest - Blenheim Palace: pop architecture that goes for the jugular

Book Now For Christmas

Requiem for a Toilet Seat

Architecture that Destroys

TomTom Mobile 5 / GO 700

Winning Design

Another Croydon

Holiday Snap II : Giant Glowing French Balls

Holiday Snap: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy, France

Pecha Kucha London

Anatomy of an Architectural News Story

Big Bens

First Cut - Case Closed

The Texas Tower

Its All About the Big Benjamins

G8 Security Tower

White Cubed Blues

Poundbury, unexpectedly, in the rain

The Exploding Concrete Inevitable. Lou Reed and the Casa da Musica

Swingball

Untitled (Plastic Sack and Timber)

Berlin 1945 - The Obscene Picturesque

Pizza Planet

Goal Sculptures

Interview: Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane

Previewing Cedric Price

The Mardas Touch

Building a Lionel Richie Head

Ornament is Grime 2

An Incredible Smell of Roasting Coffee

Flatpack Frenzy at New IKEA

Langlands & Bell - The House of Osama Bin Laden

Labour is kind of working

Happy Death Men

Build to Let

Architectural Criticism gets Sharp

Niagara Falls

Ornament is Grime

FA(ke) Cup

Q&A: Wouter Vanstiphout

X-treme urinals

Unigate Cowscape

Spray-on Snow

From the Baffler ...

One in a Taxi

The Queen Machine

The Knork

Venturi, Scott Brown and my love that dare not speak its name.

Polictical Placards

The Ketchup Conumdrum

Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

It's a Small World

Images de Parfums

Soft Carcass

Christopher Dresser at the V&A

Blow up Pub

Municipal Mummification

The Matt and Ron Show

Semi - detached

Half Timbered Van

Feltham Future

Favorite Things

Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk

The Pop Vernacular

Design by Chefs

Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Archigrams Pastoral Futurism

Sorry Mies

The Flaming Lips - Live.

Everything Counts - The Sound of Geography Collapsing.

Carlton Terrace Extension

Other:

www.fat.co.uk

www.samjacob.com

twitter.com/anothersam

Flickr:


Links:

IconEye
Archinect
Flip Flop Flyin'
Arts & Letters
Bldg Blog
City of Sound
Design Observer
Limited Language
Mcsweeneys
Things
Dezeen
Kieran Long
Arts Monitor
Loud Paper
Dwell Blog
David Barrie
Super Colossal
sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy
The Sesquipedalist
Londonist
Architecture & Hygiene
Pruned
Infosthetics
Aggregat456
A456Tumblr
Kazys Varnelis
Infranet Lab
Life Without Buildings
Landscape & Urbanism
HTC Experiments
Deputy Dog
Subtopia
The Dirt
Mockitecutre
Art Fag City
Triple Canopy
Where
Actar
Mechanophilia
Shrapnel
NL Blog