Edward R Ford, Architect

Mies van der Rohe in Chicago


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Mies van der Rohe in Chicago
Edward R. Ford

Written for but not included in the second volume of The Details of Modern

“I would prefer to march without a flag.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1927

It was more fate than design that brought Mies van der Rohe to Chicago in 1938. He had been reluctant to leave Germany. He had hoped to go to Harvard rather than the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), so he perhaps did not conscientiously seek out a place so close to the heart of American industry. Nevertheless, the new surroundings, or at least the new conditions-American building techniques and the design of semi-industrial laboratories-provided the stage for a new steel and brick style of building different in every way from the majority of his European work.

Although American industry played its part in the creation of this style it was not based on the idea of manufacturing buildings on the model of the planes or automobiles, an analogy to which Mies was somewhat cool. Like many of his modernist European contemporaries, he was inspired by Henry Ford, but with reservations. He wrote in 1924:

Nothing illuminates more clearly the situation in which we find ourselves that the fact that Ford’s book could trigger such a strong reaction here in Germany. What Ford wants is simple and illuminating. His factories show mechanization in dizzying perfection. we agree with the direction Ford has taken, but we reject the plane on which he moves. Mechanization can never [be the] goal, it must remain means. Means toward spiritual purpose.1

He was equally cool to the concept of rigid standardization and the Corbusian idea of object types. He wrote in 1927:

The battle cry “rationalization and typification,” along with the call for the economizing of the housing industry, represent only parts of the problem, for, although important they have significance only if seen in right proportions. Next to them, or rather above them, stand the spatial problem that can only be solved by creativity rather by calculation or organization.2

In his notebook of 1927 he wrote: “Do not standardize everything. Only when it makes sense. Why tie ones had voluntarily?”3 and “There are people who would like to make a Ford Factory out of nature.”4 Likewise, economy of material for its own sake was suspect, “How senseless economy becomes when it only wants economy.”5 In subsequent years his comments on industrialization were more and more equivocal in comparison with those of Gropius and Le Corbusier.

Like many architects of the late 1930’s he seemed more fascinated by vernacular than
What first brought Mies van der Rohe to America was not the directorship of the Armour Institute of technology (that later became IIT) but a commission. Stanley Resor had hired Mies to design a house for his Wyoming Ranch. And in 1937, before having accepted the job in Chicago, Mies was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, sketching the house.

The site was spectacular, located on a small tributary of the Snake River and with the Teton Range as a backdrop, but it was not without complications. The house was begun by Philip Goodwin, co-designer of the Museum of Modern Art, who conceived the idea of a house spanning the stream, and had proceeded as far as parts of the ground floor and the piers to support the house over the stream when Goodwin resigned, and Mies was required to incorporate the existing fragments into the design.

The result was one of Mies’s most eccentric designs. The character of the site and the complications of the existing conditions, Mies’s increased interest in vernacular building methods and his first confrontation with the American building industry produced a result that externally bore little resemblance to what came before or after in his work.

The interior was more transformative. Mies’s first American building was developed in indigenous materials (or rather materials that appeared to be indigenous) but employing many of the details he had used in Europe. On a conceptual level the Resor house is similar to the Barcelona Pavilion. Both have exposed structural elements; both use entirely layered rather than monolithic construction. Although they are both structurally expressive they are expressive in entirely symbolic ways and the perceived structure is a highly abstract and in some ways inaccurate portrayal of the real structure.

The differences between the two buildings are in the finishes. The stucco of Barcelona becomes Cypress boarding at Resor. The polished veneered stone slabs of Barcelona are the rough fieldstone of walls in Wyoming. The reasons for the change of material are not necessarily contextual. Cypress is hardly a “contextual” material in Wyoming in any case. The client’s desires may have been a factor, but the use of wood and fieldstone was part of a more general movement, what Sigfried Gideon called the New Regionalism. IN the 1930’s Aalto was looking to Karelia, Gropius and Breuer to New England, Le Corbusier to Catalonia, all to find truth, in theory, long suppressed by the weight of architectural history, but what Mies was looking at was by no means clear.

The structure of the Resor house began with a grid of steel columns, each made from four steel angles, similar to the columns used at the pavilion in Barcelona and the Tugendhat house located on the existing piers. Spanning between the columns were 12 inch steel wide flanges to form the floor and roof. Only the major beams connecting columns are steel. The typical floor and roof joists are specially made 2 inch x 14 ½ inch wood sections. Like many American “steel” houses the Resor house is about 50% wood.

This hardly matters, as none of the structure can be seen. The steel angle columns are faced with sheet bronze U’s and L’s. The detail is similar to the Tugendhat house and Barcelona column covers, but the ends are square rather than round. The bronze was selected rather than the chrome of the European buildings to blend in with the cypress ceiling.

The clad columns are the only apparent structure of the upper part of the building, as the complex steel and wood assemblies of the roof an floor are hidden behind the flat planes of cypress boarding. As in virtually all of his European work, and like most of his European contemporaries, Mies articulated the columns of the structure while suppressing the beams to maintain the principle, perhaps the illusion of the free plan. The image of the thin flat slab supported by columns is one of the main fictions of modernism to which Mies subscribed.

The roof is by no means flat in reality. It is drained to the edges rather than to a central roof drain and as a result there is a box gutter at the top of the fascia board. This was a common detail in Neutra buildings, but it seems particularly inappropriate in a Miesian prism, even one as complex as the Resor house.