When I studied architecture as a young man, people were ashamed of steel and concrete structures, so they covered them with what appeared to be traditional stone or brick exterior walls. Schools, churches, and office buildings were given styles of the past—Georgian, colonial, and gothic, for example. We failed to see the intrinsic beauty of the wonderful new materials we had. Nevertheless, unnoticed, there was a revolution going on. Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Cobusier, and Walter Gropius were searching for a new kind of architecture that utilized and expressed the possibilities of the time, and its needs. I found both very necessary, and exciting. I wanted to be part of that revolution.
Toward the end of my undergraduate studies, I became aware of a little-known architect by the name of Mies van der Rohe. I went to study with him in Chicago as a graduate student because his buildings were strong, honest, and wonderful. I felt that he understood what 20th century architecture should be.
Besides opening our minds to incorporating principles such as honesty, simplicity, and clarity into the design of buildings, Mies taught us much about the nuts and bolts of architecture. He showed us how to see the beauty of a material, how to use it according to its nature, how to turn a corner, and how to build a stairway. He taught us how to work with problems that most architects gave little thought to.
Most of what we learned from Mies was objective, however it was inevitable that we picked up values of a personal nature as well, such as Mies’ love of elegance, travertine, a certain brick, and open planning. Open planning and travertine are nice, but they are not always appropriate, nor are they always the answer to clients’ needs nor our own tastes. It is important to distinguish between that which has intrinsic value and that which is purely personal, between principle and fashion. Mostly people see Mies superficially as a style, and fail to look into the principles he taught.
Mies did not hang architecture on a structure; his buildings were architecture, down to the steel in their columns and the aggregate in their concrete. They were what he called “Baukunst,” building art. Like a leaf, their materials were logically and elegantly arranged to form a beautiful structure.
However, a leaf is more than that. While its structure is essential for its very existence, it serves a purpose, and that is to absorb sunlight, convert it into energy, and transport it to the plant it is part of. Its success depends on how well and efficiently it serves these functions, one not distracting from the perfection of the other. I am intrigued by the challenge to design buildings that likewise function beautifully and well. In the past, when times were simple human society was simpler and buildings were as well, tradition often succeeded in achieving this. Today everything is complex. I have seen irrationally designed certified energy conserving buildings that are merely collections of energy-saving features stuck together without regard to the building’s overall shape and orientation to its environment. I have also seen buildings designed to be energy efficient that were not beautiful. A successful building should be both. Doing all this simultaneously is a formidable task, but offers the opportunity to do something wonderful. This is something to work on—how beautiful our towns and cities could be!
Like a plant lifting up its leaves to gather sunlight, a building should be shaped to do this when energy is needed, as well as to gather breezes on hot days, and to present a minimum surface to lose heat when it’s cold. It should perform its purpose and express its structure—all in a beautiful way.
I never got far with this myself, nor am I sure that I could have met the challenge—doing it really well. Where possible, I did some work in this direction, however I was distracted into writing before I could pursue this to any depth. Nevertheless, the potential is there to develop a new architecture appropriate for our time and its needs. I hope some adventurous architects see the challenge and take this up. Perhaps, unbeknownst to me–some, perhaps you my reader–are already at it. Unfortunately, too much of what I see today is clownery and efforts to get attention. We would do well to follow Mies’s maxim, “I don’t want to be interesting; I want to be good.”