March 2010
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A modern man

A modern man

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is recognized as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture, which is a style characterized by simplicity and elimination of traditional ornament. He created an influential 20th-century architectural style that employed industrial steel and plate glass to convey simplicity and clarity. His combination of minimal framework and use of open space led him to refer to his buildings as "skin and bones" architecture.

Mies van der Rohe was born March 27, 1886, in Aachen, Germany. He attended the Cathedral School from 1897-1900 and worked in his father's stone-cutting shop. In 1905, he moved to Berlin and—despite his lack of formal architectural training—became an apprentice in the office of interior designer Bruno Paul.

After building his first house as an independent architect in 1907, he was employed as a draftsman and designer in the office of Peter Behrens in 1908, remaining there until 1911. During that time, he worked on projects such as the German Embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Behrens influenced Mies van der Rohe, who developed a design approach based on styles such as advanced structural techniques; Prussian Classicism; Russian Constructivism; and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who influenced Mies van der Rohe's steel and glass designs.

He re-established his practice as an independent architect in Berlin in 1912, remaining there until he joined the military in 1914. After demobilization, he returned to Berlin to practice architecture.

In 1921, he designed a skyscraper for a competition in Berlin. His simple, progressive design involved three prismatic towers around a central core; the exterior was sheathed with glass. However, it was viewed as unacceptable because it did not meet the competition's conditions.

In 1926, Mies van der Rohe designed a brick monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin to commemorate the Spartacist uprising in 1919. The structure has been compared to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house. Although Mies van der Rohe typically was nonpolitical, he seemed to make an exception for Eduard Fuchs, president of the German Communist Party at that time, and designed the monument. However, the Nazis destroyed the monument in 1933.

During the late 1920s and 1930s, Mies van der Rohe was artistic director of the Werkbund-sponsored Weissenhofsiedlung project, a housing project involving 320 houses designed with a modern style, and director of the Dessau Bauhaus, a school of design. He also designed the German Pavilion (also known as the Barcelona Pavilion) for the International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain, and Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czechoslovakia, as well as well-known pieces of furniture such as the Barcelona chair, Tugendhat chair and Brno chair, couch and coffee table.

As the Nazis' power grew in Germany, Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the U.S. in 1938, settling in Chicago (and becoming a U.S. citizen in 1944), where he was appointed director of architecture at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology, which now is the Illinois Institute of Technology. He redesigned the campus, including Alumni Hall, the chapel, and Crown Hall, which employs exposed structural beams above the roof and is considered by many to be his finest work.

Mies van der Rohe designed and built many modern high-rises in Chicago, including the Federal Building in 1959, IBM building in 1966 and 860-880 Lake Shore Apartments from 1948-51, which is the first building constructed using an all glass and steel curtain wall—the hallmark of the modern skyscraper.

His works also include the Seagram Building in New York; Toronto Dominion Centre; and New National Gallery in Berlin, which was completed in 1968 and involved raising the entire roof to place the columns on their foundations, then lowering the roof onto pin connections.

Mies van der Rohe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1959; The American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1960; J. Lloyd Kimbrough Medal in 1961; and was the first architect to receive the American Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.

Mies van der Rohe died in Chicago Aug. 17, 1969, at age 83. His work significantly affected the look of U.S. cities, and he is considered one of the great masters of early 20th-century architecture.


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