The plural of Mies


I really do adore digging into things – so many curious gems turn up! Today’s unexpected wackiness? – the word “Mies” in German, means ‘lousy’ – and an early part of this tradesman’s son from Aachen turning himself into a fashionable young Berlin designer, was adding his mother’s maiden name, Rohe, and using the dutch ‘van der’ – because the German ‘von’ was strictly controlled according to bloodlines. From lousy to cool – a very early design success.

Miesterpiece (top photo)

Mies van der Rohe was without question one of the most important creators of modernist architecture and design – not only a colleague of Gropius and Le Corbusier from their youth, when they all worked together as apprentices of Peter Behrens in the years just before the first world war, he was also the last director of the Bauhaus school, before it was finally forced to close by Nazi raids in 1933. He finally left Germany for the United States in 1937 – and began a whole new phase of his career.

As a writer trying to understand how to convey aspects of a human’s arc, and also as a philosophically curious person, who would like to learn to help effectively, there are a couple of big questions that I ask, endlessly.

One of them is what sort of experiences and passions go into the early formation of people who later give us surprising new ideas and directions. The whole modernist school is a fascinating study here, because there is no question that what they all began to work on between the wars (and gained special power after WWII) was a rejection not just of ornament, but of the entire social order which had lead us into ruinous war, twice over.

We think of war very differently now (tragically casually, and arms-length) – but back then, there were very few people on earth who weren’t profoundly hurt by the wars – and the old ways, power structures and symbols felt like an inherent part of that lethal corruption.

Thing is – a number of social theories from the late 1800s into the mid 1930s were passionately obsessed with the ‘new man’ – that is, the transformation of humanity, into something which it had never been before.
This warm notion continues to live at the heart of a vast number of utopian approaches – most of which are, like modernism itself, intellectually clever, idealistic and well intended (no more war or poverty are good goals).

Done precisely right

However – the twentieth century gave us all a whole lot of lessons about how brutal a society can become, when the same old human, doesn’t happen to fit the latest brave new idealogical mould! The idea of the state as primary driver of social goods and advancement has lead to tragedy, waste of potential, and great sorrow (and continues to, in several places).

Which brings me to my second inexhaustible universal question – how is it that sincere efforts to contribute great things to humanity, so often lead to consequences which directly oppose their creator’s good intentions?

Adam Curtis – to me, the world’s greatest documentarist, has made a few especially fine contributions to this question. Freud most certainly did not mean to give corporations the tools to influence us, against our interests – he wanted his new science to empower, not enslave individuals – but “The Century of Self” reveals that very process – and much else of interest.

Curtis’ earlier series “Pandoras box” had an interview that has haunted me ever since I first saw it, decades ago, with one of the Russian engineers who worked on their first generation of nuclear power plants. He pointed out that for his whole generation of designers and students, the fresh lessons of the war were always central, and could be mutually assumed – but as soon as they started teaching the techniques they had discovered, to newer generations who had not had hard lessons about responsibility so dramatically taught to them – the central place of safety and public good was lost to other – political and economic – considerations.

For me – the fruits of modernism have become a cynical commercial horror – but Mies himself, is a tragically tangible sign of what it was sincerely trying to be – even though it almost certainly never could have achieved it’s full ambition (again, because humans are what they are, not what they hope). Part of the ability to try hard enough to actually change the world, is the ability to delude yourself into believing you will change it enough to matter, by your own standards! ;o)

His influence, like that of Jimi Hendrix on guitar, is so widespread that it’s hard to point out how revolutionary and excellent it was, when introduced. Also like Hendrix, there are deep humanizing principles underlying it, which set it apart from later imitators, who have no such character to share.

van der Rows
Commerce court (at far left) was built as a competitive answer, and utterly failed

The interior spaces in these towers are absolutely fantastic – no joke – and way more harmonious and good to be inside, than many superficially similar structures. Batman fans can think of the offices of Harvey Dent, the commissioner and mayor, as well as interiors from Wayne enterprises, the ballroom and Bruce’s apartment – all from the Dark Knight. (shot in Chicago in the IBM tower, Mies’ last building, and his Illinois center). Markedly superior interiors!

As an old downtown Toronto kid and walking maniac, I’ve actually invented a little demonstration lesson about architecture, which makes the point even to the skeptical and mostly disinterested – using the least glorious part of his work, to show it’s quality. (Mr curious will MAKE you curious) ;o)

As a winter city with a lot of work concentrated in towers, Toronto has linked the basement levels of many of these into the PATH system – so you can walk for downtown blocks, warm and underground. The early sections designed by Mies are wonderful – less noisy, well proportioned, calm, clean and pleasing to the eye – he even mandated that every business in the concourse use the same sans serif typeface, for unified typographic harmony (since lost to commerce and lawyers – but it was truly lovely).

And just when you start thinking – “Nice concourse, but so what?” You can head off in any direction and experience several other architect’s versions of a concourse – too shiny, too noisy, nonsensical spatial volumes – no relationships or natural flow – no attempt even to seek harmony. Blech!

Mind you – I do have one van der Rohe styled nightmare (lesson), that will never leave me, nor stop making me laugh. As a young club-kid I usually had the sense to go out on Fridays and Saturdays (and if need be, Wednesdays and Thursdays, also), but I very rarely went crazy on a Sunday night.

Because one time I did, and still felt unsettled and imbalanced the next morning, when it was time for me to make my way through the deep wet snow to work. I took the PATH under Mies’ TD centre – then hit the connecting staircase down, just as the commuter trains at Union station were disgorging nameless uncountable glowering briefcased and padded-shoulder hordes – all of them heading straight at me, like an unstoppable wave of head-down bump-and-go cufflinked psychopaths! Red-rover red-rover – you done! ;o)

Okay fine – so I guess Sunday really is a day of rest. I’m slow, but I get there.

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