Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

By: Mark Kingwell
March 27, 2010

The Seagram Building in midtown Manhattan, designed by German-American modernist architect LUDWIG MIES VAN DER ROHE (1886-1969), may be the most important skyscraper in New York. Not as significant as the Empire State, not as beautiful as the Chrysler, not as politically charged as the absent World Trade Center, the Seagram nevertheless makes the largest aesthetic point of any building in the city. When Mies accepted the commission from the Montreal-based distilling giants, urged by family expert Phyllis Lambert, nobody knew quite how much the result would revolutionize tall-building architecture. The floating-base steel frame, the dark bronze exterior form free of all ornamentation, and the deliberate siting of the building back from its plot’s edge, all combine to create a staggering negative gesture in the heart of the city. Repeated versions and variations in Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and elsewhere, are not as successful in part because the “skin and bones” minimalism of the form quickly became the vernacular of North American building, undercutting the point. But Mies’s genius was undimmed, and his long string of smaller-scale projects, especially in Germany, culminates with the masterpiece of the Farnsworth House, outside of Chicago, which may be considered the flawless modernist building, at once spare and moving. His furniture designs, meanwhile, especially the Brno, Barcelona, and Tugendhat chairs, have been so copied and imitated that they are now nothing less than the basic code of interior design.


READ MORE about the Modernist Generation.

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