The Design Observer Group

Posted 04.08.13

Phyllis Lambert

Seagram: Union of Building and Landscape

Seagram building plaza panorama, looking south from the first setback of 399 Park Avenue, 2010. [Photo © Richard Pare, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal]

What led Mies to create the union of skyscraper and plaza on Park Avenue, a binding together so profoundly important in his oeuvre? In the 1950s, it would have been difficult to answer, let alone to ask. Would or could Mies have retraced his own trajectory? A few iconic buildings were known. The mullioned high-rise towers of the 1950s did not seem to derive from the sheer glass skyscrapers of the early 1920s. A genealogy of the plaza could not have been constructed: the “podium” at 860–880 Lake Shore Drive was not recognized as such. And Mies’s Zeitgeist? Philip Johnson proclaimed that he was tired of hearing Mies quote Augustine’s “Beauty is the radiance of truth.”

Who noted the contents of the library in Mies’s Chicago living room? Or paid attention when he retold the story of how he had to select 300 books from his collection of 3,000 when he left Germany for Chicago? Mies said that he could have retained just 30, but before that, he would have had to read the 3,000. [1] The only publication on Mies before 1950 was Philip Johnson’s exhibition catalogue Mies van der Rohe, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1947. [2]

When I directed the 1977 exhibition The Seagram Plaza: Its Design and Use in collaboration with Ludwig Glaeser, then curator of the Mies van der Rohe archive at MoMA, [3] research was not yet far enough advanced. At the time, Glaeser wrote, “There is no direct precedent for the configuration of the Seagram plaza in the work of Mies van der Rohe. As an urban space it is more closely related to the more intimate enclosed space of Mies’s courthouses than to the urban spaces which Mies had either proposed or built.” [4] In my text, I likened the Seagram plaza to the parvis before a cathedral. [5] While this may be so, it really doesn’t get to the essence of the matter of Mies’s deep interest in the interrelationship of building and landscape, which historians and critics have largely overlooked. To a great degree, Mies himself is responsible for this gap in the reception of his work. During his American years, he declared more than once that his first job was to design a good building, and only then could he take into consideration the surroundings. But the facts contradict this assertion. Strong principles underlay his architectural design, what he called the “building art,” yet Mies’s buildings and building complexes were mostly informed by the particularities of the surrounding context and the special circumstances of their sites. In America, only in talking about the Farnsworth house did Mies express his sensitivity to site: “Nature should also live its own life. ... We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together in a higher unity. If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth house, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from outside. This way more is asked from nature, because it is becomes a part of a larger whole.” [6] This, a long-held concern, must have been almost innate in him, a given, like everyday things to be attended to.

Barry Bergdoll has definitively connected Mies with the German Wohnreform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. [7] In his discussion of the twenty-one-year-old Mies’s first independently built work, a house commissioned by the philosopher Alois Riehl and his wife, Sofie, in 1906, and completed in 1907, Bergdoll wrote that Mies “bound house and garden together to form a podium.” [8] Reading this was for me an epiphany. I could see, almost in a flash, the unity of building and landscape developing throughout Mies’s building art, ultimately morphing into the podium that binds the Seagram tower to the urban landscape — plaza, platform, an oasis amid the chaos of New York. This led me to reevaluate the importance of surrounding context, whether garden or urban fabric, in Mies’s architecture throughout his career and to understand in a new light some of his statements, drawings, and photomontages. The reexamination begins with his early houses.

Wohnreform was a late 19th- and early 20th-century formal and ideological reform of the everyday environment, advocating new spaces at the green edges of the city that would support healthful living and an ethical renewal of German culture. [9] Hermann Muthesius, an influential architect and a leader of the movement, spoke of house and garden as a unity whose “characteristics should be infused with the same spirit,” and advocated the extension of the interior spaces of the house into the garden. [10] In the 1910 edition of his Landhaus und Garten, he published Mies’s Riehl house, in the Babelsberg district of Potsdam, on the outskirts of Berlin, as a model of these principles.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Riehl House, Neubabelsberg, Germany, 1906-07. [From Hermann Muthesius, Landhaus and Garten: Beispiele neuzeitlicher Landhäuser nebst Grundrissen, Innenräumen und Gärten, 1910; photographer unknown]

Street views show a modest middle-class house, half hidden by a continuous wall. The peaked roof, eyebrow dormers, and unadorned stucco walls evoked the local vernacular, recalling the unostentatious bourgeois Neoclassicism of the early 19th century. [11] Beyond the wall lies a geometric parterre of flower beds contained by a retaining wall, and beyond that, a distant view of the valley comes into focus when the visitor turns toward the house, takes one step up, and enters the Halle, or central communal space. To the right one is attracted by the open veranda, a loggia where four pierlike columns frame the landscape beyond; closer at hand, in a sheer drop, the lower garden comes into view, its sloping lawn separated from the surrounding dense forest by a path culminating in another contemplative viewing place. The outer wall of the veranda, as it supports the piers, is a continuation of the retaining wall, and the veranda floor continues the upper garden, so that together they form a podium as an outlook to the distant view. The lower garden elevation of the house belongs to a different world from the modest street front. From there, the parapet is revealed as a long, massive retaining wall traversing the site, ingeniously created by Mies to solve a difficult, steeply sloping site. The wall contains the house and upper garden, and one section acts as the stylobate for the four piers supporting the gable roof as pediment, so that this east face of the Riehl house invokes a temple front. Its imposing presence bears an ancestral kinship with the Seagram building and plaza Mies would situate on Park Avenue 50 years later.

The dialogue between house and garden was at the heart of Muthesius’s argument: “If the house belongs to architecture, the garden must also. ... What is appropriate to human formal invention in every medium is rhythmics, submission to principles. ... the same fundamental principles that prevail in the house, the same organic relationship of the individual parts one to another, the same unification of the parts into a harmonic whole must also prevail in the garden.” [12]

To Muthesius’s precepts, the architect Peter Behrens added the concept of space in his essay “Der moderne Garten,” published in 1911, while Mies was working in his studio. Behrens’s essay seems obliquely to honor the Riehl house. [13] For Behrens, the opposing forms of house and garden, harmoniously unified, provided an opportunity for giving form to space; as he explained, “giving form to space is obviously the highest principle of architecture,” emphasizing that “this interlocking of forms, this aesthetic evaluation of the opposing form, is one of the most important moments in the fine arts in general.” [14]

The double face of the house embodies Riehl’s maxim governing all action, the conflict of ancient faith with a priori order and the new laws modern society made for itself: “The ancient Good — hold fast to it! The new Good is but a transformation of the old.” [15] Much later Mies would similarly say: “It must be possible to fuse into a harmonious whole the old and the new energies of our civilization.” [16] However, the retardataire language of the house, without considering its other strengths, no doubt caused Mies to excise the work from his oeuvre when he refused Philip Johnson permission to include it in the first major exhibition of his work at MoMA. [17] Nevertheless, the Riehl house and garden prefigured what was to come in Mies’s work. The relation of house and garden and the sense of calm they imparted attracted the attention of numerous critics, which was unusual for such a young and unknown architect. One critic writing in 1910, in the journal Moderne Bauformen, praised the generous impression made by the siting of the Riehl house on the terrain and wrote approvingly of its classical simplicity and clarity of design. [18] Both characteristics would forever exemplify Mies, but the deep attention to site and landscape so highly praised at the time — the interweaving of building and site to form a podium and the strong retaining wall that classically defines a sacred precinct — were ignored as “old history” until the houses Mies designed in and around Berlin during the 1910s and 1920s were identified and analyzed while the exhibition Mies in Berlin (MoMA, 2001) was being planned.

Mies’s next independent project, his competition entry for the Bismarck Monument of 1910 on a site that rises 400 feet above the Rhine River, envisioned a powerful masonry podium on which he set two long, parallel colonnades joined by a semicircular exedra, which was to house a portrait statue of Otto von Bismarck. The debt to Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s utopian proposal for the royal palace at Orianda in Crimea of 1838 is clear; a volume illustrating the design was a fixture on his drawing table. [19]

Top and Middle: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Royal Palace at Orianda, Crimea, Ukraine, 1838. Bottom: Schinkel, view of Schloss Charlottenhof from terrace, Park Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany, 1826-29.

In the office of Behrens, young architects were encouraged to study Schinkel’s buildings and gardens in and around Berlin. [20] Schinkel’s design for Schloss Charlottenhof, a small estate for the crown prince of Prussia in Park Sanssouci in Potsdam, held many lessons for Mies. In transforming the “rather small and unattractive” villa, [21] as Schinkel referred to it, and flat grounds formerly belonging to a businessman, Schinkel constructed a great terrace garden to the height of the upper level of the house become villa by constructing massive retaining walls at both short ends. At one end he added to the house a coplanar portico opening onto the terrace; at the other, a large semicircular exedral bench behind which a trellis rises: it is a place for viewing the villa, the upper fountain, and the environs, with the Neue Palais in the distance. A pergola closes one long side of the terrace, which on the fourth side slopes down to terminate in a basin with small fountains. Similarly Mies’s Riehl house encompasses vistas from the geometric garden that interweaves and is coplanar with the reception floor of the house and the far vista, while a massive retaining wall containing house and upper garden drops the height of one story to the lower garden, a lawn differentiated from the surrounding forest by a path terminating in a contemplative, semicircular space. Bergdoll points to Schinkel’s use of the viewing platform, “introduced to provide ruptures and discontinuities in the landscape that might cause one to reflect on distant, almost pictorialized views.” [22] The trace of viewing terrace, pergolas, the semicircular exedral bench, and trellis would become part of Mies’s language as he pursued the unity of house and garden in the spirit of Schinkel over the next years. [23] At the same time, on either side of the built-up terrace and villa, which are connected at the portico, Schinkel pragmatically cut openings in the two lower courtyards in order not to “take away light from the lower story” containing essential rooms. [24] For the same reason, with the Riehl house, Mies punched openings in the massive retaining wall. [25]

What was nascent in the Riehl house would evolve in different ways in Mies’s avant-garde Tugendhat house and Barcelona Pavilion, two breakthroughs of 1929. In the Tugendhat house, the podium is contained within the volume of the house, and the broad flight of steps leading to the garden hugs the massive wall, behind which lie service functions. Even though an elusive distant view is glimpsed from a carefully controlled opening at the entrance court at street level, the panorama is viewed fully only on the floor below, from the principal room of the house, which is itself the podium. When in a technological feat the enormous floor-to-ceiling glass wall sinks behind the massive podium wall, this family living space becomes a viewing platform completely open to the outdoors. The presence of the large, sloping garden from above and the garden itself are places for the contemplation of and communion with nature. Like Riehl, the viewing platform at Tugendhat is part of an occupied podium. The podium at Seagram also encloses occupied spaces, but at the same time, and significantly, it relates most prominently to the platform at the Barcelona Pavilion, and indeed, to the upper garden and viewing platform of the Riehl house, where the interior and exterior spaces are coplanar and interpenetrate in a unity of building and garden — the garden-become-platform — and, eventually, plaza.

* * *

Mies’s first ideas about the skyscraper may be linked to Schinkel’s assertion that “architecture is the continuation of nature in her constructive activity” and “the whole essence of the construction of a building must remain visible,” [26] bringing to bear the organic themes in European architectural thought that resonated for Mies. These are summed up in a two-page spread for the 1924 “Nasci” issue of Merz, published by El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, in which Mies’s 1922 Glass Skyscraper was juxtaposed with a human femur redrawn by Lissitzky after an illustration by Raoul H. Francé. [27] The Latin nasci, “becoming” (Gestaltung in German), refers both to form and to the process of formation, implying “a self-generating process of form-creation through which inner purposes or designs become visible in outer shapes.” [28] Later, talking about his work, Mies quoted an aphorism by Goethe: “‘It is neither core nor shell — it is all one.’ The interior and exterior of my buildings are one — you can’t divorce them. The outside takes care of the inside.” [29] And Mies’s sense of the organic evolved: In his inaugural address at the Armour Institute of Technology he would “emphasize the organic principle of order that makes the parts meaningful and measurable while determining their relationship to the whole.” [30] At one of the Thursday evening dinners at his apartment in Chicago, Mies characterized to me his sense of the organic as distinct from Frank Lloyd Wright’s: Whereas Wright’s buildings grew from the soil like trees, Mies metaphorically demonstrated that for him it was the relation of the part to the whole, as a segment of the finger is related to the finger, the finger to the hand, the hand to the arm, and so forth.

The immediate inspiration for the glass skin was, above all, the play of light on the large glass apron suspended over the tracks at the Friedrichstrasse station, which was under construction in 1920. It must have been as exciting to Mies as it was for the architect August Endell, who declared it to be particularly beautiful at dusk, when “the many small panels begin to reflect the sunset and the entire plane assumes a colorful, shimmering life.” [31] With his project for the Friedrichstrasse Turmhaus, Mies was equally inspired by the structural skeleton seen in buildings under construction. In a well-known statement, he observed: “Only skyscrapers under construction reveal the bold constructive thoughts, and then the impression of the high-reaching steel skeletons is overpowering. ... The novel constructive principle of these buildings comes clearly into view if one employs glass for the no longer load-bearing exterior walls.” [32]

Top: Seagram building, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, architects; Kahn and Jacobs, associate architects; Phyllis Lambert, director of planning. View from northwest at dusk, 375 Park Avenue, New York, 1954–58. [Photo by Ezra Stoller © Esto, 1958, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture] Bottom: Johnson, Mies and Lambert in front of an image of the model for the Seagram building, New York, 1955. [Photo © United Press International, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture]

Glass was the quintessential material of the future. The architect Bruno Taut wrote ecstatically in his journal Frühlicht: “Long live our realm of non-violence! Long live the transparent, the clear! [Long live purity!] Long live the crystal. And long and ever longer live the fluid, graceful, angular, brilliant, sparkling, light — eternal building, long may it live!” [33] The glass curtain wall was integral to Mies’s concept of a new order, one tied to the landscape. In 1933 he unreservedly proclaimed: “The glass skin, the glass walls alone permit the skeleton structure its unambiguous constructive appearance and secure its architectonic possibilities. ... They are genuine building elements from which a new, richer building art can arise. They permit a measure of freedom in spatial composition that we will not relinquish any more. Only now can we articulate space, open it up and connect it to the landscape, thereby filling the spatial needs of modern man.” [34] Mies had first proposed the curtain wall with projects of 1921 and 1922 for glass skyscrapers in Berlin that electrified the world of architecture. His startling entry drawing for the 1921 competition for the Friedrichstrasse Turmhaus, or skyscraper — an entire prismatic building sheathed in glass — made him a leading figure of the European avant-garde. [35]

The play of transparency and reflectivity in glass was immeasurably intriguing. Although the prismatic form of Mies’s Friedrichstrasse Turmhaus — which grew out of the triangular site — calls to mind Bruno Taut’s enraptured paean to glass, Mies explained it with matter-of-fact sobriety: “A prismatic form corresponding to the triangle appeared to offer the right solution for this building, and I angled the respective façade fronts slightly toward each other to avoid the danger of an effect of lifelessness that often occurs if one employs large glass panels.” [36]

A caricature by coworker Sergius Ruegenberg comments on Mies’s methodology in seeking to overcome the “lifelessness” of large glass panels by crouching to be at eye level as he studied different configurations of glass in bright sunlight on his balcony. [37] Even in the 1950s and 1960s, lifting his right hand high, Mies would reenact how he wedged long strips of glass into Plasticine, at different angles, and out of doors, learning through the use of the model. Mies continued: “My experiments with a glass model helped me along the way and I soon recognized that by employing glass, it is not an effect of light and shadow one wants to achieve but a rich interplay of light reflections.” [38] With this text Mies published the experimental glass model of 1922 in which the expressionistic, faceted lobes of the Friedrichstrasse Turmhaus gave way to an organic, deeply sinuous, irregularly lobed ground plan.

* * *

The tall building, of consuming interest to architects in Germany after World War I, was stimulated by numerous competitions for the design of the Grossstadt, or big city, aimed at fulfilling the needs of a growing population and offering a new way of postwar life. Peter Behrens had drawn a vertical city landscape for the journal Das Plakat in 1920, in which masonry predominated as in the other contemporary projects; he found “the germ of a new architecture” to be inherent in the commercial buildings of New York. [39] Fascination with the tall building, fueled by the American example, was intensified in avant-garde circles. [40] The rash of proposals for prominent sites in Berlin in 1920 set Mies’s Turmhaus competition project across the street from the Friedrichstrasse railway station in high relief.

For German artists and architects, the devastation of World War I had shaken faith in technology and industrial progress as rational forms of organization for the modern world, and as Fritz Neumeyer has put it, “The debris of values and vacuum of meaning that the war had left in its wake made utopian visions almost a matter of mental survival.” [41] Bruno Taut envisioned himself becoming a “master builder of the universe,” whose mission was to realize “an ideal become building, bringing happiness,” giving people the sense “that they are part of one great architecture,” and to overcome the density of matter in order to infuse it with spiritual life. [42] The impulsion to glass architecture had been inspired by the author of “fantasticated” novels, Paul Scheerbart, with his unillustrated and almost prescriptive 1914 publication Glasarchitektur. [43] Scheerbart’s ideas were given visual substance in Bruno Taut’s Alpine Architektur of 1919, [44] which presented a dream world of glazed arcades, crystalline needles, and bridges of glass and rock, above the vegetation line, hewn into crystalline form, with mountains surmounted by filigree structures in concrete and colored glass illuminated at night. [45] Taut dedicated his book to Scheerbart, whom he had asked to provide mottoes for his House of Glass pavilion for the Deutsche Werkbund exhibition of 1914 at Cologne. Most of the mottoes applied to the interior drum had the general sense of the first one: “Glück ohne GlasWie dum ist das! — Happiness without glass, How dumb is that!” [46] The last motto declared, “Glass opens up a new age / Brick building only does harm.” [47] Taut used glass throughout his Cologne pavilion, which comprised a dome of faceted panes set on a drum made of glass bricks — even the stairs inside were glass. A photograph of the model showed how the glass was colored.

Bruno Taut, Der Kristalberg, 1918.

Scheerbart inspired artists and architects of the Bauhaus: Lyonel Feininger’s medievalizing crystalline woodcut was used on the cover of the first Bauhaus program; Moholy Nagy’s “crystalline architecture” paintings and Kasimir Malevich’s crystalline Suprematist paintings were displayed together at Gropius’s Bauhaus; and Gropius himself admired Scheerbart’s writings. [48] Scheerbart became the spiritual father of the Dadaists, who published his writings in their journal Der Sturm. One is somewhat amazed at Mies’s connection to this ecstatic atmosphere. In his closer circle, Hannah Höch had an extensive Scheerbart library, Mies collaborated with Taut on the publication of Frühlicht, and his valued colleague Ludwig Hilberseimer, writing on Scheerbart’s work, gave a rationalist interpretation of his utopia. [49] There is sufficient evidence to affirm that Mies was ready to absorb many aspects of Scheerbart’s fervor for glass. With “both feet firmly on the ground,” wanting to reach with his head “to the clouds,” [50] knowing that “no one can shape the past or the future, only the present,” [51] and understanding the necessity to “create form out of the nature of the task with the means of our time,” [52] Mies would have agreed with numerous ideas in the 111 short chapters of Scheerbart’s Glasarchitektur. He would have agreed that glass is unthinkable without the Gothic and that the iron skeleton was indispensable to glass architecture (although he would have reversed the order). [53] Mies would also agree with Scheerbart’s deductive reasoning, that “we live for the most part in closed rooms. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is to a certain extent the product of our architecture. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged ... to change our architecture. ... We can only do that by introducing glass architecture.” [54]

Mies clearly was taken with Scheerbart’s vision. Aspects of the Barcelona Pavilion certainly bear out the implications of some of Scheerbart’s commonsense proposals: “double glass walls ... ornamentally colored ... with the light between them,” [55] is found as such in the Barcelona Pavilion, where the double-panel, luminous wall was of etched glass and others were of transparent gray and bottle green glass. [56] They all heightened reflectivity, as did the polished marble walls. According to Scheerbart, while “the iron skeleton ... is of course indispensable for glass architecture,” protecting iron against rust “can only be done by nickelling or coating with paint.” [57] This practical solution was taken up by Mies in the nickel-plated sheets covering the steel columns at Barcelona; they almost melt in reflectivity, so that the whole — columns, glass, and marble walls — could seem more chatoyant than substantial, “an interplay of light reflections” that he had observed in playing with the model of the Friedrichstrasse tower. [58] Of Scheerbart’s pronouncements about the need to temper the glare of light with colored glass, and of America as the country where glass architecture would be fulfilled and the “patina of bronze would also be suitable” for exterior metal panels, [59] critic Reyner Banham commented that, in 1914, Scheerbart stood closer to the Seagram building than did Mies. [60]

* * *

It was only in the United States, after his immigration in 1938, that Mies would build glass skyscrapers, but his concern moved from expressivity and reflectivity to what he called “a structural architecture”: “My idea, or better, ‘direction,’ in which I go is toward a clear structure and construction — this applies not to any one problem but to all architectural problems which I approach,” [61] and he bound the placement of his buildings to the landscape of the city. At the Illinois Institute of Technology Mies set for himself a rigorous learning process in creating a structural architecture, working on a representational expression of structure in which the enclosure was made with the same structural steel members as the building’s basic constructive steel skeleton (but at a different scale). [62] From this process Mies took a creative leap, crafting his first glass-steel-mullioned tower at 860–880 Lake Shore Drive. The mullions, however, were attached to the structure, so the skin of Mies’s first steel and glass tower was not free from the load-bearing structure as he had proposed in his visionary skyscrapers of the 1920s. They denied the fact of a wrapped skin or sheath, whereas at Seagram, the structure-free cantilevered enclosure allowed the building an uninterrupted, nuanced surface. The skin separated from the structure allowed the building to be treated as a volumetric whole, a monolithic unit, and moreover, the tinted glass — so loved by Scheerbart — helped to secure this effect. At Seagram, the issue was no longer one of light reflections, for the surface is now gridded by three-dimensional elements: the glass can be transparent or reflect the surrounding buildings, interacting with the play of light and shadow on the mullions and flickering more subtly on the bas-relief frames surrounding spandrels and windows during the day. At night the glass is absent, transmitting the luminosity of the rooms and, like an X-ray or film negative, showing us the bones, revealing the structure of the building.

In articulating the interplay of vertical and horizontal elements defining the structure — the mullions and the spandrels — at Seagram the curtain wall took on new dimensions. Architectural historian Kurt Forster has observed that the spandrel panels of the Seagram building resonate with the articulation of the leaf motif of the Carolingian bronze doors of the Chapel of St. Hubert at Aix-la-Chapelle, and that the proportions of spandrel and glass evoke the relation of solid and void in Schinkel’s New Guardhouse on Unter den Linden in Berlin — both buildings intimately known to Mies in his early years. Forster sees in the five centuries connecting the classic leaf motif of the chapel door to its 20th-century incarnation as a facade grid “the Miesian synthesis of Gothic height and classic balance.” [63] Applying similar reasoning about the fusion of Gothic and Classical elements “in a supremely elegant whole,” New York Times art critic Herbert Muschamp declared the Seagram building to be his choice “as the millennium’s most important building.” Muschamp concluded that “the business of civilization is to hold opposites together. That goal, often reached through conflict, has been rendered here by Mies with a serenity unsurpassed in modern times.” [64]

Top: Joel Shapiro, Untitled, bronze, 1974–75, installed on Seagram plaza, fall 1986. [Photo by James Dee, 1986;  courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; © Joel Shapiro/SODRAC (2013)] Bottom: Reflection of Racquet and Tennis Club in lobby enclosure, 2000. [Photo © Richard Pare, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture]  

Mies continued to bind building to site. He translated the union of house and garden into the union of building and greensward, building and podium, and plaza in the city, where the platforms became oases amid the rush of traffic in the city streets. To critic Michael Hays, this was Mies’s great achievement: Like a clearing in the forest, the platform had the potential “to open up a clearing of implacable silence in the chaos of the nervous metropolis.” [65] Some years later Mies would explain the need for a relief from the city’s density: “There are no cities, in fact, any more ... it goes on like a forest ... that is the reason why we cannot have the old cities any more ... that is gone forever ... planned city and so on. ... We should think about the means ... that we have to live in a jungle ... and maybe we do well by that.” [66]

Mies’s photomontage depicting his project for the 1942 IIT campus in Chicago superimposes a series of academic buildings, interwoven with the open spaces of a greensward, onto a bird’s-eye view of the endless dense blocks of small buildings of Chicago’s Near South Side. He had conceptualized the campus as clearing in the “jungle,” set apart on a virtual podium realized as a greensward — literally, a grass plane. With antecedents in his built work of the late 1920s, this “clearing in the chaos” would ground Mies’s future projects as the paradigm for his high-rise urban complexes of the 1950s and 1960s.

With a triangular site for 860–880 Lake Shore Drive, the building no longer took the form of espousing the trace of the site of the 1920s skyscrapers. The two rectangular Chicago towers set at slightly overlapping right angles to each other accommodate their triangular site as well as the view-corridor easement required for the apartment house behind. Organized on a defined travertine plane — a virtual podium one step up from the grass — the complex of buildings becomes a clearing in the city. It was also the first construction in which Mies lifted his buildings off the ground, as he had proposed in his early campus drawings, in order to establish the podium plane. The steep change of street levels between Park and Lexington Avenues, the change of grade along Park Avenue between Fifty-Second and Fifty-Third Streets, and the presence of McKim, Mead & White’s neo-Florentine Racquet and Tennis Club directly across Park Avenue, as well as city zoning regulations, set up certain conditions in the design of the Seagram building. On the Seagram podium we find other elements of Charlottenhof in the trees and benches, first delineated in Mies’s 1955 sketches for Seagram. In bringing order, nature, and revolutionary spatiality, Mies’s urban clearings give rise to a new sense of the urban condition. His architectural language of freestanding towers, and pavilions carefully arranged on podia, offers a method for creating discreetly intervening urban patterns in cities across the system of real-estate development and building production in North America, “optimizing the space for life to unfold and spirit to play wherever the opportunity presented itself.” [67]

In the evolution of Mies’s architecture from the Riehl house to Seagram, podium and building are united as elements of a sacred precinct for everyday life. The mullioned skyscraper is enriched in its modulation from transparency to solidity with the union of the plaza and the building. The movement of the pedestrian and the shadows of surrounding structures as the sun moves from hour to hour frame a view that evokes the dialectics of the two faces of the Riehl house. Here the plaza is like the lower garden of the Riehl house; Mies has translated the space of quietude and contemplation into the city. As Ludwig Hilberseimer commented, “Like the individual building, the entire city can be open and spacious ... leaving behind the traditional narrow, closed space of the streets and city, the urban space emerges free and open on all sides. Just as the house unites with the landscape, the room with the garden, and the exterior and interior become one, so the city with the landscape, and the landscape now also exists in the city.” [68]

Seagram building and plaza. [Photo by Alex Schwab]

The use of Seagram plaza by New Yorkers has made evident its qualities as a public space. The ebb and flow of people across the plaza intensifies the awareness of how crucial movement is to Mies’s oeuvre. In testing the design of a building in relation to its site and context, Mies investigated two kinds of movement. [69] From his earliest built work, he considered the visitor’s flow of movement, as he first did in the Riehl house, through individual elements such as walls, columns, stairs, and furniture, which were composed as part of an unfolding progression through space. But Mies also explored the visual effect of parallax — that is, the perception of change in the appearance of an object or building, relative to other objects, owing to a change in the observer’s position.

Beginning in 1910 he experimented with montage as a means of testing his projects in their surroundings. This practice evolved into a cinematographic methodology involving the comprehension of parallax in relating a building to its site and to neighboring buildings. In the United States, where his practice flourished, Mies applied this principle in composing the low-rise buildings of the IIT campus from the point of view of a pedestrian walking through it and ultimately brought parallax to bear on the design of the curtain wall of the tall building, so that it would be perceived to be open or closed, transparent or solid, depending on the position of the observer.

Of course, the podium occasioned movement. Mies’s interest in movement, in addition to the itinerary he carefully plotted through the Riehl house and its landscape, was manifested early on in his photomontage studies for building projects in relation to their site. These studies eventually made use of parallax to consider building projects as they might be seen by an imaginary subject from a range of viewpoints. Ultimately it is inherent in Mies’s articulation of the mullioned skyscrapers. For the Bismarck Monument competition of 1910, Mies combined photograph views of the terrain from below looking downriver, which had been made available to all contestants to use as they please, with his model for the monument. He then tried another view, looking upriver. Eleven years later, in 1921, even though the technique of photomontage was apparently not allowed in submissions for the Friedrichstrasse competition, [70] Mies merged photographs of his drawings and of the site to produce montages looking both up and down the street. This early practice of exploring subjective positional shifts takes on another dimension in Mies’s photomontage studies for the Stuttgart Bank competition of 1928. All contestants were required to use the same image, [71] but Mies also studied his proposed building by moving the point of view to the right, and in another montage he moved in closer, so that the series allowed him to visualize the effects of the changing relationship of buildings, one to the other.

Most striking is the fact that Mies’s habit of using montage to study projects elicited a new sketching modality — cinematographic conceptual sketches for the IIT campus. [72] It is possible to plot the movement and sequence of viewpoints he adopted. Three images from the sequence of Mies’s perspective sketches illustrate the mode: The first sketch looks north toward the Student Union building, with the Chemistry building auditorium at the right; the second looks west on Thirty-Third Street toward the Mechanical and Civil Engineering buildings, which frame the opening leading to the Rock Island Railroad beyond; and the third, which looks southwest, includes the Civil and Mechanical Engineering buildings, the Library building, and the Chemistry building auditorium, which is now to the left. [73] In this series of rapid pen-and-ink sketches, Mies studied the spatiality of the campus from the changing points of view of a pedestrian moving through it — the varying relationship of one building to another, overlapping and shifting in scale, appearing small in the distance, looming larger as the imagined pedestrian moves closer, some parts revealed, other hidden.

Seagram Building. [Photo by Jules Antonio]

Mies eventually brought the phenomenon of parallax into the articulation of tall buildings in the city, into his urban oases. Beginning with his high-rise apartment building at 860–880 Lake Shore Drive, the raw elements of construction — the steel I-beam, the mullion — not only played in the light with the earth’s movement, but the series of mullions changed the building’s surface with the movement of the observer. The repetitive rhythms play against one another, elaborating the effect of parallax. The projecting mullions at 860 and Seagram, as in all of Mies’s later high-rise buildings, reveal varying degrees of opacity and transparency. The change from permeable to solid induced by the shift of an observer’s viewing position was convincingly compared by art historian Rosalind Krauss to the perception of changing qualities of texture in the grid paintings of Agnes Martin. Krauss proposed that three different vantage points allow for distinctly diverse visual experiences: the engagement with the materiality of the individual line and the tactile surface of the canvas viewed at close range; dematerialization — a “haze” of lines — perceived as the viewer backs away from the canvas; and the opaqueness and impermeability of the grid — “immovable as stone” — when looked at from a greater distance. [74]

Mies’s engagement with the continuity of architecture and landscape is best known from the famous 1939 montages for his first American project, the Resor house, viewed against the dramatic landscape of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, [75] and the 1943 project “Museum for a Small City,” in which Picasso’s Guernica and two Maillol sculptures are seen against a landscape of foliage and a body of water. [76] For the museum project, Mies wrote, “The barrier between the art work and the living community is erased by a garden approach for the display of sculpture. Interior sculptures enjoy an equal spatial freedom, because the open plan permits them to be seen against the surrounding hills.” This passage may be transliterated to mean the high-rise tower and the plaza seen against and within the landscape of the city; as Mies concluded, “The architectural space, thus achieved, becomes a defining rather than confining space.” [77] Above all, it was the idea that counted. The idea of the house unified with the garden, the tall building and the city both separated and united by the podium, calm and contemplative, distanced and made sacred, precincts set apart from the cacophony of the streets, inducing observation of the play of light and transparency, the shifting reflectivity and openness and opacity of the glass wall with the movement of the visitor.

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In a New Yorker review of September 1958 entitled “Lesson of the Master,” architecture and urban critic Lewis Mumford captured the essential spirit of the building:
It is at ground level, in the public spaces, that van der Rohe’s sense of architectural order remains unqualified and supreme. ... The fact that 375 is set back from Park Avenue some ninety feet not merely makes it visible but makes it approachable, and the open plaza in front, plus the arbored green rectangles at the sides, gives the same satisfaction that the building itself does. This plaza is open without being formidable; the absence of any kind of ornament, except the tall bronze flagpole, seventy-five feet high, slightly to the right of the main entrance, and the fountains and rectangular, step-rimmed pools of water on either side, only emphasizes the quality of the space itself. [78]
Russell Lynes, inimitable commentator on American taste and manners, said that the Seagram building “is an architectural ornament to the city [and] has also provided the city with a small pleasant square of open space which every lunch hour in good weather is crowded with New Yorkers hungry for a bit of open space in which to sun themselves.” [79]