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A Modernist Master

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was one of the most groundbreaking architects of the 20th century. His last project completed during his lifetime was Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, where the MoMA collection will be shown.

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Architect and designer: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Constructed on a massive granite foundation, the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) seems to hover above one of Berlin’s busiest thoroughfares, Potsdamer Strasse. The transparent, four-sided pavilion of glass and steel was the last project the prominent architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed in his lifetime. When it was finished in 1968, the Neue Nationalgalerie was the largest suspended steel structure in Europe. With this unique design, Mies van der Rohe realized his ideal in the art of building.

Born in Aachen in 1886, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe went to Berlin at the age of 19. There he worked in various architects’ offices until he set up his own firm 1912. The “Roaring Twenties” was a busy decade for the young artist. By building a glass tower block at Friedrichstrasse rail station in downtown Berlin, he created what Germans came to know as “skin-and-bones” architecture. He was also co-founder of the avant-garde group of architects called “The Ring”. He headed a show called “The Apartment” at the Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart and built the German pavilion for the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona.

"Less is more" as leitmotiv

It was during this period that Mies developed the leitmotiv of his work, which he adhered to throughout his lifetime. His designs featured large spaces that were free and open on all sides, leaving the impression that there was little between the interior of a structure and its surroundings. His plans were dominated by transparent shapes and the use of glass, steel and concrete. Mies van der Rohe originated the saying “Less is more”, a bonmot that has become incorporated in daily speech and has come to represent the architectural styles of the mid-20th century.

The first high-point of Mies’ career came in 1930, when Walter Gropius named him the director of the Bauhaus, an organisation he headed until it was shut down in 1933. During the Nazi period, Mies’ work stagnated. He emigrated in 1938 and settled in Chicago, where he became the head of the department of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

At this time, Mies had three decades of successful intellectual and practical work as an architect behind him. But the greater part of his career was still to come. Among other buildings he designed were the apartment towers at Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the Seagram-Building in New York and the Chicago Federal Center. His work provided the basis for constructing skyscrapers with glass facades.

MoMa Neue Nationalgalerie 2 Mies 2

Mies van der Rohe lived a life packed with achievements. Nevertheless, it must have seemed a dream come true when Berlin’s top official in charge of construction and housing in 1963, Rolf Schwedler, asked the architect to design a gallery for exhibiting 20th century art. Mies had created villas for art collectors in the 1920s, but he had never before designed a museum.

Mies unfortunately did not design the MoMA building, even though he was the architect of choice of MoMA’s founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Now, 75 years later it seems only fitting that the Neue Nationalgalerie serve as a home-away-from-home for the MoMA collection.The Neue Nationalgalerie opened on Sept. 15, 1968 with a show of works by Piet Mondrian. Almost a year later, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe died in Chicago on Aug. 17, 1969. MoMA in New York administers his estate.

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  • Author Stefanie Zobl
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  • Author Stefanie Zobl
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4gH3