The influential architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe left a body of work which has changed the face of modern cities throughout the world. Famous for his dictum "less is more", he strove to create neutral spaces of material honesty and structural integrity, achieving in his later buildings a vision of architecture with its "skin and bones" visible.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born Ludwig Mies in Germany in 1886. As a teenager he worked with his father, a master stonemason, before joining the employ of Art Nouveau designer Bruno Paul in 1905. In 1906, the young apprentice Mies, only 20, received his first commission to build a house which showed hints of his later interest in open spaces. In 1908 Mies joined the office of pioneering industrial architect Peter Behrens, where he was encouraged to study Prussian Classicism and structural techniques. At this time Mies also became acquainted with the work of fellow modernist pioneer Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work had just been published in Germany. In 1912 Mies opened his own office in Berlin; the next year he married Ada Bruhn. However, he separated from Ada and his, by then, three daughters in 1921; soon after, he added the Dutch "van der" and his mother's maiden name Rohe to his own, becoming Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
At the same time as he affected these personal transformations, he was rethinking his approach to architecture. He was active in the Berlin avant garde, contributing to the artistic journal G. He became interested in the thoroughly modern form of the skyscraper, and in early drawings and models experimented with the steel frames and glass walls which would later make him famous. He was involved in number of building projects over this decade; the most renowned was the German Pavilion which he designed for the 1929 Barcelona exhibition (he also created his famous chrome and leather Barcelona chair for this fair). The long, low flat roof of the pavilion was supported by chrome columns; the space was sheathed in glass, and the interior glass and marble walls could be freely positioned, promoting a free-flowing dynamic interior. The influential building was demolished in 1930, but re-created in 1986 on its original site and is worth a visit if you are ever in Barcelona.
The busy Mies teamed up with designer Lilly Reich in the mid-20s, and she would be his companion and collaborator for over a decade. In 1930 Mies became artistic director of the Bauhaus School of Design, a major centre of architectural modernism, but closed down the school in 1933 as the Nazi government gained power. A 1932 exhibit on modern architecture at MoMA, which featured several of Mies' designs, spread his reputation across the Atlantic, and in 1937 he emigrated to the United States. He settled in Chicago and accepted the post of director of architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology. He was asked to design a new campus for the school, now renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology, which allowed Mies for the first time to pursue a huge urban industrial project. He designed most of the buildings himself, using off-the-shelf steel I-beams and H-columns to achieve his rational, ordered vision. Mies became an American citizen in 1944, forming a relationship with Chicago artist Lora Marx that would last for the rest of his life.
In the 1940s Mies designed his most famous residence, a weekend retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois. The Farnsworth House is a transparent box supported by eight steel columns, with one interior room sheathed in glass and divided by partitions, a radically minimalist structure that ultimately disappointed Farnsworth yet articulated a vision of a house completely in tune with its natural surroundings.
Other Mies van der Rohe buildings are many; some of the most famous are the twin towers of the Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago, a design he used in Toronto, Montreal, Detroit, and elsewhere; the Convention Hall in Chicago, a large multi-use open space of the type that had interested Mies since he had arrived in the US; the Seagram Building in New York, a commission Mies gained thanks to Samuel Bronfman putting his daughter Phyllis Lambert in charge of the project; and Berlin's new National Gallery, the culmination of Mies' lifelong drive to achieve an entirely exposed steel structure: a dramatic cantilevered roof resting on steel columns. Mies died in Chicago in 1969, a year after the completion of this building.
For an extensive webliography on Mies, see
There's an informative and creative presentation on Mies and his life and work, put together by MoMA for an exhibit, and well worth looking at, at