We love learning new things and get a big thrill when we are exposed to something new especially when we foolishly believe that we are already familiar with the ALL of the material. Yes, humble pie can be gratifying when is comes with a heaping of broadened perspective. (For the record, I'll never turn down pie as long as it is gluten-free.)
We are planning the latest iteration of Messy Mies. Our exhibit plays with size and scale, effect and detail, strategy and tectonics and the relationship between Furniture and Architecture. While not trendy, these concepts and categories are ripe for interpretation and expression. Being curious, we looked around for material on other Mies exhibits. We were literally floored by what we found.
The Mies exhibit at MoMA in the fall of 1947 is legendary. We had no idea that it Charles Eames authored a review of it for Arts and Architecture magazine. His handling of it, both the written review and the non-verbal engagement of it expressed in the photography, is pretty extraordinary. See the photo spread below.
There are understandable misconceptions that Mies was an overtly political figure or pushed a social agenda. This extends to Mies being mistaken as being an engineer in the guise of an Architect. Recently the prestigious Dutch Architecture firm Robbrecht en Daem architecten researched and constructed the unbuilt Krefeld Golf Club. The surviving drawings were 1 to 100 or 1 to 50 metric. (Brussels is 1 to 200 metric.) The Architects did a beautiful job and were rightfully proud of the pavilion as it sat gorgeously in the Dutch countryside. One of the claims they made was quite baffling. Mies's surviving design drawings are at such a small scale as to make the exact detail of Mies's signature cross column come into question. There isn't enough information to figure out its thickness or the exact profile. The Architects claimed that they were able to gauge the profile dimensions by calculating the axial load place upon it. Therefore, they knew its size. And, by the way, it was the same square profile as used by Mies in Barcelona.
First, Mies seemed to have wandered from the square-edged column by 1932. Second, Mies was not an engineer. Yes, his work expressed structure but that does not make it the truth or his work the product of equations. His work exhibits much more subtlety and sophistication than that. For example, the columns in the Barcelona Pavilion have been described by the English critic Robin Evans as "flashes of light." The four steel angles that make up the column are covered in a chrome-plated, now polished-stainless-steel, jacket that can be thought of as a dissonant detail. In fact, the Barcelona column is at its most persuasive when it disappears and it is unclear as to what, if anything, it is supporting. Most Miesians think of his details as fitting into one of two categories: the joint and the referential detail. The first expresses how two things are connected stripped of everything superfluous and the latter expresses something that cannot be shown directly because of exigencies like building codes. "Almost nothing" can be applied to both. The reality of construction is far messier than the canonical texts give credit. Furthermore the variety of possible categories of detailing found in Mies's work is much larger.
Edward Ford says that there a five basic types of details. The implications of this on Miesian historiographies and criticism is large and one we are pursuing in a forthcoming book. In the meantime, we think that Eames understood Mies and we all are the better for it.