Saturday, October 31, 2009

The More Part.....

Chicago Federal Center: MVDR. Calder Sculpture in Foreground (photo by Argitect)

"Less is More"- Mies Van Der Rohe

We know that Mies was aware of the ambiguous nature of glass based on his interest in its reflective possibilities for the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922. Further evidence of the elusive qualities of glass can be seen in the Barcelona Pavilion where he uses shallow water pools to magnify the mystifying qualities about each material. Mies would have you believe that his liberal use of glass in his projects in America achieved a clarity and honesty about program and structure. Indeed, for the most part, this is true. It appears his American projects sought to downgrade the mystical qualities that he was exploiting in his Avant-Garde period, but this is specious. What Mies did was assimilate the residual effects of minimalist architecture into a more subtle and sublime whole. The effects and illusions of materiality were framed within order for maximum viewing of their mystical qualities.

A building that is fraught with angles and strange juxtapositions competes with the natural mysteries of the materials it’s clad in. A building specifically made to highlight a material may go overboard in its architecturality and lessen the very qualities it was trying to enshrine. An example that comes to mind is the metal cladding found on many Frank Gehry Projects. The shiny qualities and games that are played with the reflectivity of the metal are both heightened and hindered by the form of the building. In other words, the form of the building competes with the inherent qualities of the materials. Materials framed in less intrusive forms have their qualities heightened because they are not competing with the architecture itself.

Advanced Tech Lab at University of Iowa by Frank Gehry.

Firstly, in the Barcelona Pavilion we find a much more conventionally ordinary plan compared to the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922, however the games played with the reflectivity of glass are stunning. Planes of glass float past one another, and in the interstitial space between the overlaps we get mirroring effects. The glass envelope, which is ambiguously shaped in a De Stilj type diagram, gives the illusion of virtual space. Materials beside glass also obsess over reflectivity: columns are sheathed in chrome, the marble walls are glossy, and the travertine floor on a rainy day becomes a mirror reflecting the entire building. A rainy day would be ideal to see the Barcelona Pavilion, the maximum in spiritual space; it’s material qualities as elusive as it’s program! These residual effects of minimalism unimpeded by obstreperous architectural form are the “more” part in the idiom Less is More. The rippling water, reflectivity and matchbook marble almost give the building a quality of Baroque-ness, which is certainly unexpected when describing a Mies building.

In the Chicago Federal Center in Downtown we have an interesting example of the games that glass plays within Mies’ less Avant- Garde and more classically inspired buildings he did in America. What is interesting and inescapable when looking up at these skyscrapers are the mosaics of the surrounding buildings reflected in the black sounding board of the glass and I-beam grid. The reflections seem part of the buildings, as if they were applied decoration! What’s interesting and jarring at the same time is seeing the adjacent Mies tower reflected in the other one. Unlike the decorated and more solid surrounding buildings that survive the reflectivity relatively unharmed, a Mies reflection of a Mies is engulfing. The building is swallowed up like a black hole; light is absent from the void reflection, like an ominous doppelganger from the other side.

The large sculpture, Flamingo, by Alexander Calder is an integral part of the building, and is perfectly framed by the austerity of Mies’ facades. But, the buildings do play games with the sculpture. The Post Office reflects the sculpture, and upon approach from the southwest, it is unclear whether the half we see on the post office is a mirrored reflection or if we are just seeing completely through the building to the rest of the sculpture. Upon closer inspection, it is indeed a reflection. The Post Office has distorted the reality of the sculpture.

Reflectivity in glass is mostly an outdoor game with facades, except at night where this is reversed and the inside becomes reflective. I imagine this can be unsettling to a person, not being able to see outside, but knowing that anyone could be watching them. I would guess a night in the Farnsworth house after a horror movie with the lights on, obscuring the outdoors would be an unsettling experience.

Glass is a material that on the surface appears to clarify the nature of a building. The more glass used, the more we understand about its program and structural diagram. However, an overabundance of glass can undermine this purpose and create major ambiguities with reflectivity. A master architect will understand this and embrace the contradiction. I know Mies did. His Less was always More.

Glass tricks with Calder (photo by Argtiect)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Material Spirituality

Top: Luxury at the Barcelona Pavilion Bottom: Velvet and Silk Cafe, 1927. Enveloping Luxury.

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space; living, changing, new.” Mies Van Der Rohe

In the previous post comparing Mies’ architecture to the Trump Tower you may be asking me; “But Andrew, where was the paradox in this essay?” The paradox lies in the fact that although Mies achieved a rational, epoch defining space, he did it originally for clients with the same aims as a developer like Donald Trump: to evoke a rhetoric of strength and luxury. IBM is a brand name; the rhetoric of the building shows strength and luxury. Strength is found in it’s bold, no nonsense volume, and it’s pristine detailing. This gives the impression of an indomitable spirit. Luxury is found in its sumptuous materiality. Travertine, dark tinted glass, and gold painted Barcelona Chairs are among the opulent materials. Similarly, the Seagram building in New York by Mies uses even more luxuriant materials. The building is clad in bronze. So, no matter how the IBM Building and the Trump Tower fare for posterity, they were still built for the same aims.

The paradox of Mies lies in the idea of using finely wrought materials to create a space of almost nothing. What Mies had to do in architecture was to create spiritual space out of the corporeal. One would think that if an architect was interested in making architecture that had an ethereal nature that materials wouldn’t matter much. One would think that the thinnest and least obtrusive materials would be all that is necessary. Of course the prominent material in all of Mies’ work is glass, which is the definition of a material with almost no materiality, but this is contrasted with finely wrought stone of the most expensive kind filled with pattern and texture. These are the opposite of ethereal materials. They do something in regards to grounding the spiritual flight of his column free glass volumes. Mies used his perfectly chosen stonework on the floors and cores of his buildings. These were opaque out of utility, and contrasted in total completion to the surrounding free open spaces.

How interesting that an architect who grew up the son of a stonemason, indebted to stonework his whole life, would come to conclusions about architecture in his maturity regarding the negation of solidity: The negation of the grounded building! Indeed in the Farnsworth house we find the building floating on columns, removed off the ground by about 4 feet. This has a rational and spiritual motive. Rationally Mies justified this by acknowledging that the house lie in a flood plain, although frequent flooding inside the house over the years has shown he did not raise it high enough. Spiritually it’s an expression of flotation, a removal of the building from the solid earth. The Farnsworth House is spiritually disconnected from reality. It is a ghost! Materiality is suppressed more so in this building than any other of his buildings, and this is done literally by using muted colors and large expanses of glass. Glass is the dominant material, and the panes are so large that when inside they do not seem to exist at all. The only evidence the building is not enclosed is in the sound barrier that the glass provides from the outside. Steel is painted white and thus disappears. The bathroom/utility core is clad in light wood. The only stonework is the travertine floor, texturally rich, but pale in color. Nevertheless, Mies was adamant about getting the stone perfectly placed. He oversaw the laying of the stonework and handpicked individual pieces. Mies expended great effort in making sure the material manifestations of his spiritual spaces were executed perfectly.

Whether Mies was making a dwelling or a corporate office space, he chose to define the physical manifestations of his work with expensive and beautiful materials. This is not a rationalist approach, and indeed he got flack from his peers when he used such luxuriant materials for the Barcelona Pavilion. Is this a contradiction on his part that his buildings that expressed the idea of essentiality were clad in such worldly riches? Or are we missing something in this interpretation? Mies was a Rationalist in the sense that he used rationality to express spiritual ideas. Rationality for him was an idea of rationality, and not true rationality. I call this Expressive Rationality. True rationality is left in the hands of the engineer. Expressive rationality as a phrase seems to be an oxymoron, a contradiction of two wildly opposite spectrums of thought. But this is what Mies was about. Mies was looking for the spirit of his epoch, but the spirit has to be expressed in reality. This brings me to the question that plagues all artists, sculptors and architects in search for ideas of truth: How does one express an idea of the spiritual with physical means?

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Left: IBM by MVDR Right: Trump by SOM

“The essential is what architecture is about, and we should not be afraid if that gets a little boring.” MIes Van Der Rohe.

A skyscraper is built by the powerful to show off their power. They are literal realizations of giant egos. Donald Trump has built a giant in the heart of Chicago set out to trump all the surrounding buildings for stature and glory (pun intended). Its location is a beacon of showmanship: “Look at me! I am better than all of you.” is what it says. This placement used to be dominated by the IBM Building by Mies Van Der Rohe, which before the Trump Tower was foregrounded by the low and unassuming Chicago Sun Times building. This used to be my favorite view of the city. The Trump tower nudged into the Chicago Sun Times spot and is now king of the mountain. In almost every article I’ve read about the building not once have I heard any actual examinations of the architecture. Articles about the Trump Tower are amenities driven, because that’s what it’s all about. The building is for the rich, to live downtown under the luxurious umbrella of Donald Trump. So what about the architecture of this powerful new kid on the block?

Trump Tower’s basic form evokes its nearby surroundings, most noticeably the Wrigley Building. The multiple levels tie it in to the various heights of the adjacent buildings making it less jarring as it surpasses them. Obviously the building is dealing with the issues of being right next to the IBM building by Mies Van Der Rohe. This is most clearly evidenced in the treatment of the all glass facade. The most obvious homage to Mies are the vertical mullions that separate the windows. These are spaced in similar proportion to that of the IBM building. The vertical mullions, however, are not I-beams (that would express the structural steel encased in cylindrical concrete columns), but extruded chrome shapes very similar to a clothes iron. These shapes go further to point out the main motives behind this facade, which is reflectivity. This shape clad in mirror-finish chrome is clearly that way to capture light and give the facade a shimmering quality. The blue tinted glass windows also reflect to a high degree. When the sun is out an arc of light blinds its way across the building. A band of chrome louvers at intermittent levels signify mechanical floors, similar to the band at the lower one-third portion of the IBM building.

Having these two building side by side can really teach us about the precious qualities of the IBM Building. No matter how hard the Trump Tower tries to evoke the graceful proportions and grid of the IBM building, something elusive prevents it from looking as elegant. I don’t know what this could be, but this deficiency is in the Trump Tower as well as 95% of all the Mies imitations that are out there. The brightness of Trump gives it a mass and a presence, whereas the blackness of IBM seems to suggest a void in space. It keeps Mies’ skyscraper architecture in the spiritual world, where reality doesn’t quite touch it. The Trump Tower is of the world and part of it, there is no detachment. It also is clearly less a progression of the Miesian spirit and more an homage to his style. This is a key difference, and goes far towards making the Trump Tower nearly irrelevant for its time. It looks badly dated, as if it was built in 1990, one of hundreds of towering glass skyscrapers that sought to use Miesian vocabulary but didn’t have the deft touch to pull it off. In contrast, the Ohio Fairbanks Condos by Helmut Jahn goes further towards crystallizing the ideas of essential epochal architecture in our time. Instead of copying Mies, the building seeks to take his concepts of the essential and apply them to the technological constraints of our time. Similarly, the Aqua Tower, even if the conceptual framework is muddled, is further in the Miesian spirit than the Trump Tower.

Like I mentioned earlier, I believe the driving force behind the materiality of the trump tower was reflectivity, which is a concept for energy efficiency, and also one of many of the residual themes that recurred in Mies’ work. I call it residual, because outside of the Glass Skyscraper project of 1922 reflectivity is an effect of the theories he chose to work with, they were not the driving force. Just like Jeanne Gangs’ Aqua Tower was mastered by the scrim, Trump is mastered by reflectivity. Both of these were residual effects in Mies’ work. An interesting, and I believe coincidental, component of the reflectivity theme (as well as the theme of Miesian homage), can be found in the serpentine glass mullioned facade of the lobby that weaves its way freely in undulating curves. On first impression I felt strongly that this was a wink in the direction of Mies’ Glass Skyscraper project of 1922. Walking along the perimeter of this glass lobby I noticed the fascinating and fragmented reflections it gave off: coincidence or willful effect? If this is indeed the reason behind the lobby facade then I am impressed, but I’m leaning towards coincidence. Either way, it is the best part about the building.

Lobby Facade of Trump Tower

One last note: walking around the Trump Tower I was depressed to find so many tourists pointing at it, and taking pictures of it, unconscious of the truly great buildings right around including, IBM, Marina Towers and the Wrigley Building. I’ve been compelled several times to go right up to the tourists and tell them they are taking pictures of the wrong buildings. For now, I will let the bully be king of the mountain. I’m confident the novelty will wear off soon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Contributions to the Epoch"

Left:Glass Skyscraper Project Mies Van Der Rohe 1922. Right: Jeanne Gang Aqua Tower 2008.

“Some people think that you should always be doing something new, they ask for more and more novelty – not the essential things.” Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

"Things you couldn’t do before maybe because you were forced into repetition from construction, that’s where we’ve really been liberated. I love Marina towers, but they are the way they are because they needed to be repetitious. We can break away from that.” Jeanne Gang

The glass skyscraper project by Mies Van Der Rohe is striking in the context of all his other works. This seems to be a building of free flowing form, truly and literally thinking outside the box. His motives behind the shape were the combination of a strange site and games played with the reflectivity of glass. He stated that an all glass skyscraper was less about light and transparency and more about reflectivity. One can imagine Mies systematically and scientifically going through hundreds of permutations to arrive at a volume with maximum reflective potential. It’s strange to hear the motives for a Mies building seemingly having only one dimension: the reflectivity of glass. This seems to be a case where a small idea dictates to an exaggerated amount the built form. His subsequent works would subsume this into an increasingly holistic and spiritual approach to architecture. This building was outright revolutionary for its time. Beyond the strange shapes, Mies begins to show a building that is interested in being honest about how it’s constructed. One can clearly see the structural concept after a cursory glance of the model photograph. Floors are held up by interior columns and the floor plates branch off of these. The facade is applied and non-structural, it is clipped on, and we can literally see the clips holding the glass up at the top. It’s not far removed from the free plan associated with Le Corbusier, however this is more like a free facade. The model photograph further shows the revolutionary nature of this project by contextualizing it with a bunch of opaque low-rise cottage looking forms right out of Caligari’s Cabinet.

I can’t help walking around Chicago today, and going past the Aqua Tower by Jeanne Gang and seeing at least a superficial resemblance to the Glass Skyscraper project. They both have sinuous facades, although the Aqua Tower keeps the glass plane vertical and uses the floor plates to create the curves. The motives behind the building also seem to have a similarity. Whereas Mies’ curving forms were about reflectivity, Gangs’ are about maximizing views. There is an interesting diagram that shows points of views emanating from the tower block and pushing and pulling it in certain directions. It seems like a similar method that Mies might have used to find his perfect reflectivity. However, it seems this “maximum view” motive is a little dubious. I get the impression from both of these projects that the initial decisions were purely aesthetic and that a justified motive was attributed after the fact. The idea of views is arbitrary: the flowing forms are what the architect was looking for. And they have a beautiful effect when standing right up to them, but the rationalist inside of me does not see the justification or the posterity for such exaggerations of form. Jeanne Gang passes herself off as an architectural scientist, using research and modern technology to inform and dictate her architecture. I wish that this could be more boldly asserted in a high profile project such as this, because the rationalist/spiritualist duality seems to be tipped too far in one direction even if at the same time the mouth is speaking of rational motives for the given results.

The most striking element of the Aqua Tower is the scrim effect it gives looking vertically at close proximity. When further away this dissipates and the building seems to just be a regular skyscraper block with slightly tweaked fringe. Again it reminds me of Mies Van Der Rohe and the scrim effect that can be found on his skyscrapers with the protruding I-beams. Of course Mies’ scrim is looked at horizontally and not vertically like at Aqua. It’s a lovely trick that enhances the ambiguity of a buildings solidity and transparency. I believe the subtle way that Mies did it seems to have much more weighted substance. In other words, it allows you to discover it on your own: the building isn’t mastered by the scrim; it is just one element of many. (When at the IBM building, be sure to check out the adjacent parking garage and revel in the cleverness of it’s cladding. It reflects the scrim effect!). I’m also disappointed in the cumbersome and sometimes careless detailing of the Aqua Tower. The mullions are graceless, and the balcony railing is a jolting afterthought. In defense of the tower though, it has beautiful proportions, very tall and slender, and most importantly, at least it is something new and refreshing to the city that opens up room for discussion.

Both of these buildings seem to suffer from being mastered too highly by one conceptual triviality. Mies would later use the ambiguity of reflectivity to much more refined effect beginning most strikingly with the Barcelona Pavilion. Hopefully, Jeanne Gang will be able to subsume some of her scientific concepts into more solidly rationalized buildings.

The newly constructed Trump Tower is problematic in a whole different realm, but that “contribution to our epoch” can be a topic for next time.....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Less is More : More is Good?

Above: Crown Hall and Me. Below: Campus Building IIT

"Less is More" - Mies Van Der Rohe

"I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good." Mies Van Der Rohe

In my opinion it seems Mies Van Der Rohe followed Durand’s concepts most fully in the campus buildings that he made at IIT in Chicago (aside from Crown Hall). These were his first built works in America, and utilized a system of bays and units in plan and bays and units in elevation to create a framework for all the buildings. This was very similar to Durands’ ideas of systematized building units. Mies also cut away all flak, using in his stripped down buildings a factory aesthetic that arose from the outgrowth of his design process. He eliminated any hint of ceremonial space in these buildings. They were truly utilitarian. That’s why they don’t carry the grace as most of his other built works. Aside from the beautiful corner steel details and the interesting coloring of the glass and brick, these buildings really seem to lack in charm. But that is one reason I find them fascinating. I mean how did a German coming to a very conservative country like America convince a college campus to create utilitarian box classrooms that looked like factories? Indeed, the first building he built on the campus was a factory! It’s fascinating and it’s boldness and daring bring it up a few points in my book. Mies could have easily theorized that he had created a unitized building system, just like Durand did, and declared he would use it for all other buildings for the rest of his life. Indeed he refined a different type of building with his skyscrapers. An undiscerning eye could probably not make out the subtle refinements between Lake Shore Apartments, The Seagram Building and The IBM Building. These skyscrapers were very much in Durand’s spirit as well.

But what compelled him to break away from type in Crown Hall? It does not share the same units as the other buildings, instead it freely floats on the inside supported by giant exterior beams that do all the work out of sight. The ceiling is high and grand, the staircases are detailed to float, and it is symmetrical. These do not seem like Rationalist choices of the like he did with the other university low-rises. It seems Mies was doing something else, and was willfully creating a spiritual space. A space dictated by aesthetic, not pragmatics. What was the lesson he was teaching his students? In comparison to the other buildings they would see on campus, I imagine they felt a little confused, or maybe even deified. THE ARCHITECTURE BUILDING was a grand space and everything else was lesser. Even the Chapel was a humble building that had more in common with the other buildings than Crown Hall! Perhaps he was commenting on his esteem for architects. Despite it’s lofty aims, Crown Hall is still created of units and is rigorously disciplined. It is a logical building to itself. All pesky functional rooms are relegated to the basement out of sight and out of mind. The main floor is for studio, the sacred act of creating architecture.

Mies was an interesting contradiction. His most famous line was Less is More. If we look at the phrase for a second it is confusing. If less is more, then is more good? Was he actually advocating more? It does not appear that way in his buildings. But it is more a spiritual phrase than a rationalist phrase. The less a building does in the real world, the more spiritually fulfilling it is? But Mies had do to so much to create Less. He had to hide utilities, he had to arrange program to fit in cores, he had to develop better facade technology, and he used industrialized ornamentation to articulate the parts of a building. Honesty was not his goal, but a concept of honesty. Which is interesting when looking at Mies the man. He was fat, indulged in expensive suits, and constantly smoked cigars. Outwardly it appears he lived an indulgent lifestyle. I marvel at the demons he tackled in his life.

Taken with all his other built works in America, in Crown Hall we see the creation of the third building type Mies created: The Open Pavillion. This along with the utilitarian low-rise and the skyscraper were all refinements of basically the same vocabulary over decades. So the question remains, was he a rationalist or a spiritualist?

Another interesting question lies in his transformation of approach between his European work and his American work. What about America caused him to curb his overtly avant-garde tendencies? ......