At the weekend I read a review for a new book about Mies Van Der Rohe, it was in a Sunday paper supplement magazine. Isn't it incredible he's still making it into mainstream consciousness when his last building was completed in 1958?
It seems the 'Truth' does survive and persist. I won't go into what I think the 'Truth' is - we all know it when we see it. We might not like it, depending on how seduced we are by our particular delusion, but we definitely see it. As Leonard Cohen says 'Everybody Knows'.
I remember the feeling I had when I first saw the Barcelona Pavilion designed by Mies for the 1929 International Exposition. I was 20 and in total identification with Le Corbusier. The day before I'd been to Villa Roche and a few of Corb's other buildings in Paris - you have to appreciate that all this was brand new to me and I didn't fully understand the unique and universal significance of Le Corbusier. In my innocence I thought it was normal to find things in the world which resonated so deeply. After all, my beloved gas cylinders were parked right outside my bedroom window for most of my childhood.
Anyway back to Mies. In comparison to Villa Roche, the Barcelona Pavilion felt mean and empty. This worried me for many years. How could I not enjoy a building by someone who was so clearly in 'Truth'? All the drawings, photographs and writings I looked at confirmed I was missing something. The answer was revealed when I visited the National Gallery in Berlin. And this is where it gets a bit esoteric and therefore problematic. The difference is - the Barcelona Pavilion was rebuilt in 1983.
Having built many projects over the last twenty years I believe something mysterious happens on site when ideas and drawings become tangible objects. The Barcelona Pavilion is a copy and is therefore devoid of that mysterious quality, that feeling of visceral authenticity I felt in the National Gallery and also later in the Seagram Tower in New York, also by Mies.
The strongest I've ever felt it was in Arne Jacobson's National Bank in Copenhagen. I wasn't a massive fan of his architecture from the books, I thought it was all about his amazing furniture. God was I wrong. When I walked into that bank foyer I had an inexplicable and immense opening of the heart and mind. Perhaps it was because I wasn't expecting anything and so my conditioned mind was preoccupied elsewhere. The proportion of the volumes, the exquisite soft light....I must stop attempting a definition, better to describe it in the negative - it had whatever it is that is missing from the Barcelona Pavilion.
I had an amazing teacher at university called Drew Plunkett. Again, at the time I didn't realise how rare such people were. I saw him years later and we had an argument. We were stood in Macintosh's masterpiece The Glasgow School of Art. He had just completed an article for a Japanese Architecture magazine. His essay gave the formula for how to create amazing space. Drew said he knew by rational deduction how to recreate the Macintosh studio we were stood in by including various elements and proportions.
It sounds so simple. And I think Drew just wondered why the hell I would bother to contradict him on such a rational proposition.
And this is the fundamental tension within architectural production. I have spent most of my career navigating a safe path for my projects through vast seas of empty rational justification from all the various parties involved in the realisation of a building. The reason this force is so powerful can be seen in the fakery of the Barcelona Pavilion. The conservationists behind it only meant well and who could argue against their pure intentions? Mies is the absolute epitome of rational order, what could go wrong?
The bigger question all this is alluding to is the systemic copying of Mies all over the world. Surely the proof that something mysterious and unrepeatable happens couldn't be more evident in the dead Miesian Order Architecture that inhabits most of our cities?
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