I recently had a discussion with an old friend about Architecture which shifted the balance of my understanding of Mies. More specifically it was about how we appreciate a work of architecture - as an abstract, physical, spatial, object or as an expression of a set of values and beliefs about the world. The discussion went something like this.
As Vitruvius said, Architecture is a political act. The reason Mies is Mies is because his Architecture is fuelled by human issues which go way beyond the surface of his physical constructions. When Mies returned to Germany and built a transparent art gallery in the heartland of what was the centre of Fascism - Berlin - the last things on his mind were 'I' columns and beautiful proportions. Well, not the last, but they were there only as a means to clearly express a political position.
Imagine having to leave your homeland to live in America, for all the reasons we know about. And imagine the immense significance and emotion Mies must have felt when returning after the war to create Architecture which expressed values, not only in opposition to Fascist ideology, but about a modern, transparent world.
It's easy for us now to forget the context and focus on the work of Art. And you have to remember that in Mies' time all the top Architects of the day were masters of proportion and detail. They were grounded / trained in the Beaux Arts tradition. It's only today, when those skills are very rare, that we fetishise Mies - for all the wrong reasons.
That being said, the genius of Mies was to uncover a physical expression for those values which not only goes beyond the proportional skills of his contemporaries, but also brought forth a new form of Architecture.
The lesson here is a reminder not to worship the graven image. Idolatry - it's hard not to become entranced by the object, thinking that's it. And it's even easier to misinterpret Mies' famous sentence - 'God is in the details'.