Monday, August 4, 2008
The German Pavilion at the Barcelona Universal Exhibition of 1929, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is the first built expression of what he called “the architecture of almost nothing.” About a decade earlier he had designed projects for multistory tower blocks, crystal prisms whose uninterrupted glass skins enveloped slender steel frames. They were just ideas, but the Barcelona Pavilion, as it is popularly known, set a standard—some would say, generated a fashion—for the austere minimalist architecture that would be dubbed the International Style at an exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern Art just three years later. Esthetically, it was a major development in modern architecture.
The temporary single-story building, constructed in 1928–1929 and opened in May 1929, exhibited nothing but itself, a pristine, new kind of architectural space. The only purpose it had to serve was brief: to house a reception for the king and queen of Spain when they attended the official opening. For them, Mies designed the now-famous Barcelona chair, handcrafted from stainless steel and covered in white pigskin. The commanding location of the pavilion took advantage of the flow of visitors between the other display halls and the rest of the exhibition. It stood on a low travertine platform that gave a good view of the grounds and beyond to the city. The northern half of the podium was covered by a flat roof, carried on two rows of equally spaced, cruciform steel columns and an asymmetrical series of discontinuous walls of marble, glass, and onyx, parallel or perpendicular to each other. None of the rectilinear spaces thus formed was fully defined—that is, they formed an open plan—and the interior and the exterior of the pavilion were treated in the same way. This was the kind of spatial organization that Mies had observed in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright twenty years earlier. The attention to reductive detail and fine finish was the German’s own. His most often quoted axioms were “Less is more” and “God is in the details.”
A minimalist approach probably was justifiable for the Barcelona Pavilion because the building had no set functional program. It was in essence architecture as sculpture, an end in itself. But Mies also applied the philosophy to more functionally complex buildings. An almost contemporary example was the Tugendhat House in Brno, Czechoslovakia; commissioned in 1927, it was completed in 1930. Then in 1945 he designed a small weekend house in 9 acres (3.6 hectares) of woodland and fields on the bank of the Fox River south of Plano, Illinois, for his mistress, the Chicago physician Edith Farnsworth—a single room partitioned by a core that includes a kitchen, a fireplace, bathrooms, and a service area. The house is a mechanically perfect cuboid carried on a skeleton frame of sandblasted steel channels and defined by 9-foot (2.7-meter) glass walls and concrete floor and roof slabs. Interior finishes include a travertine floor, natural timber fittings, and a stainless-steel counter in the kitchen. Such obsession with refinement, causing Mies to take his architecture of almost nothing almost to the limit, did little to create a comfortable living space. It may have been admirable architecture; it was hardly congenial. It is emphasized that the issue was unimportant in the case of the German Pavilion at Barcelona, which was built simply to be seen and admired—as someone called it, “a place for contemplative lingering.”
When the Barcelona Universal Exhibition closed, the German government tried to sell the pavilion to the municipality, without success. It was taken down in January 1930. It was not until 1983 that the Mies van der Rohe Foundation was established to reconstruct the building in Montjuïc Park, Barcelona, under the superintendence of the architects Cristian Cirici, Fernando Ramos, and Ignasi de Solà-Morales.