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August 19, 1969OBITUARY
Mies van der Rohe Dies at 83; Leader of Modern Architecture
Special to The New York Times
CHICAGO, Aug. 18--Mies van der Rohe, one of the great figures of 20th-century architecture, died in Wesley Memorial Hospital here late last night. He was 83 years old.
Mr. van der Rohe had entered the hospital two weeks ago.
He is survived by two daughters, Mrs. Georgia van der Rohe and Mrs. Marianne Lohan; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Expressed Industrial SpiritBy ALDEN WHITMAN
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a man without any academic architectural training, was one of the great artist-architect-philosophers of his age, acclaimed as a genius for his uncompromisingly spare design, his fastidiousness and his innovations.
Along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, the German-born master builder who was universally know as Mies (pronounced mees) fashioned scores of imposing structures expressing the spirit of the industrial 20th century.
"Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space," he remarked in a talkative moment. Pressed to explain his own role as a model for others--a matter on which he was shy, as he was on most others--he said:
"I have tried to make an architecture for a technological society. I have wanted to keep everything reasonable and clear--to have an architecture that anybody can do."
A building, he was convinced, should be "a clear and true statement of its times"--cathedrals for an age of pathos, glass and metal cages for an age of advanced industrialism.
He thought the George Washington Bridge in New York an outstanding example of a structure expressing its period, and he used to go to admire it whenever he visited the city.
"It is the most modern building in the city," he remarked in 1963.
He was fond of the bridge because he considered it beautifully proportioned and because it did not conceal its structure. Mies liked to see the steel, the brick, the concrete of buildings show themselves rather than be concealed by ornamentation. A 20th-centrury industry building had to be pithy, he believed.
Influence on Colleagues
Mies's stature rested not only on his lean yet sensuous business and residential buildings, but also on the profound influence he exerted on his colleagues and on public taste. As the number of his structures multiplied in the years since World War II and as their stunning individuality became apparent, critical appreciation flowed to him in torrents, and his designs and models drew throngs to museums where they were exhibited. It became a status symbol to live in a Mies house, to work in a Mies building, or even to visit one.
The Mies name had already been established among architects long before he came to the United States in 1937. In 1919 and 1921 in Berlin he designed two steel skyscrapers sheathed in glass from street to roof. Although the buildings were never erected, the designs are now accepted as the originals of today's glass-and-metal skyscrapers.
In 1922 Mies introduced the concept of ribbon windows, uninterrupted bands of glass between the finished faces of concrete slabs, in a design for a German office building. That has since become the basis for many commercial structures.
Mies, in 1924, produced plans for a concrete villa that is now regarded as the forerunner of the California ranch house. He is also said to have foreshadowed the return of the inner patio of Roman times in an exhibition house built in 1931; to have started the idea of space dividers, the use of cabinets or screens instead of walls to break up interiors; and to have originated the glass house, with windows and glass sliding panels extending from floor to ceiling to permit outside greenery to form the visual boundaries of a room.
Apart from simplicity of form, what struck students of Mies's buildings was their painstaking craftsmanship, their attention to detail.
"God is in the details," Mies liked to say.
In this respect the buildings reflected the man, for Mies was fussy about himself. A large, lusty man with a massive head topping a 5-foot, 10-inch frame, he dressed in exquisitely hand-stitched suits of conservative hue, dined extravagantly well on haute cuisine, sipped the correct wines from the proper goblets, and chained-smoked hand-rolled cigars.
Gold Chain for Watch
For a man so modern in his conceptions, he had more than a touch of old-fashionedness. It showed up in such things as the gold chain across his waistcoat, to which was attached his pocket timepiece. Rather than live in a contemporary building or one of his own houses--he briefly contemplated moving to a Mies apartment but feared fellow tenants might badger him--he made his home in a high-ceilinged, five-room suite on the third floor of an old-fashioned apartment house on Chicago's North Side. The thick-walled rooms were large and they included, predictably, a full kitchen with an ancient gas range for his cook.
The apartment contained armless chairs and furniture of his own designs as well as sofas and wing chairs--in which he preferred to sit. The walls were stark white; but the apartment had a glowing warmth, given off by the Klees, Braques and Schwitterses that dotted its walls. Paul Klee was a close friend, and Mies's collection of Klees was among the finest in private hands.
Mies's chairs were almost as well known as his buildings, and they were just as spare. He designed his first chair, known as the MR chair in 1926. It had a caned seat and back and its frame was tubular steel. There followed the Barcelona chair, an elegant armless leather and steel design of which the legs formed an X; the Tugendhat chair, an armless affair of leather and steel that resembled a square S; and the Brno chair, with a steel frame and leather upholstery that looked like a curved S.
The bottoms of all these chairs were uniformly wide, a circumstance that puzzled furniture experts until one of them asked Mies for an explanation. It was simple, he said; he had designed them with his own comfort in mind.
Recognition After 50
Mies did not receive wide public recognition in the United States until he was over 50 years old. Up to 1937 he lived in Germany, where he was born, at Aachen, on March 27, 1886. Emigrating to Chicago, he had to wait for the postwar building boom before many of his designs were translated into actuality. At his death, examples of his work were in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, New York, Houston, Washington, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Montreal, Toronto and Berlin. All his buildings were dissimilar, although the same basic principles were employed in each.
The principles centered in a gothic demand for order, logic and clarity.
"The long path through function to creative work has only a single goal," he said, "to create order out of the desperate confusion of our time."
One Mies structure, accounted among his outstanding ones, is the 38-story dark bronze and pinkish-gray glass Seagram Building on Park Avenue between 52d and 53d Streets. The building, which was designed in association with Philip C. Johnson, has been called by appreciative critics the city's most tranquil tower and "the most beautiful curtain-wall building in America." It emphasizes pure line, fine materials and exact detailing outside and in. Special attention was paid to the room numbers, doorknobs, elevator buttons, bathroom fixtures and mail chutes, as well as the furniture.
The building's grace is enhanced by its being set in a half-acre fountained plaza of pink granite. It was begun in 1956 and completed two years later at a cost of $35-million. It was, at the time, the city's most costly office building.
Not everyone who gazed upon it or watched its extruded bronze aging was convinced of its beauty. Acerbic nonarchitectural critics pointed out that the tower rises 520 feet without setbacks and that it is unornamented. It is too spare, they said. One likened it to an upended glass coffin.
The Seagram Building ranked third in Mies's offhand list of his six favorites, chosen to illustrate his most notable concept--"Less is more." (By this Delphic utterance he meant achieving the maximum effect with the minimum of means.)
First on the list was the Illinois Institute of Technology's Crown Hall. This is a single glass- walled room measuring 120 feet by 220 feet and spanned by four huge trusses. The structure appears to do no more than to enclose space, a feeling reinforced by its interior movable partitions. It was one of 20 buildings that Mies designed for the school's 100-acre campus on Chicago's South Side. Crown Hall is as good an example as any of Mies's "skin-and-bones architecture," a phrase that he once used to describe his point of view.
The Chicago Federal Center, Mies's largest complex of high- and low-rise buildings, was his second favorite. He considered its symmetry symbolic of his lifelong battle against disorder.
Another Chicago creation was fourth--two 26-story apartment house towers at 860 and 880 Lake Shore Drive that overlook Lake Michigan. The facades are all glass. Tenants had to accept the neutral gray curtains that were uniform throughout the buildings and that provided the only means of seeking privacy and excluding light. No other curtains or blinds were permitted lest they mar the external appearance. (He was also the architect of the Promontory Apartments in Chicago, in which he used brick and glass in an exposed concrete frame.)
Mies's fifth favorite was a project for a Chicago convention hall, a place for 50,000 people to gather in unobstructed space under a trussed roof 720 feet square. The project never materialized.
The final pet on the architect's list was the since-destroyed German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition at Barcelona. It was, one critic said, "a jewel-case structure employing the open planning first developed by Frank Lloyd Wright that combined the richness of bronze, chrome, steel and glass with free-standing walls."
In addition to the Seagram Building, the architect was represented in the New York area by the Pavilion and Colonnade Apartments, both in Colonnade Park, Newark. He also devised a master plan for a 21-acre development in New Haven.
Mies's most recent building, the National Gallery in Berlin, opened last September. It is a templelike glass box set on top of a larger semibasement, and serves as a museum.
Although many accolades were bestowed on Mies for these and other works, there were also brickbats. "Unsparing," "grim," the work of "barren intellectualism" and "brutal in its destruction of individual possessions and the individual" were some of the terms his detractors used.
"Less is less," they said, turning his aphorism against him.
Taught by Mason Father
Ludwig Mies, who added the "van der Rohe" from his mother's name because of its sonority, learned the elements of architecture from his father, a German master mason and stonecutter, and from studying the medieval churches in Aachen.
At times, friends recalled, he would describe with unrestrained enthusiasm the quality of brick and stone, its texture, pattern and color.
"Now a brick, that's really something," he once said. "That's really building, not paper architecture."
For him the material was always the beginning. He used to talk of primitive building methods, where he saw the "wisdom of whole generations" stored in every stroke of an ax, every bite of a chisel.
His students in the United States and Germany had to learn the fundamentals of building before they could start to consider questions of design. He taught them how to build, first with wood, then stone, then brick and finally with concrete and steel.
"New materials are not necessarily superior," he would say. "Each material is only what we make it."
At Aachen Mies attended trade school and became a draftsman's apprentice before setting off for Berlin at the age of 19 to become an apprentice to Bruno Paul, Germany's leading furniture designer. Two years later he built his first house, a wooden structure on a sloping site in suburban Berlin. Its style was 18th century.
In 1909 Mies apprenticed himself to Peter Behrens, then the foremost progressive architect in Germany, who had taught Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius. Mies was put in charge of Behrens's German Embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia.
House Never Built
Going to the Netherlands in 1912, Mies designed a house for Mrs. H. E. L. J. Kroller, owner of the renowned Kroller Muller collection of modern paintings, near The Hague. He set up a full- scale canvas and wood mock-up on the site to assure perfection, but the house was never built.
Mies returned to Berlin in 1913 and opened his own office, but with the outbreak of the war in 1914 his life was dislocated for four years in the German Army, during which he built bridges and roads in the Balkans. After the war, with his own style coming into definition, he directed the architectural activities of the Novembergruppe, an organization formed to propagandize modern art, and became one of the few progressive architects of the time to employ brick.
Often he would go to the kilns to select one by one the bricks he wanted. He used them for the monument (now destroyed) to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the German Communist leaders; for suburban villas for wealthy businessmen; and for low-cost housing for the city of Berlin.
From 1926 to 1932 he was first vice president of the Deutscher Werkbund, formed to integrate art and industry in design. He directed the group's second exposition, the Weissenhof housing project erected in Stuttgart in 1927.
The peak achievements of Mies's European career were the German Barcelona pavilion and the Tugendhat house in 1930. A. James Speyer, a critic for Art News, extolled them both as "among the most important buildings of contemporary architecture and the most beautiful of our generation." The pavilion consisted of a rectangular slab roof supported by steel columns, beneath which free-standing planes of Roman travertine, marble, onyx and glass of various hues were placed to create the feeling of space beyond. The Tugendhat house permitted space to flow in a similar fashion.
In 1930 Mies took over direction of the Bauhaus, a laboratory of architecture and design in Dessau, Germany. It was closed three years later after the Nazis attacked the architect as "degenerate" and "un-German."
At the urging of a New York architect who was a close friend, Philip C. Johnson, Mies emigrated to the United States to head the School of Architecture at the Armour (now Illinois) Institute of Technology in Chicago. He retired from the post in 1958.
As a teacher Mies did not deliver formal lectures, but worked, seminar fashion, with groups of 10 or 12 students. His method of teaching, according to a former student, was "almost tacit." "He was never wildly physically active, and he did not do much talking," this student recalled, adding that Mies, sitting Buddha-like, would frequently puff through a whole cigar before commenting on a student sketch.
Abandoning the Beaux Arts system based on competition for prizes, Mies sternly told his students:
"First you have to learn something; then you can go out and do it."
He was not one to tolerate self-expression among his students. One of them once asked him about it. Silently he handed the student a pencil and paper. Then he told her to write her name. This done, he said:
"That's for self-expression. Now we get to work."
Another former student thought of Mies as "a great teacher because he subjects himself to an extraordinary discipline in thinking and in his way of working, and because what he is teaching is very clear to him."
Mies himself was quite confident of his influence.
"I don't know how many students we have had," he said a couple of years ago, "but you need only 10 to change the cultural climate if they are good."
Mies was well-to-do, but not wealthy. He received the usual architect's fee of 6 per cent of the gross cost of a building, but he was not a very careful manager of his income, according to his friends. He was considered generous with his office staff and on spending for designs that were unlikely to see the light of day.
The architect received three noteworthy honors--the Presidential Freedom Medal and the gold medals of the Royal Institute of British Architects and of the American Institute of Architects. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.