Art: The Big Room

What form should a museum take in midcentury? There is the palace-a grand gallery with lofty, vaulted skylights. There is the closed box-an exhibition space sealed off from outside light and divided into cubicles where displays can be lighted with the calculated drama of a stage set. Chicago's Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 72, whom fellow architects rank with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, accepts neither form. In Mies's view, a museum should be composed only of "three basic elements-a floor slab, columns and a roof plate."

In essence, Mies's concept goes back...

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