Even people who hate modern architecture -all those featureless skyscrapers bunched along heartless avenues!-can have a soft spot for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the most steadfast Modernist of them all. In his later years, he proposed variations of the same building for every purpose. For office towers and museums, a black steel-and-glass carton. For symphony halls and convention centers? Ditto. For houses? O.K., for houses, something more domestic-a steel-and-glass carton in white. All the same, the best of what he did is still utterly beautiful. Around the lobby of the Seagram Building in New York City, threads of steel outline wide fields of glass to make the tonnage of the upper stories float. His dual apartment towers on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago are as elegantly self-contained as Japanese bento boxes. And his nearly all-glass Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, is sculpture you can live in-though not if there are neighbors with binoculars.
Even so, for anyone who thinks architecture took a wrong turn after the Empire State Building, it was Mies who pointed the way. In the U.S., where he arrived in 1937, he was chief evangel of the new right-angled religion. Before Mies, the Chrysler Building, with its scalloped pinnacle and chrome gargoyles. After Mies, lots of no-nonsense boxes. If "God is in the details," as he liked to say, his details could still be few and far between.
Now Mies is back, in a big retrospective that has opened at two New York City museums. "Mies in Berlin," at the Museum of Modern Art, covers the years when he and other European Modernist pioneers, especially Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, slashed away at the history of architecture until they arrived at Platonic refinements of geometric form. "Mies in America," at the Whitney Museum of American Art, picks up the story after he fled the Nazis, eventually to settle in Chicago as head of what became the Illinois Institute of Technology. From there, through his teaching and his flourishing practice, he spread the doctrine of glass and steel.
Two simultaneous shows are a lot of exhibition, especially for the man who said, "Less is more." But there couldn't be a better time to look back fully on Mies, 32 years after his death and two decades after Postmodernism rose up to proclaim that less is a bore. The last big Mies show, 15 years ago at moma, happened during the heyday of Postmodernism, when Mies and his followers were charged with hostility to history, to imagination and to What People Really Want. Now it's Postmodernism that's in trouble. For anyone tired of whimsy, streetscapes modeled after the Magic Kingdom and office towers topped by medieval crenellations, the dry pieties of Modernism are looking good again. Classic Modernist furniture, including the perennial Barcelona chair that Mies designed in 1929, is back once more as retro chic. Recently the state of Illinois acknowledged the landmark status of the Farnsworth House by agreeing to buy it for $6.2 million from the British arts patron Lord Palumbo.
Not bad for a style forged in the devastation of Europe after World War I, a place where every kind of authority, including inherited style, was discredited by the disaster of the trenches. The Modernist response was another battle cry: "Back to zero." Style for its own sake was a lie, like the official rationales for the Great War. What the new age demanded was that the appearance of any building conform to the trusty realities that construction might dictate. Those were usually flat roofs, exposed structural elements and sheet glass-a material loved for its associations with transparency and honesty. Mies called ornament "macaroni." He didn't mean it fondly.
In his struggle to distill the building process to its essentials-vertical and horizontal structure, bare but lustrous materials-Mies produced his poetry through painstaking attention to detail. He made a fetish of the proper way to expose the steel I beams at the corners of his buildings. As Frank Lloyd Wright also did, Mies exploded the confined rooms of 19th century interior space, producing the open-plan homes and work spaces-"universal space" he called it-that are now pretty much universal.
In From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe's wiseguy polemic of 1984, Wolfe was at a loss to explain how in mid-century America-a wealthy, robust nation unscarred by war-the business Úlites ended up settling upon puritanical Modernism as the official style of fat and happy capitalism. Mies was a big part of the reason. He arrived in New York at age 52, with little English but with the powerful support of the Museum of Modern Art. Philip Johnson, now the gray imp of American architecture but then moma's architecture curator, devoted important shows to Mies and connected him with wealthy patrons. One was Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, who later became the founding director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Toronto and has now organized the Whitney show. In 1954 she persuaded her father, then chairman of the Seagram company, that Mies should design its new corporate headquarters.
The show at moma, which was organized by architecture curator Terence Riley and Barry Bergdoll, a Columbia University art professor, tries to reconcile Mies with some of his critics by arguing that he was far more preoccupied than most people realize with fitting even his starkest designs to the natural setting around them. So in an early masterpiece, the German Pavilion that he designed for the 1929 International Exhibition in Spain, inside flows to outside through staggered walls and wide plains of glass that admit views of the park that surrounds it.
Mies was a man with his share of contradictions. All his life he combined the bearing and wardrobe of a bourgeois with a merciless intellectual radicalism. This may be why, with his constant cigar, he could look at times like Mephistopheles in a Brechtian update of Faust. Like Wright, he also sustained a 19th century romantic notion of himself as an artist, a man answerable only to his own instincts. (After just a few years of marriage in the 1920s, his hapless wife Ada decided to stop resisting his regular infidelities and move out.) Mies insisted that the architect must surrender his urge to add personal "touches," but he broke his rule on some of his greatest buildings. The slender steel mullions that run up the walls of the Seagram Building and provide its rhapsodic vertical flight, have no structural purpose. The real load-bearing steel is buried behind them in the flame-retarding concrete required by New York fire codes. Mies applied the exterior steel because he liked how it looked. He was right.
To an even less high-minded generation of developers and builders, Mies' elegant minimalism was simply a green light to throw up thousands of hasty glass cartons in every city and suburban office park. What we learned from those is that mediocre Modernist looks even worse than mediocre Victorian. There's less to look at, and what there is, is cheap. But Mies' work was something different. He found a way to make the barest of bare bones sumptuous and even exciting. As Spencer Tracy once said about Katharine Hepburn, "There ain't much meat on her, but what there is, is cherce."