Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Mies Mess


As we speak, a stupendous error in German culture is being revealed. The British architect David Chipperfield is simultaneously displaying his own work as he deglassifies the windows of the Neue Nationalie Gallerie in Berlin. Hazard’s first commandment of museum design: Thou shall not ever again encase an art museum in glass. 

If you try, you’re turning those art works over to the Sun, not the art visitor. Mies van der Rohe may have sensed that. But he was a prisoner of Cuba's new dictator, Fidel Castro.

The original glassy design was devised to promote Cuban rum. But Fidel decreed that his citizens already drank too much so the glassy display structure would never be built in his Cuba! Mies got the rights to the design, and his own contradictory structure got off to a wheezy start. 

It’s a fluke that I know this. Two Cuban art historians were snooping secretly to see how the old rum bum was humming. They identified themselves to me as art historians, as that type usually do on the roll.

Mies, alas, is the most overrated architect in Germany, perhaps in the whole world. It all began because he was the blue collar son of a stone mason in Aachen. His excess use of glass was his grim search for innovation that would raise his self esteem. It didn’t.

My first taste of his work was the Weissenfels project—many famous European architects gathered to show the world Mies was no loser. (I’d never take Corbusier’s mangled concrete jungle there free!) 

And the leading American architectural critic (Peter Blake—actually a pseudonym for a Jew who fled Germany) argued in his obit of Philip C. Johnson that he corrupted America’s commercial architecture in the twentieth century—with Mies’s collaboration. They were what the greatest factory architect of all time, Albert Kahn, called the "glass house" Boys!

Kahn was an inspired autodidact. One of the six Jewish kids of a rabbi from Mainz, he couldn’t even afford high school. He drew so well, the leading Detroit architectural firm hired him, and at 21 sent him to Europe to get the big picture. Ford’s River Rouge was in his future. 

During the Depression, Moscow hired him to build tank factories. We used to joke on the Ford assembly line, where I worked summers for doctoral tuition money, that Kahn won World War II by himself. Moscow was slow to pay. So he returned to Detroit.

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