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14 May, 2009

Would you miss this Mies?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

A minor building by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe is under threat in Chicago. It’s what he might have wanted

“Less is more” was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s trademark phrase, but the minimalist modern master probably wouldn’t appreciate the irony. If Chicago developers get their way, there will indeed be less Mies in the world. It turns out plans to expand the city’s subway system will necessitate the demolition of one of his buildings.

The structure in question sits on a corner of the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, which calls itself “the greatest collection of Mies-designed buildings in the world”. It’s no empty boast. SR Crown Hall, in particular, is a defining example of Mies’s stripped-to-nothing, steel-and-glass purity, and the campus as a whole is a pioneering piece of planning.

But the structure in jeopardy is not exactly one of his greatest works. In fact, it’s probably the crappiest building Mies ever designed: a plain little brick hut – more electricity substation than cultural artefact. Which makes the usual architectural conservation debate even trickier. It’s fine to martial the troops and mount a campaign to save a threatened landmark or a neglected masterpiece, but what about when it’s an extremely major architect and an extremely minor building?

Only in architecture do we contemplate, and frequently carry out, the destruction of works by the discipline’s most esteemed proponents. In other fields, every single thing an artist ever did is worthy of preservation, regardless of quality. If someone found a demo tape of Jimi Hendrix trying to tune up for three hours, it’d be worth a fortune. Or if you found out a rubbish doodle on the back of an old fag packet was actually by Picasso, you wouldn’t think of throwing it away, would you? And then there’s movie memorabilia: William Shatner sold his kidney stone for £14,000.

This isn’t some piece of Mies ephemera we’re talking about, it’s his actual work, and he isn’t doing any more: he died in 1969. So, regardless of its perceived qualities, it is important in the context of his life and career – possibly in ways we don’t yet understand. The same argument has been made, and lost, many times before. Recent examples include London’s Robin Hood Gardens, a failed council estate whose sole merit is the fact that its designers were pioneering Brits Alison and Peter Smithson. English Heritage refused to list it, and its days are now numbered. Or in the US, a number of buildings by Paul Rudolph (who tutored both Richard Rogers and Norman Foster) are currently under threat. The rather fine-looking Micheels House was demolished in 2007, despite massive opposition.

That’s the trouble with architecture. You can store a tape or a picture – even a kidney stone – pretty easily. But buildings take up valuable space. They often prevent the existence of other newer, better buildings. A war or an earthquake or a revolution is good news: architecture thrives on its own destruction. An arch-modernist such as Mies would have appreciated that. Partly because the modern movement was so invested in the notion of progress, but also because he saw far better examples of his work destroyed in his lifetime – notably his brick monument to the Spartacist Uprising, which was taken down by the Nazis for its communist leanings, and his sublime Barcelona Pavilion, which was dismantled in 1930.

The latter is an interesting case. Despite the fact that nothing of the Barcelona Pavilon remained beyond drawings and a few black-and-white photographs, it still became one of the defining buildings of the 20th century. It was painstakingly rebuilt in the 1980s, and is now the home of the Mies van der Rohe Foundation. Nor is it just the Barcelona Pavilion: countless other lost buildings have been resurrected, from London’s Globe theatre to Dresden’s Frauenkirche, which suggests that great architecture never really dies.

Except it’s never the same, is it? Rem Koolhaas, a committed Mies fan, bemoaned the fact that the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion was now basically a gift shop. Rather than venerating Mies’s architecture, the pavilion’s resurrection “ridiculed” it, he said. Can such reconstructions ever achieve anything beyond pastiche? Even if someone bought Mies’s little hut and moved it, brick by brick, to a more secure location – or rebuilt it later according to photographs and historical records – something would have been irretrievably lost.

My solution to all this: reroute the subway system at colossal expense, thus making the Mies hut world famous as an obstacle of progress and a monument for conservation. Then turn it into a gift shop.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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