Mies Reconsidered


334 Room reflections

Mies—like so many architects a self-invented social climber, shape-shifter, and name changer—was an autodidact. Although he did a few years of Latin and arithmetic at church schools around Aachen, Germany, where he was born in 1886, his formal education was minimal. His rise from a family of stonemasons to a gentleman with the manner of a global aristocrat was largely a matter of apprenticeships (most famously to early modern master Peter Behrens, with whom Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier also trained). And he read. And read. Mertins, in his own scholarship another vast reader, catalogs the library with which Mies emigrated from Berlin to Chicago in 1938: “Mies brought with him books by evolutionary biologists, botanists, astronomists, physicists, and cosmologists, as well as philosophers, sociologists, zoologists, psychologists, theologians, architects, urbanists, art historians, and art critics. Once in America,” Mertins notes with sly understatement, “he updated his reading.”

By an eclectic mix of familiar and obscure authors, from Alfred North Whitehead to Max Scheler, those books were the kinds that capitalize words like Spirit and Age and Man. They featured—charmingly and disturbingly in today’s era of narrow specialty and technologically inflected immediacy—massively synthetic theories attempting to reconcile interdisciplinary readings of science, culture, history, and theology with the turbulent economic and political events of the first decades of the twentieth century. Mies’s first great patron, who taught him this kind of reading—and perhaps that it had implications for design—was the philosopher Alois Riehl, for whom, in 1907, the then-20-year-old architectural prodigy produced a gabled neo-Biedermeier weekend cottage in the fashionable Berlin suburb of Potsdam-Neubabelsberg.

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