Today, it seems, Google is reminding us it is a famous architect's birthday. That architect was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe whose elegantly spare modern buildings are best known for their glass and steel look. The Farnsworth House in Illinois comes to mind as does the Seagram Building in Manhattan and Lake Shore Apartments in Chicago, or the Barcelona Pavillion, with its jazzy Barcelona chairs. Mies was the darling of the architecture professors of Penn State in the 1970s, for this cool, crisp way of defining space. Mies was the master of "Less is More" (one of his best-remembered bits of architectural advice). Which may have simply been something lost in translation, such as "More or less...".
At any rate, Mies' idea of pared down design caught on, and as it did, scads of architects brought you what we might call "airport waiting area meets your local middle school" style architecture as a result. Enough said.
A whole generation, nay, several generations, of architects, followed in his footsteps until Venturi and others pointed out that once you get Mies' geometries right, you have nowhere further to go and since he got them right, it might be time to try something different in the way of doing architecture. None of this is to take away from his genius, but it did have interesting consequences in that rosy glow period when his admirers were molding young minds about what was and was not good architecture.
One of our PUS professors loved to give "walking tours" of the campus in State College, where he would point out with glee all of the follies and foibles of the architects who had designed in this that or the other "style" whether it be Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Colonial Revival or Neoclassical. We would sail past the lovely little gem of a building called Schwab Auditorium and the robust brick aggie buildings and the imposing New Deal Neoclassical Patee Library and were taught to knowingly guffaw with gusto into the invariably chilly air. All the while I had a strong sense that perhaps the professor in question was overstating facts, and now that some of the architectural world has come to appreciate some of the work of those bygone days, I suppose that hunch had a bit of justification in it. I will also just mention that he quietly avoided commenting on "The Birdcage" that was tacked on to the end of the architectural engineering building, a nod to Mies and his vocabulary. An unsuccessful nod, nonetheless.
Along the way, we students did enjoy picking up the tidbits of lore about Mies, and one of my favorites is that when he designed the Farnsworth House (the quintessential glass house, soon very beautifully answered by Philip Johnson's version thereof), Mies did not provide for air conditioning... Let that sink in a moment. Glass house. Suburban Illinois. I have been there in the summertime. AC is mucho appreciated.
And I always wondered whether Dr. Farnsworth (or Little Philip Johnson as F L W used to call him) were ever taught the maxim about people who live in glass houses...?
Still, one of Mies' quotes is correct and would have fit the occasion of the Happy Valley walking tours, as well as his own work, so I will post it here:
"Architecture is the translation of its epoch into space."
Happy 126th birthday, dear Ludwig, happy birthday to you!