During his 60 year career that began in Germany and continued at the virtual midpoint in America, Mies van der Rohe designed & built 70 buildings, many of which continue to exist and function as they were intended – art galleries, corporate headquarters, private homes, university campuses, and gas stations – and in their informative and entertaining doc, Canadian directors Patrick Demers and Joseph Hillel have found an ideal balance in presenting a light examination of Mies’ work without over-simplifying, and supporting interviews with former colleagues, biographers, and preservationists with very strong visuals.
Mies’ work may seem cold and severely minimalist – during his tenure at Berlin’s Bauhaus, he was both a teacher and its director – but that superficial view pales when it becomes clear how large and small buildings were designed not only to fit within different environments, but be edifices through which people can traverse with a certain pleasure.
The main buildings within the doc is the Esso gas station on Montreal’s Nuns’ Island, the Lakeshore Apartments in Chicago, the Seagram Building in NYC, Berlin’s New National Gallery, the IIT College of Architects in Illinois, and the Riehl House in Potsdam, and the directors’ camera captures them in different seasons, in stills, tracking shots, and images that capture the kind of light and shadow play Mies put into the floor-to-ceiling windows of his work. Interview subjects are often seated on Miesian furniture, often within his buildings, and the elegant footage is underscored with a modernist jazz-fusion score by Ramachandra Borcar, which reflects the architect’s sleek yet rebellious designs which challenged the heavy ornamental style of prior decades.
Contrasting the extant work are biographical details, including comments from former colleagues – Charles E. Danforth, Joseph Fujikawa, Dirk Lohan – which slightly adjust Mies’ persona of an impersonal man. He apparently had a soft spot for boxing, martinis, and cigars, and was continuously problem-solving architectural issues in his head.
The buildings may evoke fifties and sixties modernism, but his use of glass and steel and the emphasis on open spaces within structures remain standard today. It’s also the cleanliness of the lines and use of lights and shadows which transform his brand of austerity into something inviting. His work may not have embraced the inclusion of ornate décor, nick-knacks, and clutter – there’s simply no room to display or store them – but they are striking artistic visions which invite people to commune, to socialize, and to work while the changing light and shadow from outside keep Nature close by.
TVA’s DVD features a clean transfer of the hour-long doc, and there’s almost an hour of bonus interview material, albeit most are extended and tangential comments by the large body of interview subjects.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan