Mies by Detlef Mertins review – ‘definitive’ biography

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Mies by Detlef Mertins review – 'definitive' biography
'A bit of a bastard': Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in his Chicago apartment in 1964. // Photo: Werner Blaser
Mies by Detlef Mertins review – 'definitive' biography
‘A bit of a bastard’: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in his Chicago apartment in 1964. // Photo: Werner Blaser

To some, Mies van der Rohe was a god among architects, to others a Teutonic control freak. This imposing life gives the whole picture

“Less is more”; “God is in the detail”; “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good” – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is a figure who, even among those who would be pressed to name his works, exerts influence through his aphorisms. That he might also be credited with inventing the glass skyscraper adds much more to his importance. Among architects of the modern movement, he was Mies, part of a binary godhead with Le Corbusier, or Corb – names for whom four letters were enough. Their monosyllables also had the quality of “stone” or “steel”, of something fundamental to construction.

Mies was easy to caricature, and was by his opponents, especially when, from the 1960s onwards, he became identified with American corporate power. He was a Teutonic control freak. He was inhumane. His buildings were all the same; when Castro’s revolution scuppered his administration building for Bacardi in Cuba, he seemingly repurposed the design as the New National Gallery in Berlin. His works were nothing but glass boxes. They were embarrassed by such signs of human life as blinds, whose random arrangements disturbed the implacable steel grids of his elevations. To which his response was to design them with only three settings – open, closed, and half-open.

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