In 1929 Mies built the Barcelona pavilion, a building set to represent Wiemar socialist Germany. There is a movement away from the material towards what Hegel would call the pure idea or spirit – in the case of Mies this was a spatial conception and a dematerialised building envelope. There is transparency rather than opacity and a heaviness. There are parallels from history though in the way Mies imitates the Parthenon to make his building feel timeless and eternal. There are uncanny similarities between the two. The rectangular layout are similar in shape; the notion of the cellar in the Parthenon is dismantled in the Bacelona pavilion. Whilst the Parthenon encloses space, the Barcelona Pavilion democratises space. Mies is not haphazard in his relationship to the Parthenon – both are located on giant elevated platforms; you can also clearly see the cruciform columns in the Barcelona Pavilion that Mies uses to give you the shape, the memory and trace of an idea of a dismantled temple from antiquity. He also plays with proportions. The cellar goes one way, the platform another but he matched the Parthenon proportions almost exactly. The cult figure inside the Parthenon,
Mies Van Der Rohe’s Crown Hall is not quite a temple however the proportions of the elevated rectangular platforms and long columner edges echo the Parthenon again. Crown Hall however is characterized by an aesthetic of industrial simplicity with arctiulated exposed steel frame construction.
Below we see the colour coded constituent parts of the Parthenon
If you use these pieces like lego, you can construct a replica of Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion like so:
Mies is clearly performing a critical act on the Parthenon, perhaps to justify his choices to correct what he saw as the errors of architectural elements that derive from a closed political society and open them up to the ambitions of the new progressive culture that the Weimar Republic hoped to achieve. It offers a series of planes shifting in space. The idea of the cult statue of Athena Parthenos, housed within the walls of the parthenon, being thrust out into public view is clear to see.
To stimulate thinking, Mies doesn’t just have his dialectic exist in the world of architecture, he broadens his scope to include art as well. If you look at the rhythm of Russian dance by Theo van Doesburg, it looks like a map for the kinds of strategies that Mies is playing out in the Barcelona Pavilion.
No article about Mies’ architectural design could be complete without a nod to the furniture collection he created in collaboration with Lilly Reich and made as a complementary piece to the Barcelona Pavilion. The materials he used for chairs were pure leather and mixed materials of rich texture. For frames and support, Mies used chrome and designed them only anchored at one end, so they would give the notion of buoyancy. They are designed to look delicate, but they are firm and timeless, as all of his architecture work is.
Mies’ furniture was made to be used by a modern man with classical taste. Mies’ sense of proportion, and the ability to deliver such a complicated, yet visually simple structure is what we love about his work – his less is more approach can be seen throughout Workagile’s range – particularly in the design of Haag.