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Mies van der Rohe and James Stirling: The Two Faces of Modernism

These two architects represent different stages of Modernism in the twentieth century. Mies is the elder statesman, while James Stirling ‘Big Jim’ is the ‘wild man’ who pushed the boundaries of classic modernism demonstrated by Mies.

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Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)

Mies van der Rohe (1986-1969) followed the path of the early Modern Movement in Germany before and after the First World War. Although he had no formal training as an architect, his father was a stonemason in Aachen, so he understood masonry construction from an early age. His training was through a trade school, apprenticeship and later working in the office of Peter Behrens, architect of the AEG building in Berlin (1909), before moving to Holland where he was influenced by the work of the brick Expressionist architecture of Hendrik Berlage. Returning to Berlin, he opened his office in 1913, but war intervened.

After the war, Mies became director of the Novembergruppe, one of the radical art movements committed to revitalising the German art industry. He experimented with designs for glass skyscrapers in 1921 and 1922. In 1927 he was put in charge of the Weissenhofsiedlung project in Stuttgart where he designed an apartment block with stripped windows and created flexible interior spaces by using movable partitions. In spite of his previous experiments with glass construction, during the 1920s he built a series of brick country houses composed of interlocking blocks, such as the Hermann Lange house at Krefeld in 1928.

A year later his approach to architecture is crystallised with the building of the spectacular Barcelona Pavilion. Clear construction and transparency are emphasised by independent rectangular planes of various materials placed horizontally and vertically supported by steel columns. This created a free-flowing space exemplified in his next project, the Tughendhat House, Brno, ‘a design of unparalleled elegance’.

Unable to get work in 1930s Germany Mies moved to America in 1937, where he established his international reputation. In 1932 his work had been featured (alongside Walter Gropius and other Bauhaus architects) in an exhibition of modern architecture at MOMA, which the curators called the ‘International Style’.

Soon after his arrival, he was offered the directorship of the Armour Institute School of Architecture, subsequently the IIlinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Chicago. Over the next fifteen years, he redesigned the campus and created a new school of architecture based on engineering and technology, demonstrated by the new buildings he created on campus. It is here we see the emergence of his mature style, whose key aspects were a skeleton structure, axial symmetry and flexible spaces, characterised by a ‘weightless exterior’. Also key was the use of a modular grid, with the steel expressed externally and internally where possible. His buildings encapsulated his three main approaches. One, the high-rise skeleton frame building, seen at Lake Shore Drive (1951), Seagram (1958) and later the Mansion House scheme in London (1969); two, the low-rise skeleton frame, seen at the Alumni Memorial Hall, and the Library and Administration Building at IIT (1940s); three, the single-storey clear span building, seen at the Farnsworth House (1951) Crown Hall (1960) and the Neue Nationalgalerie (1968). By his death in 1969 Mies was seen as a hero of the Modern Movement, bringing European modernism to America, embracing American technology, and making the tenets of the Modern Movement mainstream.

James Stirling (1926-1992)

James Stirling (1926-1992) was from a much younger generation of architects. When he attended the Liverpool School of Architecture in 1946, the pioneering days of modernism were over, and the rightness of modernism against past styles was completely accepted. Although, at Liverpool, he was influenced by Colin Rowe, who was studying and teaching there. Rowe saw modern architecture as part of history and the past having an active influence on the present (something later acknowledged by Stirling). Moreover, that modern architecture was evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

After Liverpool, Stirling entered the offices of Lyons, Israel and Ellis, where he met the young James Gowan (with whom he would form a partnership). Rejecting, as he saw it the diluted modernism of the 1950s, the Festival of Britain style and the ‘New Empiricism’, he sought something tougher. Their first project together was the flats at Ham Common (1958). Their use of exposed concrete and brickwork made Stirling and Gowan’s reputation. This led to the commission for the Engineering Building at Leicester University, completed in 1963. Much was made of its ‘patent glazing’ which had been used in greenhouses, but here was employed to light the workshops, and was expressed in a series of glazed diamond ridges. The building combined art and technology, Russian Constructivism, nineteenth and twentieth-century technologies of glass and steel, hard red engineering bricks, all constructed on the site. The building had to encompass a water tank 60 feet above the ground and a hydraulic tank at ground level to facilitate experiments in pressurisation

After Leicester the partnership foundered.  His next major project was with Michael Wilford as associate partner, the ill-fated History Faculty at Cambridge University (1967). Using the patent glazing system, the library was positioned to face north instead of east as originally intended, which contributed to the resulting problems where students either fried or froze and the roof leaked. It produced a visually stunning but highly impractical masterpiece of modern design.  The next project, the Florey Building at Oxford, was of similar design, red brick with a huge glazed wall and suffered similar problems. In the 1970s Stirling experimented with prefabrication and new technologies such as GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) used in housing at Runcorn (1977) and the Olivetti Training Centre, Haslemere (1971), producing buildings with curved walls and roofs, constructed of prefabricated or cast panels and porthole-style windows. Runcorn was much disliked by its residents, yet Olivetti was considered a success.

But in the late 1970s, we saw a profound shift in Stirling’s architecture to something more monumental and rooted in the past, which was to label him as a Post-Modernist, which Stirling objected to strongly. His competition entry for the Nordrhein-Westfalen Museum, Dusseldorf, though unplaced would lead to his most famous building, the extension to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The competition model shows a square block with a central open rotunda, features which would appear at Stuttgart (1984). Although a committed modernist, Stirling drew on historical references, with the Neoclassical rotunda and circular windows. More striking, though, were the coloured stripes of stone cladding, and the brightly coloured steelwork used in the handrails and ventilation funnels. Such elements were to characterise his later work. The success of the Staatsgalerie led to some commissions in a similar vein, all employing historical references and brash colours, seen at the Sackler Gallery, Harvard, completed at the same time and the Clore Gallery, at Tate Britain, London (1986) and the Tate Gallery, Albert Dock, Liverpool. More muted is the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin (1987), with its quiet monumentalism and palette of soft blues and pinks. His last work was No.1 Poultry in London. Commissioned by the property developer Peter Palumbo in 1985 when the Mansion House controversy was at its height and likened to a 1930s radio by Prince Charles, it wasn’t completed until 1998, six years after ‘Big Jim’s’ death.

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