Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery, Berlin
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Published: Tue, 01 May 2018
The closest Ludwig Mies van der Rohe got to realising his vision of the column-free pavilion? Was this final expression of his ideas of canonical significance for 20th Century architecture?
The New National Gallery in Berlin was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s last design. Throughout his career he had been employing the same central ideas he was concerned with to most of his designs, gradually developing and refining them. In order to understand his last building, said to embody successfully all the ideas he was most passionate about, it is important to see how these evolved from building to building over the years. Then one can consider this final expression of his ideas as a result of a lifetime’s worth of work and assess it in terms of its significance in Modern Architecture.
Since the 1920s, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had been focusing on evolving two types of forms which could be adapted to a range of situations; the skeletal framed building with small cellular spaces ideally designed for office and apartment buildings and the single volume pavilion where a larger completely flexible space is needed.
At a time of rapid and continuous change, it made sense for Mies van der Rohe to develop the latter, the infinitely flexible space. Contrary to the largely known notion by Louis Sullivan that ‘form follows function’, Mies believed that buildings should be designed with the least amount of fixed elements so as to be as flexible as possible and ready to adapt as their functional requirements change over time. His designs since 1921 are a demonstration of his quest for ‘flexible space’. He was pursuing ‘open and flowing rather than closed and cellular’.
The New National Gallery is widely considered the most developed expression of such a space. In this project, Mies had the opportunity to create the infinitely flexible interior but also incorporate two more of his most important notions; appropriate and visible structure and fluidity between interior and exterior. ‘Mies’s most central principles synthesized into a single pavilion of powerful scale and presence.’
Mies’s journey from his first buildings to the embodiment of his most significant ideas in the New National Gallery was anything but a straight line. However, there were significant steps that marked the development of his idea of the column-free pavilion. These significant stages were outlined by Mies’s pupil and future associate Peter Carter.
The idea of an open and flowing space first materialized in the house designs of Frank Lloyd Wright where living areas are fairly open and interconnected. Wright’s open plan designs excited architects all over Europe. However, it was Mies who took the idea of the ‘de-cellurization’ of the building further. ‘His sequence of space-liberating designs from about 1920 onwards changed the way in which architects thought.’
Mies’s Brick Country House was his first development of the free-plan interiors that Frank Lloyd Wright had introduced. It was a long way before the creation of the completely unobstructed interior space, but an important move in this direction, as in this project Mies started subdividing the interior by free standing walls rather than conventional ones. He only let walls to meet as L or T junctions to allow the interior space to flow freely from one room to the other and out into the landscape. Although this merely constituted the first step in his pursuit of open flowing space, Mies van der Rohe had already taken the concept of spatial continuity and fluidity much further than anything proposed by Wright.
Though he had started removing interior walls, the exterior of the Brick Country House remained solid. The next step towards his open flowing space was abolishing the division between interior and exterior space. The opportunity to apply this was the Barcelona pavilion; one of the most influential designs of the 20th Century. In this project, Mies transformed practical, conventional walls into abstract planes ‘freely disposed as in a De Stijl composition’. In the De Stijl movement, artists simplified visual compositions with the use of primary colours and straight horizontal and vertical lines.
In the Barcelona pavilion, walls are not functional in the conventional way. Instead of supporting the roof and separating specific rooms, these planes loosely define space. What is also unclear and undefined in this project, is the division between the interior and the exterior space, another important step towards his open-flowing space.
After substituting load-bearing walls with slender columns, the next step to the Miesian transparent pavilion was to remove columns from the interior completely and placing them on the outside perimeter of the building. This would render possible the interior to be completely unobstructed from any fixed elements and theoretically make it totally flexible. This was first seen in his Concert Hall project in 1942.
Lastly, in the Farnsworth House in Plano, Mies van der Rohe would dematerialize completely the outer walls of the pavilion so as to push the concept of ‘transparency sandwiched between two horizontal planes’.
Mies van der Rohe’s long series of experimentation had as a result the development of a general architectural form, the column-free Miesian pavilion. ‘The pure glass-walled version of the column-free Miesian pavilion would provide the parti for the New National Gallery in Berlin.’
The commission for a new art gallery in Berlin was an opportunity for Mies to finally build the single-volume clear-span pavilion in its purest form which he had never been able to build before. He was commissioned to construct a much needed permanent home for the modern art collection in the Western part of the then divided city.
Though half the size and population of West Berlin, the Eastern part included most of the cultural institutions and the historic centre of the city. It was in this context that the Culture Forum was designed. It was going to be a cluster of buildings dedicated to culture and the fine arts to replace the institutions that had fallen in the eastern part of the post-war city. The New National Gallery was going to be part of it and would ‘epitomize the integration of West Berlin and West Germany into the democratic capitalist system of the West’.
The site for the new gallery was Kemperplatz, an area between Potsdammer Strasse and the Tiergarten that had once been a busy centre of Berlin life before being destroyed by wartime bombing. Apart from the church of St. Matthew’s of 1846, nothing was left standing after the war and this unused land that remained would provide the site for the development of Berlin’s new Culture Forum.
The driving idea behind the gallery was the creation of a minimalist, steel and glass, column-free pavilion which would ‘stand as a noble monument in the townscape’. In his pursuit for a monument-like feel and uncompromising symmetrical composition, Mies referred to ancient temples such as the Parthenon. The gallery would later on be aptly named and largely known as the ‘temple of light and glass’.
Once built, it would create a dramatic contrast to the other buildings of the ‘Kulturforum’ by Hans Scharoun. Whereas Scharoun was much more expressionist, Mies opted for austere geometrical forms that show the structure of the building and let it stand out from, but also connect to its surroundings. ‘Amid the visual tumult of Berlin’s Culture Forum there reposes a single island of order and tranquillity, the New National Gallery.’
Mies may have wanted continuity and fluidity between the pavilion and its surroundings. Nonetheless, it was never meant to hide in Berlin’s busy life, but as previously mentioned, it ‘had to have a monumental form’. This prerequisite, along with the inclination of the land encouraged the idea of setting the gallery on a large open terrace.
The experience of reaching the entrance further intensifies the gallery’s monument-like feel. Wide steps guide the visitor who begins to feel slightly separated from the surrounding city. The feeling intensifies as the visitor walks towards the back and the sloping site starts to fall away on either side. By then, the pavilion sits well above street level, and almost has the tranquillity of the top of a hill and has therefore ‘become psychologically detached from the everyday bustle beneath’. This method of detaching a building from its surroundings and raising it as if on a pedestal was often used by Mies van der Rohe, starting with his first project, the Riehl house. This method also gives the building a sense of calm, again referring to the ancient temple on the top of a hill.
Sitting on the large open terrace, surrounded by sculptural works of arts, is Mies’s minimalist pavilion. It is the pinnacle of Mies’s idea of free space. He eliminated interior columns completely to allow for a large unobstructed space for artists to exhibit their work without any limitations in terms of space.
Mies van der Rohe followed the notion he introduced in Barcelona pavilion and any fixed elements in the interior space of the gallery have no load-bearing function. The ‘Tinos’ marble-faced columns in the New National Gallery provide for ventilation and roof drainage and the gallery is supported by eight slender cruciform columns placed on the outside of the pavilion, two on each side. By completely removing solid walls, Mies wanted to symbolise that space extends beyond the boundaries of the interior. The large spans of glass are set far back from the edge of the roof thus creating the effect of a floating plane. The unique open space created on the upper floor is mainly used for temporary, travelling exhibitions, and is ready to be modified according to changing needs, whilst all the permanent collections are safely hidden in the lower level, away from natural light.
The steel and glass podium sits on a colossal subterranean stone ‘pedestal’. Though not visible, the lower level is perfectly proportional to the podium above. The lower level, apart from accommodating for the whole of the permanent collection, also includes all of the building’s functional spaces including support and utilitarian rooms.
Closed on three sides, the lower floor only opens on the west side, to reveal a quiet outdoor sculpture garden. The garden is enclosed by grey granite walls which separate it from the surrounding bustling city. The floor, paved in granite slabs is another example of Mies’s pursuit of a flexible space. The slabs are laid loosely on the gravel, ready to be moved into new arrangements if required. With the outdoor garden, Mies created ‘an oasis of calm in a bustling metropolis’.
Mies van der Rohe firmly believed in appropriate structure. ‘A building, he was convinced, should be ‘a clear and true statement of its times’ and in the case of the New National Gallery its time was characterised by advanced industrialism. For Mies van der Rohe, a building’s structure should be true to the materials and processes of its time, but also poetic and visible through the building, rather than obscured behind decorative features. Like many architects after the First World War, he wanted to bring the advantages of industrialized production methods to his architecture. He was interested in finding a new material which would allow most parts of the building to be manufactured in a factory, to ensure better quality and eliminate on-site labour.
One of the most important features of a design that hoped to achieve ‘transparency sandwiched between two horizontal planes’, was the roof. Mies van der Rohe designed a monumental roof which he wanted to have as if floating above the large spans of clear glass. The design was a difficult issue to be negotiated with engineers but also a chance for the architect to bring the post-war industrialised production methods in this project.
The roof, being massive, was made in sections. Its thickness is constant and always visible. What varies between sections is the quality of the steel which changes according to the level of pressure sustained by each section. The roof is a fine example of Mies van der Rohe’s pursuit of true structure. The ceiling, with no false ceiling added to it, also incorporates a black grid of beams which is used as an exhibit surface when the gallery hosts light exhibitions. The colossal roof, 1200 tonnes of steel, was put together and raised in one day.
As a whole, the gallery’s sharp geometrical structure is a sharp contrast to Scharoun’s neighbouring Berlin Philharmonic, built only a few years before. Whereas Scharoun was much more expressionist and concealed his structure with organic shapes, eliminating any kind of symmetry, Mies van der Rohe opted to show the structure in every possible way.
All these structural and compositional elements form Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion, his last great design and one of the most important buildings of modern architecture. The New National Gallery may ‘succeed magnificently as a work of art in itself’ but it has been criticised widely as an exhibition space. In his pursuit of the column-free clear-span pavilion Mies may have compromised certain aspects of the gallery and its functionality as an exhibition space.
Whilst the lower ground galleries and the sculpture garden ‘fulfil their purposes admirably’ ‘, the pavilion above disappoints in significant ways. In the upper floor, light floods the pavilion from its glass walls on all sides and can be regulated by white curtains on three sides. There’s also a lighting system in the roof with warm diffuse light. However, in exhibition spaces, diffused indirect lighting from above is more ideal, modifiable by blinds and electric light only if necessary. The sideways illumination in combination with the lighting from above fails badly. Pictures are inadequately lit and there is a strong glare compromising the visitors comfort in viewing the artwork. The curtains partially eliminate the glare but compromise the gallery’s visual transparency which is its strongest feature therefore defeating the purpose of the large spans of glass walls. In his drive for the translucent pavilion, Mies seems to have compromised the viewers comfort and experience of viewing the exhibited artwork.
Moreover, the upper pavilion which Mies was so determined to create as a multifunctional space, is not as successful. Though its large-scale is suitable for exhibiting large objects and the side-lighting lights such objects beautifully, the space is unsuitable for smaller paintings. Smaller paintings are lost in the grand scale of the pavilion. It seems that Mies van der Rohe’s vision of the column-free pavilion fails as an exhibition space. Ironically, the lighting and grand-scale of the upper floor seem to restrict the space’s use to certain types of exhibitions, rather than adding to the infinitely flexible space that Mies van der Rohe envisioned.
As a result, this infinitely flexible space turned out to be unfriendly for exhibiting art but Mies was unapologetic. ‘It is such a huge hall that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.’
He considered the gallery a closed form, perfect in itself and would not allow any modification that would alter its perfectly symmetrical form. For example, when it was proposed to extend the flower floor to gain functional space that was very much needed for the gallery, a change that would in actual fact be invisible, Mies van der Rohe refused to ruin the careful proportions between the two floors. The lack of substantial functional space, and the unwillingness to do anything about it, further demonstrates that Mies compromised the building’s functionality as an exhibition space in his effort to create the perfectly proportional Miesian pavilion.
Though the upper floor may not be perfectly suitable for exhibiting and viewing paintings, it is the gallery’s primary architectural expression. The building is the result of many gradual steps in Mies van der Rohe’s journey towards the column-free pavilion and is considered a shining symbol of modern architecture. ‘Here is a 20th Century icon of timeless serenity and composure, its functional imperfections forgotten as one contemplated its majesty as a monument and symbol.’
The way it sits on its site, its simple yet careful composition, along with its visible structure and use of materials make it a true Berlin monument which expresses the spirit of the industrial time in which it was designed and built. From a must-see tourist attraction and symbol of Berlin in post stamps, to a home for 20th Century European art, Mies van der Rohe’s last project and all the ideas it embodies represents one of the most important buildings of 20th Century architecture. ‘Buildings such as this will refresh us by awakening all the more man’s deep desire for poetic serenity and structural honesty.’
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is largely considered as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture. In every building his intentions are straightforward and his concepts of truth to structures, materials and harmonious composition are stated clearly. By this point in his career, he had developed the ideas he was most passionate about and incorporated them into the New National Gallery. It is with this project that Mies van der Rohe managed to create the column-free pavilion he had been striving for the most of his career. It stands as a monument in its context and embodies his most important principles, thus rendering it as a building of great significance for 20th century architecture.
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