Play Architecture, Play One Note

Daily Draw July 1st, 2012

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

This is Ludwig Mies, who changed his name to Mies van der Rohe, and thereafter used his surname as his first name, hence vying with Le Corbusier for the need to have a strange title. He was German and worked with both Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, whom I will discuss on the Jack of Spades.

A beef I have with Mies is the way he used his work and collaboration with designer and architect Lilly Reich, and seemed to conveniently forget her contribution. The famous Barcelona chair they designed, which is still in production and often seen on television decorating shows and in interior decorating, is the best known piece of their furniture. It is doubtful he would have designed furniture without her, yet who knows her name today? Perhaps if she had lived longer she might have rectified the oversight?

My other experience with Mies van der Rohe is the Toronto-Dominion Centre which he designed in the downtown financial district of Toronto. My parents and I and possibly one or two of my siblings toured the building when it was being built. I remember seeing through construction debris and being rather impressed at the imposing black structures and the smell of concrete and tile and dust within the dark entrance. They were the only buildings of that height down there at the time so they really stood out, one taller than the other, and were all black and shimmered unto themselves.

Toronto was still affectionately known as “Hog Town” at the time and hardly the cosmopolitan city it is today. This is the city that used to arrest owners of retail stores for opening on Sundays in the 1970s. It lagged way behind Montreal for cosmopolitan flavour over some decades. This complex for the T-D Bank was very striking and very different for Toronto, and along with the iconic new City Hall and its Henry Moore statue The Archer, was evidence of the modern dynamism that hit Toronto in the 1960s. I was a child, but I remember how fresh and lively it all seemed. These new buildings were good.

As an adult I often worked in the financial district and eventually these two black towers were joined into a complex of six buildings and dwarfed by other towers neighbouring them, but I remember when they stood alone, a sharply distinctive duo. They were also the first buildings in Toronto to offer underground shopping. This too has expanded into 27 kilometres of underground shopping. I find the shopping concourse dark and claustrophobic, I used to work there too and it was like being buried alive, but you can wander off on your lunch break and stay out of the rain and snow and the enveloping wind around those many towers. Mies van der Rohe was adamant about the signage being plain black in the T-D complex, but they have since relaxed his design vision and allowed more distinctive signage, thus losing a vital flavour of those times.

When I look at the designs of Mies, I often think he was a visionary and at other times I think he was a man of a singular idea, not really the iconoclast we paint him. It’s hard not to revere modernistic pioneers but we can see upon reflection that they aren’t exactly the Gods we portray them as. Mies van der Rohe was good, he was capable, some of his designs stand up to changes in time and taste, but is he really that GREAT? He is slightly one-note for me. Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but not one of these fellows, whether it be Le Corbusier, Gropius, or Van der Rohe, stands up to Frank Lloyd Wright for innovation and use of materials.

I understand they were trying something different, something cleaner, stripped down, and minimalist in reaction to contemporary style, but they missed the mark in some way and ceased to be interesting.



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