El Borinquen Residence is a varicoloured artistic ode to modernist social housing
by Jerry ElengicalFeb 28, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Mar 27, 2023
The hallowed name of Mies van der Rohe comes with a stature, a presence, an almost divine authority that is both silent and pronounced, befitting the man himself, his impact on the global built environment, and the way in which he has moulded the spirit of contemporary architecture on a fundamental level. Although there have been polarising reactions to his work that tend towards both extremes—from reverence that borders on worship to disdain for the utilitarian and machined qualities of his designs—his body of work speaks for itself, placing him among an extremely select number of the architectural elite of yesteryears. Widely credited with the development and expansion of the International style, high modernism, and certain offshoots of minimalism, today, Mies' “skin and bones” architecture has achieved the universality he intended for it, becoming an indelible part of the vocabulary used to shape the skylines and urban cores of some of the world’s biggest metropolises. Despite this, he was always a strong proponent of individuality and personal expression through design, a concept that may seem contradictory, but is given clarity in how his work shifts the focus onto space, materiality, and the user themselves.
Many of Mies' most celebrated projects, especially those in North America, concern private residences, high-rise office design, institutional design, and cultural architecture, where projects such as the Seagram Building, or Farnsworth House, have become blueprints for their respective typologies in skyscraper architecture and residential design. There have been innumerable imitations of his style, both by disciples and larger organisations who saw the merits of his approach, but, they have for the most part, fallen short of the ideals that he so fervently adhered to. However, one aspect of his practice that has consistently fallen under the radar, save for a few standout projects, is his contribution to collective housing in major cities. Several principles applied to his now-iconic contributions to office architecture, such as gridded façade designs, recessed ground floor colonnades, and entry plazas, were reconfigured for this typology, developing a style that is distinctly Miesian and readily fitted to any new setting.
Investigating this aspect of Mies’ oeuvre, Mies van der Rohe: The Collective Housing Collection is a recent book by Spanish architect and academic Fernando Casqueiro. Affiliated with the ARKRIT Architectural Criticism Research Group and ETSAM: Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid (UPM), Casqueiro has explored the master architect’s experiments in housing over a period spanning nearly 40 years. Having compiled and redrawn projects from both Europe and North America to present a definitive catalogue depicting the evolution of Miesian housing archetypes, Casqueiro’s work, now published by a+t architecture publishers, is one of the most comprehensive looks into the mind of a man whose efforts have shaped the way we all live in cities, exploring the morphing relationships between floor plan and façade in its most rudimentary form. High-rise housing would not be as it is today without Mies' intervention, and regardless of his detractors, in many ways, it has been for the better. To commemorate the 137th birth anniversary of a true modernist titan, STIR spoke to Fernando Casqueiro, on the salient questions, answers, and paradigms uncovered through his research to better understand a man whose persona is now universally etched into the ideals of modern architecture.
Jerry Elengical: What were the origins of your research on Mies' housing projects?
Fernando Casqueiro: I like to distinguish between research and publication. I sincerely believe that Mies' architecture and its “essentialist perfection” is difficult for students to fully appreciate. This was also true in my case. Even at 65, I remember the first time I saw photographs of Farnsworth House. Naturally, I did not understand anything about that white and glass object that was fixed forever in my memory. Many years later, for my doctoral thesis, I focused on Mies' “clear span rooms.” Over time, I came to be regarded as an "expert" in my academic environment, and in 2010, I was invited to give a one-week workshop on the "Collective Housing of Mies," for the Master of Collective Housing course taught at my school (the Polytechnic University of Madrid).
And there, for the first time, I had to think about it.
I prepared by searching my personal memory. Only five or six buildings appeared. From a more orderly second approximation, I found documents of about 10-12 buildings. There were echoes of many others which I knew almost nothing about. I wondered at the magnitude of my own ignorance and resolved to rectify it. This began a personal investigation stretching almost 10 years until it reached a conclusion.
Simultaneously, I visited Weissenhof (which I had a below par opinion of) and the Afrikanischestraße (I consider it a single building with four bodies). To my surprise, I found both were contemporary. I managed two study trips to Chicago to visit the buildings I already knew about. I unexpectedly came across Lakeview and Sheridan-Oakdale, which verified that I did not know much about what I had given a one-week workshop on. Subsequent visits to the Archive of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Toronto Dominion Center helped in setting questions: “how many, when, where, how.”
Jerry: Could you elaborate on the process behind how you studied, analysed, collated drawings, and redrew them for presentation in the publication?
Fernando: Finding references in publications within my reach, and completing "The Collection" with the 36 buildings or “sets of buildings” that we reported on, was a task that took several years. We then proceeded to search for original documents: in selected bibliography, in the Garland Archive, in the Toronto Museum, in pamphlets for the sale of the apartments, etc.
Redrawing all the buildings with the same “neutral” graphic codes was a conscious decision that I considered necessary. This was the only way to objectify the heterogeneity of the information, and make the graphics coherent with the dry and severe character of the architecture. In the redrawing process, the greatest challenge lay in finding references for the specific measurements of each building. Certain measurements were garnered from aerial photography.The collaboration of my three assistants, Luis Miguel Sanz Rodríguez, Nikolay Ilkov, and Carlos Revilla Madrigal, was essential. They were all good architecture students and enthusiastic researchers. They redrew each project, and the graphic qualities and the specific measurements of each element was refined in our weekly correction sessions. Hard but joyful work.
Jerry: What changes did you perceive in Mies' philosophy after the nearly 20-year break he took from designing collective housing during the war and his relocation to the US?
Fernando: Mies emigrated to the United States in 1938 at the age of 52. He was already a mature man and a seasoned architect. Then, the Second World War took place, which he lived through from the apparent safety of the United States. During that period, he did not build any collective housing. Suddenly, in 1946, just after the war, when construction began on the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mies and Herbert Greenwald of Metropolitan Structures met, and the latter commissioned the Promontory building—high-rise collective housing that was a completely new genre in Mies’ career, at 60 years of age. A bit late to change on substantive issues.
Originality, simplicity, constructive rigour, and dimensional precision were essential components of Mies' work from the outset. He thought of Promontory from there, projecting the building from the origin of each problem it posed. The result is complex and unclear, with two antithetical faces: a very Miesian lakefront, and a somewhat “old” extrados towards the neighbourhood. Certain archaic elements look artificial for natural lighting (rear-facing houses have three orientations) and views (of much lower quality than those facing the lake). It was built on a reinforced concrete structure with two independent vertical communication cores. From a critical review of Promontory, he immediately began work on the mediocre Algonquin (1948). The advances in his architecture, as documented by the book, occurred through studying the virtues and defects of both buildings, leading to the heights of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive.
Originality, simplicity, constructive rigour, and dimensional precision were essential components of Mies' work from the outset.
Jerry: Mies' early housing projects such as the Afrikanischestraße exhibits a heaviness that is in direct contradiction with the lightness and machined aesthetic experimentation of certain later works. What brought about this evolution as per your findings?
Fernando: The pure evolution of technique. The book includes Annex II. Debt and Tribute to Technique. It is a summary of the technical advances that took place in the field of architecture during Mies' era. With respect to “heaviness,” the truth is, in the 19th century, (which is where Afrikanischestraße falls constructively) stability was achieved with weight. The building in Berlin (perfectly preserved today) was built with load-bearing walls; a technique already archaic at that time but accessible and cheap for any builder. It is good to remember here that Mies simultaneously built the Weissenhof building in Stuttgart, with contemporary techniques. Understanding these two contradictory buildings at the same time is an illuminating exercise in how Mies could have been thinking at that moment, and how architects of all times and places think.
Jerry: Among the projects featured in this publication, which would you single out as the most pivotal in shaping Mies' approach to designing housing?
Fernando: In my view, it is only by seeing the full set of Mies' experiences in this genre that its most comprehensive impression will be obtained. We learn from precedents to project successors. The two European buildings, Afrikanischestraße and Weissenhof, are essential to the problem of collective housing. In the latter, Mies also first proposed an open dwelling, which the book calls “dissolved.” Fundamental.
After 20 years of silence, he built Promontory—essential for questions on high-rise housing. Later, Algonquin allowed him to verify the minimum geometric configuration for this genre—3x5 bays. This is not a minor conclusion. Immediately, he built 860-880 Lake Shore Drive: ideally radiating maximum creative tension for a 62-year-old at his peak. Thus, the intellectual trajectory of the first five buildings, summarises its prodigious advances and defects. A 10-year period of refinement in size, type, and construction processes, birthed the Lafayette Pavilion in Detroit. Without earlier geometric and budgetary restrictions, Mies proposed what I consider his most generic contribution: 3x10 bays of 22''x22'' of 21 floors.
In my view, it is only by seeing the full set of Mies' experiences in this genre that its most comprehensive impression will be obtained. We learn from precedents to project successors.
Jerry: 860-880 Lake Shore Drive is generally perceived as one of Mies' greatest achievements in the arena of housing. How did its industrialised outlook on architecture yield a result that has been replicated so extensively?
Fernando: 860-880 Lake Shore Drive is a miracle: reduction to the commercially viable minimum of high-rise housing. It seems relevant to recall that although 860-880 would still be problematic today in the housing market almost anywhere, it was a "financial success” and a milestone in the history of architecture. I do not have data that can safely compare the financial and constructive virtues of this building with respect to similar ones for certain conclusions to be drawn. But it is true that repeating the sizes of nearly all the constituents of a building allows a strong reduction in cost and execution terms. 860-880 was also a product of the need to reduce construction costs so that Herbert Greenwald could manage the high price of the plot.
Jerry: What adaptations were observed in the longer 3x10 versions of his 3x5 bay modules, as seen in projects such as 900-910 Lake Shore Drive?
Fernando: Mies and his office designed or built nine buildings of 3x10 bays: 900-910 (Esplanade), Lafayette Pavilion, Lafayette Towers, Newark Pavilion, and others, whenever the problem allowed it. It is possible the discovery of the 900-910 was fortuitous. This building (a single building with two bodies, one 3x5 and the other 3x10 bays) was projected to exhaust the buildable space of an expensive plot. The change from a steel structure to reinforced concrete for reduced thickness and less free height between the slabs to build more floors within a similar rise, speaks of his intention to sell more homes and optimise financial operations. It was also the first work carried out under the direction of Joseph Fujikawa, his talented and ambitious collaborator in all residential projects after 860-880. Fujikawa was also not a "German idealist" like his boss. The truth is, the first building with 3x10 bays appeared there, and the book gives an account of the changes introduced to solve problems in the management of 860-880. It is also true that when the site allowed it, they repeated that model over and over again. That is why I view the refined version of 900-910, the Lafayette Pavilion, as the solution Mies' office considered "optimal" for the problem of high-rise collective housing.
Jerry: Lafayette Park is one of the largest joint urbanism projects undertaken by Mies and Greenwald. How does it fit into the canon of his experimentation with the American type and what were its successes and failures?
Fernando: Lafayette Park was one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by Mies and Greenwald: 50 hectares of land and over 2,000 homes. The development at the time of its construction exceeded the limits of the book. Ludwig Hilberseimer (urban planner) and Alfred Caldwell (landscape) were also involved. Two talents that Mies summoned for what he could regard, at that time, as his most complex work: in size, in general planning, in the type of city, in the relevance of private vehicles (circulation and parking), in the configuration of collective housing buildings, in the layout of single-family housing buildings, in construction systems, or in the park's landscape design, etc.
The two collective housing buildings (or complexes) finally built there, are slightly antithetical. In the Lafayette Pavilion, begun in 1955, while Greenwald was still alive, the enormous windows (1.80 x 3.00 m.) narrate a certain "excess" that could be exemplary: social housing could be built (financed by the Federal Housing Act of 1949) with a high degree of constructive refinement. The Lafayette Towers commenced in 1960, a year after Greenwald's passing, and acknowledged his absence by returning to past conventions.
Jerry: The Miesian aesthetic, closely tied to the International Style, has often come under fire for its disregard for contextual relevance. How has this played out in some of the buildings in the collection?
Fernando: Indeed, context issues are not central to Mies' architecture. What I do not know is whether they should be considered defects or intrinsic characteristics. From the currently accepted perspective in the academic field, it is a defect. The absolute indifference to any component of “physical context” (situation, urban environment, climate, and solar orientation) would be considered neglect or a defect. With a more general or abstract vision, the "context" in Mies’ North American work is intellectual, or "ideal.” The search for formal perfection, for timelessness, is the cognitive universe in which these works are inserted, like in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. Neuemeyer gives a good account of this component of his intellectual configuration when he recounts Mies' relationship with Peter Behrens in The Artless Word and his search for what Mies' master called the “great form.”
The ‘context’ in Mies’ North American work is intellectual, or ‘ideal.’ The search for formal perfection, for timelessness, is the cognitive universe in which these works are inserted.
Jerry: In a field that is as prone to repetition as housing, why is Mies' American type an example whose effectiveness in varied contexts has few equals?
Fernando: Why does the work of the masters have few equals? Perhaps because architecture is a consumer good and repeating or refining the feats of the masters has no media significance. To answer, it would be necessary to ask each local real estate market and the pathology of its search for news. The collective housing market has strong inertia and is certainly a conservative field of thought. Looking critically at Mies' residential architecture, it does suffer from a certain schematism. At the time, it was a symptom of the heroic intellectual and commercial audacity of the Mies/Greenwald partnership, later widely surpassed by local practices.
Jerry: How did Mies inculcate public spaces, plazas, and service areas such as parking into this typology? In what way was this related to his exploits while designing office buildings?
Fernando: In 860-880, he donated almost all the plot’s land (85 per cent) to the city of Chicago and arranged parking spaces in two basements. That is his ideal, consistent with the principles of the so-called Modernist movement, which Mies carried out in the plazas of his office buildings and in some collective housing. The difference in cost between the construction of parking basements or car parks on the surface is enormous. In buildings where the cost/sale price budget is significantly low, car parks are on the surface. In buildings where the sale price may be higher (because of target users), the car parks are underground. Between both extremes, there are a few buildings that have mixed parking lots, some on the surface, and others underground. This variable in “The Collection” may have its explanation in the parameters of the housing market.
Jerry: In your view, what are the visible impacts of the legacy that Mies left on the canon of contemporary collective housing, both in the US and the rest of the world?
Fernando: Summarising the impact of Mies's work is impossible. What is the visible impact of St. Peter's in the Vatican? Or Agrippa's Pantheon? Those are the horizons of the master’s architectural influence. I am unaware of contemporary trends in US residential architecture, but in Europe, we have observed a Directive (a law with a scope of application to the entire Union) since 2010, that sets precedents for zero energy consumption, where buildings must have mechanical ventilation and internal heat recovery. This directive makes one of the geometric conditions of all historical European apartments unnecessary: double orientations. For this reason, the depth of residential European buildings can be freed from measures that have been common during the last 70 years (depths of 10-12 metres), to depths of more than 20 metres, proposed by Mies in his “American type.” In the book, Mies realised this dilemma with the Interbau (1955) in Berlin.
In more generic terms, it is possible that architecture’s history or criticism found other objects for their attention after Mies. Surely it must be so. The influence of his work during his lifetime was enormous and, during his twilight years or after his passing, it was natural that other problems would come to the fore. In Europe, it was post-war reconstruction and accommodation for a rapidly growing population. In the US, the increase in wealth and construction of sprawling suburbs was indebted to private vehicles. In Asia, the slow increase in income, industrialisation, etc. In any case, Mies' residential architecture targets a small part of the world: the urban realms of developed countries. Today, this is perhaps less than 1.5 billion people, where the majority of humanity is still outside its field of action. In almost materialistic terms, what the book does illustrate eloquently is the enormous amount of work necessary to even minimally advance human knowledge, the lucidity to ask the right questions, and the stubborn determination necessary in the search for only a few of the answers.
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