by ABBDec 15, 2021
In February, the draft of an executive order from the White House entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” was leaked. Its message was blunt: too many recent government buildings in the United States have “little aesthetic appeal”, inspiring “bewilderment and repugnance” in the public. And, because America’s Founding Fathers embraced the “classical architecture of democratic Athens and republican Rome” for their new republic, from now on “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style”.
This vote of no confidence in contemporary American architecture is perhaps to be expected – “Let’s Make America Great Again” pretty much necessitates a turn to the past. But when was this mythical era of greatness? According to President Donald Trump, the United States was at its zenith in the years after the Second World War: “We were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do.”
At the time, however, America had a very different take on what the country, and its architecture, could learn from Athens. On leaving Massachusetts to take up the presidency in 1961, John F. Kennedy gave an address to its legislature, famous for the line “of those to whom much is given, much is required”. He also included a stirring quotation from Pericles’ oration on the dead of the Peloponnesian War, in which the Athenian statesman proclaims of his city: “We do not imitate – for we are a model to others”.
This tribute to an idealised Athens, and to its democratic principles, was adopted as a model for post-war American architecture, and Kennedy’s invocation was cited at the start of the original “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture”, issued in 1962. This text is short, direct and strangely moving, declaring that an architectural style and form must be adopted for federal buildings that will “provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American Government”.
At this peak of national vitality and confidence, America understood that the time had come – in architecture as in national life – to lead, not merely to follow. The latter had been the modus operandi of institutional architecture from the country’s foundation right through the American Renaissance and even beyond. Now, its federal buildings were to forge their own way, to “embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought”. And not through the enforcement of an official style: “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa”.
Who stood astride that profession at the time? Publications of the time rattled off the same, short list – Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, the last three based in the States. Frank Lloyd Wright was too old, too difficult, too idiosyncratic and insufficiently “modern” to be considered the profession’s leader. Le Corbusier was firmly lodged at the top of the genius tree, but his quest for universal forms and increasingly expressive leanings made him a risky proposition. And he was equally difficult. Gropius’s reputation was on the wane, his post-war output suggesting he was a better educator than architect – a man who had “overrun his prophecy”.
Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins. – Mies van der Rohe
So, in the 1950s, Mies van der Rohe was, to all intents and purposes, the Western world’s leading architect. The German-American architect had established his reputation in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, in large part due to two unassailable icons – the German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929, and the Tugendhat House in Brno, begun that same year. Both utilised free plans, fluid spaces, transparency, asymmetry, freestanding walls and (at this stage) understated exposure of structure. Both were perfect in proportion, exquisite (and expensive) in materials, with subtle classical echoes. Mies’s was not an austere, functionalist modernism, but a cerebral and spiritual pursuit of an architectural essence.
Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space. – Mies van der Rohe
Political and financial pressures increasingly stymied Mies’s career in the 1930s. As its final director, he dissolved the Bauhaus in 1933 when its independence became untenable, despite taking a perhaps excessively apolitical stance towards the Nazi regime. He found a warm welcome when he finally left for the States in 1938, thanks in part to the proselytizing of the architect and provocateur Philip Johnson. The latter had given Mies his first US commission as far back as 1931 – furnishing his own New York apartment – and ensured Mies’s prominence in the influential Modern Architecture: International Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.
Mies soon accepted the position of director of architecture at the Chicago’s Armour Institute – shortly to become the Illinois Institute of Technology – and in 1941 started the slow process of transforming its archaic campus, with results that rapidly achieved cult status across an architectural world. These immaculate, abstracted volumes, articulated by black-painted steel beams and increasingly clad in little more than plate glass, seemed to offer an entirely new vocabulary for rebuilding the post-war world, and their crisp, creative details left architectural commentators overwrought. It was clear to all, and particularly to those left behind in Europe, that the centre of the modernist project – and perhaps of Western cultural production – had shifted decisively across the Atlantic.
A nation requiring the architecture of success was the ideal environment for Mies, with his obsessive and often expensive perfectionism, his aversion to politics and his belief in a zeitgeist that America undeniably now embodied. Despite the relatively modest size of his practice, he produced perhaps the finest buildings of his career in the United States – the Farnsworth House, a perfect steel-and-glass rectangle free of internal support; Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments, in which the aesthetic expression of the steel frame first crystallised; and, above all, the Seagram Building, completed in midtown Manhattan for the Canadian distillers in 1958, with its lavish interiors largely provided by Johnson. A new prototype for the urban office, this immaculately proportioned high-rise block set back on an open plaza was endlessly imitated across the United States and beyond, but even the most skilled of practices were unable to match its structural clarity. Appropriately, its success was noted in government circles, and Mies was invited to design the new civic hub for Chicago, the Chicago Federal Center. Mies also won many awards through his career: Mies Pour le Mérite (1959), Royal Gold Medal (1959), AIA Gold Medal (1960), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963).
Reaping the benefits of its economic, military and political hegemony, the United States offered the resources (both private and public) for the realisation of modernism’s utopias, albeit largely shorn of political vision. America’s modernism – and later its postmodernism – may have been built in large part on a European inheritance, but this was an inheritance that its institutions were bold enough to shelter, adopt and make their own in a way that pre-war Europe had, with rare exceptions, failed to do. The result was a template for civic and corporate architecture that was exported – often literally – across the world.
A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous. – Mies van der Rohe
The modernist movement may have faltered after Mies’s death in 1969, but even those in the postmodern vanguard were keenly aware of his unique achievements – for Paolo Portoghesi, Seagram was the “undisputed masterpiece of orthodox modernism”; for Robert Venturi, Mies was “one of the great masters of the twentieth century”. They were well aware that the dismantling of architectural orthodoxies was, in great part, possible because of the strength and sophistication that Mies and his generation had engendered in mainstream and avant-garde American practice. The ever-petulant Johnson may have ended up dismissing modern architecture as a “flop”, but his granite-clad, broken-pedimented AT&T Building, designed to topple orthodoxies, still existed in relation to, and even drew on, the aesthetics and technologies of the corporate modernism first evolved by Mies.
The American cultural sphere became, and remained, a model to be imitated because it was far-sighted enough to pursue a contemporaneity derived from a variety of external influences. Most important among these was the Bauhaus, and Mies van der Rohe. For a multitude of reasons, this willingness to embrace contemporaneity – to look outwards and forwards – has waned in American political life, replaced by an explicit xenophobia that refuses to shelter refugees such as Mies, or recognise the validity of their life and learning. Ironically, the current administration still eulogizes the “international symbols of democratic self-government” of America’s architectural past, while scorning the legitimacy that gave those symbols their power. The fact that American institutions and values, and their cultural and architectural expression, were held in highest global esteem in the 1950s and 1960s, seems almost a matter of indifference. Today, the ideals and architecture of this foundational era are being cast aside, and its achievements hijacked to justify an aggressive greatness that doesn’t seek to be a “model to others” but to “push them around” – and it isn’t just the built environment that will suffer.