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Stepping Back in Splendid Isolation
Mies van der Rohe at the Modern and the Whitney

With the Frank Gehry retrospective at the Guggenheim, and the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe exhibits at the Modern and Whitney, this has been quite a summer for architecture in New York. Although we've yet to make it to the Guggenheim, we did get to see both of the Mies' shows which document the evolving vision of the great architectural modernist. It's possible to see "Mies in Berlin" at MoMA in the morning, walk a block and a half east to Madison Avenue and take the bus uptown to the Whitney to see "Mies in America" in the afternoon, and still have time to catch the Fifth Avenue bus downtown to 52nd Street, walk the two blocks to Park Avenue and witness the Seagram Building in the flesh - or rather glass and steel -- at the end of what, we assure you, will be quite a day. 

The two exhibits present a Mies chronology from his classicist Berlin beginnings in 1907 as architect of country houses to the visionary executor of apartment and office towers in post war America using drawings, models, photographs, films, paintings, sculptures, and digital creations that actually walk you through structures. Through them, such Miesian concerns as the flow between exterior and interior, focus on landscape, movement through open space, and importance of context emerge with stunning clarity. 

MoMA has the longest association with Mies of any American institution having featured his work at its first architecture exhibit in 1932 which was organized in part by his long time champion Philip Johnson who subsequently organized the first Mies retrospective, also at MoMA, in 1947. Well known structures like the Riehl House (one of the virtual walk-through's), the moderate income apartment house project in Stuttgart, the German Pavilion in Barcelona where the lines between inside and out begin to blur are represented in the current exhibit along with such newly discovered and little known works as the colored drawing entered in a competition for a monument to Otto von Bismarck which Mies failed to win.

Another competitive entry is a 1921 skyscraper of glass and steel. He failed to win this competition as well, but a photograph of the envisioned building on the cover of the avant-garde publication "G" won attention and admiration. Today it appears as a striking harbinger of what was to come. 

A model for the glass and stone Resor House Mies designed in 1937 for a Jackson Hole, Wyoming site shown in animated digital format virtually leads you to the Whitney to pick up the story of "Mies in America." Increasingly isolated and unable to win commissions in Nazi Germany, Mies emigrated to the United States in 1938, settling in Chicago. He designed the campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology and worked there for twenty years. His campus plans and models, shown at various stages of completion, demonstrate how the architect succeeded in realizing the Bauhaus ideal of fusing art with technology in a context where buildings were used for the teaching of technological subjects. 

"We have no clearly defined cities anymore," Mies had said. "They come on like an unending forest." Accordingly he set off city structures, redefining them with free standing towers and pavilions grounded on a podium as in Chicago's Lake Shore Drive complex which the exhibit showcases in much detail.

Ethereal music accompanies you through the spacious rooms. No louder than a whisper, sounds of chimes, distant pipes and rustling wind enhance the experience of being in a Miesian world where architecture is, to quote the architect, "the poetry of structure and space."

The Whitney exhibition was organized by Phyllis Lambert, the Bronfman family member who succeeded in convincing her father to give the commission for the Seagram Building to Mies. Seeing the actual building today amidst the glut of Park Avenue glass and steel, one can only wonder at its impact in 1958 when its walls reflected a boulevard of Beaux Arts buildings. The Seagram's grace and power, however, still overwhelm; it still "steps back in splendid isolation," as the architectural historian Carole Rifkind has said, an enduring monument to the master of modernism.

The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
(between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
New York, NY 

Phone: 212 708-9400
"Mies in Berlin" runs until September 11, 2001

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue (at East 75th Street)
New York, NY 

Phone: 212 570-3633
"Mies in America" runs until September 23, 2001

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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