Celebration of a Master Architect

February 23, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN

NEW YORK — The temptation is to use the engrossing exhibit here celebrating the centennial of the birth of Mies van der Rohe as another volley in the continuing conflict between the modern and post-modern movements in architecture.

After all, Mies, with Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, was one of the three great architects of the modern movement and perhaps its most influential. Certainly his serene glass towers set the style for the burgeoning cities of the last half century.

And it was Mies' aphorism that "less is more" and the poor copies by lesser talents of his designs that in large part set the stage for the post-modern movement. Its proponents declared that "less is a bore" and gave form to a few marvelously playful structures cluttered with historical references and, unfortunately, many more strained efforts.

Just as Mies and the modern movement had its panderers and plagiarists, so does the post-modern movement. Our cityscapes and suburban sprawls are cluttered with them.

"At the beginning of the '60s, it was clear that a reaction to many of the ideas and methods of modern architecture--and above all to the pervasive influence of Mies--was already under way," writes Arthur Drexler in the brochure accompanying the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art here.

"Today, post-modern architecture is a new fact; it attempts to deal with problems concerning our attitudes toward history, and may yet generate work of importance," adds Drexler, who, as the director of the museum's department of architecture and design, organized the exhibit. "Nevertheless, post-modernism's penchant for architectural jokes must co-exist with the Miesian view of architecture as an Olympian challenge to the rational mind."

But the exhibit is much more than a debate between two architectural movements. With its 450 drawings of 92 buildings and projects, some of which have never been displayed before, the exhibit is a celebration of an architect and of architecture itself.

Of all the aphorisms associated with Mies, Drexler adds the one he feels bests sums up Mies' attitude toward himself, his work and his time: "I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good."

As the exhibit reveals, Mies was more than good and more than interesting. He was indeed a master, searching as he did for the essence of design, which is structure, and expressing it in a minimalist style that is pure poetry. His sketches, displayed in all their richness, are lyrical, as are many of his creations, from a simple chair to a complex high-rise.

While best-known in the United States for his pioneering towers, including the elegant Seagram Building in New York City and the rational Lake Shore apartment houses in Chicago, Mies' genius is best illustrated at the exhibit by his domestic architecture. His earlier works, flowering in the sublime Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, display a budding ability of reductive design that takes the complicated and makes it simple.

Walking through the exhibit with its glittering displays of Mies' steel-and-glass creations, with their sublime spaces, provoked thoughts of some similar efforts in residential design in Los Angeles by a host of modern masters. These include R. M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, Pierre Koenig, Carl Maston, Quincy Jones, John Lautner, Craig Ellwood, Charles Eames and Ray Kappe.

It also brought to mind an aphorism of Irving Gill, an earlier supreme talent in Southern California, who in search of an appropriate style for the area commented, "dare be simple."

Apparently it is a dare few of our local firebrand architects centered in Venice care to risk, as did the modern masters. When trying to be simple it is difficult to hide the inappropriate and banal. Assuming one has a gullible or compliant client, it is much easier to take the simple and make it complicated.

This devious design process also tends to mark such practitioners as being different, a cloak they wear with a flourish, expecting that it alone should prompt indiscriminate publicity and praise.

So we have a rash of architects and mimics rationalizing their irrational structures, noting how elements and uses express themselves, while "talking" to one another and the surrounding context. What talk there is is between the architects, congratulating each other while castigating those who might take exception to their strained structures.

A problem is that the language of their buildings is a constructivist mumble in which materials and geometry are perverted. Viewing the concoctions at arm's length, they do not seem to work, not as art or architecture, and certainly not as poetry.

Compared to the works of Mies, as well of the host of local architects who have struggled with the intellectual and aesthetic demands of the modern idiom, they pale even as passing fancies. The shock of the new may make them interesting, but not necessarily good.

At best they are engaging experiments to titillate architecture students, fawning peers, impressionable critics, and editors of professional publications desperate to be trendy or to fulfill some parochial (usually Eastern or British), preconceived view of a spaced-out L. A. design community.

The exhibit will run in New York through April 14, and then move on to Chicago, West Berlin and, eventually, Barcelona, Spain. It, unfortunately, will not be seen in Los Angeles, where local architecture students as well as architects could use the lessons the exhibit offers.

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