Born in Germany in 1886, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe broke new ground with his architectural designs. He started out as a draftsman before striking out later on his own. During World War I, Mies served in the German military. He then became a well-known architect in Germany, creating such structures as the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. In the late 1930s, Mies emigrated to the United States. There he created such well-known Modernist works as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments and the Seagram Building. He died in 1969.
Early Life and Career
Maria Ludwig Michael Mies was born in Aachen, Germany, on March 27, 1886. The youngest of five children, he attended a local Catholic school, and then received vocational training at the Gewerbeschule in Aachen. He further honed his skills by working with his stonemason father and through several apprenticeships.
While employed as a draftsman, in 1906 Mies received his first commission for a residential home design. He then went to work for influential architect Peter Behrens, who had taught the likes of Le Corbusier. In 1913, Mies set up his own shop in Lichterfelde. He married Ada Bruhn that same year, and the couple eventually had three daughters together.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put Mies’s career on hold, and during the conflict, he served in the German military, helping build bridges and roads. Returning to his work after the war, Mies debuted his vision of a glass skyscraper, submitting the futuristic design for a 1921 competition. Around this time, Mies added “van der Rohe” to his name, an adaptation of his mother's maiden name.
By the mid-1920s, Mies had become a leading avant-garde architect in Germany. He was a member of the radical artistic organization Novembergruppe, and later joined the Bauhaus movement. Founded by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus movement embraced socialist ideals as well as a functional philosophy about art and design. (The Nazis later found the work of Bauhaus to be degenerate, however, and the group shut down under political pressure.)
One of Mies's most impressive works from this period was the German Pavilion he created for the Barcelona Exposition in Spain. Constructed from 1928 to 1929, this exhibition structure was a modern marvel of glass, metal and stone. Despite his growing notoriety in Germany, in the late 1930s, Mies left for the United States. Settling in Chicago, he ran the school of architecture at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology and also developed the plan for its campus.
Highly regarded in his field, Mies was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1947. He also continued to be in demand as an architect, building the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York City. A joint project with Philip C. Johnson, the dark metal-and-glass 38-story skyscraper was completed in 1958.
Death and Legacy
One of Mies’s final projects was the New National Gallery in Berlin, for which he had received a commission from the West German government. Completed in 1968, the structure is a testament to his Modernist aesthetic. The two-level building features walls of glass supported by an imposing metal frame.
Following a lengthy battle with esophageal cancer, Mies died on August 17, 1969, in his adopted hometown of Chicago. Many of his impressive structures still stand today, wowing visitors with their innovative design. Perhaps what has made his work so enduring was his progressive design philosophy. “I have tried to make an architecture for a technological society," he told the New York Times. "I wanted to keep everything reasonable and clear—to have an architecture that anybody can do.”
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