“It was the most difficult work which ever confronted me, because I was my own client,” said Mies. “I could do what I liked.”1 The commission from the German Government to build the German Pavilion for the International Exposition in Barcelona lacked both a programme as well as exhibits to put on show. The official request was simply for a building to represent the nation, which caused a contemporary commentator to describe it as “architecture as fine art.”2 Mies was even able to propose where the building should be sited: at the end of a long square.
Raised on a podium made of travertine are a series of separate wall planes and two pools of water, creating a succession of spaces that flow into one another. The indoor and outdoor spaces are interwoven into a complex constellation in which the walls structure but no longer enclose space. Instead of “a row of individual rooms,” wrote Mies, “I have striven for a series of spatial effects.”3 In contrast to the smaller, more enclosed pool, which is lined with black glass reflecting Georg Kolbe’s sculptural figure entitled “Dawn”, the large pool “in which the water appears to be light green”4 is light and open.
The walls are made of sumptuous materials including Roman travertine, green polished Tinian marble and Vert antique from the French Alps. In the central space of the interior is a wall plane made of Moroccan onyx doré with a honey-yellow colour. For the glazed walls, an entire repertoire of materials have been employed: in addition to transparent glass, the building makes use of green and grey glass, frosted glass as well as black opaque glass for the table tops. Mies’ specially designed Barcelona chairs and ottomans, with their chrome-plated steel frame and white glacé leather upholstering stand on a black velour carpet in the interior.
Mies had learned to assess marble in his father’s stonemason’s firm. The selection of German stone that had been proposed was not “noble”5 enough in his eyes, and so he went in search of a suitable specimen himself in a Hamburg stoneyard in which he discovered a block of onyx to his liking. “‘Listen, let me see it,’ and they at once shouted: ‘No, no, no, that can’t be done, for Heaven’s sake you mustn’t touch that marvellous piece.’ But I said: ‘Just give me a hammer, will you, and I’ll show you how we used to do that at home.’ So reluctantly they brought a hammer, and they were curious whether I would want to chip away a corner. But no, I hit the block hard just once right in the middle, and off came a thin slab the size of my hand. ‘Now go and polish it at once so that I can see it.’ And so we decided to use onyx.”6
The onyx wall is placed as a freestanding plane in the pavilion. “One evening as I was working late on that building I made a sketch of a freestanding wall, and I got a shock. I knew that it was a new principle.”7 This principle was to become a central theme of the architectural concept and is experienced physically within the pavilion. On ascending the stairs up to the podium, visitors are led in a U-turn around a glass wall into the interior of the pavilion. The principle of the freestanding wall was instrumental in the design process. Sergius Ruegenberg, who worked in Mies’ office, described how the design was developed using a model, a method that was typical for Mies. His later office in Chicago was like a large model workshop.
“I made a base out of plasticine at a scale of 1:50. […] Then I cut strips of card at the height of the walls, about 3 metres (6 cm in the model), and stuck coloured Japanese paper onto them. […] We also needed strips of glass, which I obtained from a glazier. […] Now we could start to play: because the base was soft, the walls stayed upright. […] The walls were moved back and forth, and the illumination of the room was examined using a ‘luminous wall’. Once the position of the walls and the rooms was decided on, a piece of cardboard was laid on top for the ceiling. […] We kept on removing the cardboard roof to experiment with the positioning of the columns. For the pools I had a light-green piece of cardboard and a black piece of card for the smaller pool.”8
The roof is borne by eight evenly spaced columns that are positioned to one side of the walls. Together with the roof slab, the columns form a structural unit that represents a separate architectonic element independent of the non-loadbearing partitioning walls. Different means of expression are used to emphasise the contrast between the two elements: while the symmetrical regularity and static repose of the columns and roof emphasises its structural clarity, the walls create a labyrinthine constellation of spaces that lead the visitor in a circulatory passage through the pavilion. And while the columns are made to recede by giving them a reflective surface treatment that blends their materiality into their surroundings, the walls are clad with extremely sumptuous materials that assert themselves and define the character of the space around them.
The industrial-looking columns have neither base nor capital and span between the floor and roof slab, while the roof slab appears to rest like a homogenous plane on the walls. The entire building is, however, a steel construction that is clad with different materials. Even the roof – which was erroneously described as being a “monolithic white slab”9 in an early article on the pavilion – is a hollow steel construction. “During construction, a further sheet of metal was riveted in place at one corner near the entrance in order to achieve the necessary cantilever,” reported Ruegenberg. “Mies did not like that at all, but in the end the whole steel construction of the roof was rendered giving it the impression of a slab (of concrete for example) with a thickness of 24 cm.”10
That the roof plane is articulated as a flat surface without supporting beams is a direct consequence of the principle of the free plan. Le Corbusier had previously illustrated this same principle in his concept of the plan libre executed in concrete, where two horizontal slabs sandwich a space between them. Colin Rowe describes the reasoning behind this: “In fact, the appearance of beams could only tend to prescribe fixed positions for the partitions; and, since these fixed positions would be in line with the columns, it was therefore essential, if the independence of columns and partitions was to be asserted with any eloquence, that the underside of the slab should be expressed as an uninterrupted horizontal surface.”11
While the classical structure of columns always sees column, capital and architrave as a single tectonic unit, in the case of the pavilion, the beam is concealed within the ceiling. Nevertheless the cruciform columns are not entirely devoid of “classical” qualities: the indented vertical profiling recalls the fluting of columns from antiquity. The columns in Barcelona are made out of a complex assembly of standard profiles. Four rounded-edged angle profiles of even dimensions are welded together with four T-profiles with symmetrically trimmed crossbars to form the shape of a cross. An encasing mantle of chrome-plated sheet metal defines the final form of the column but does not reveal how the profiles were put together. This mantle can be thought of as a skin, and Mies did indeed term skeleton frame buildings as “skin and bones architecture”.
Later alterations to the building
After the International Exposition, the Barcelona Pavilion was dismantled. Although the original intention was to rebuild it at another location, the individual elements have since been lost. Much later, in 1986, the architects Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Cristian Cirici and Fernando Ramos reconstructed the building, although not quite on the exact same spot. Unlike the original building, the roof slab is made of reinforced concrete. The colour of the glazed walls, described as mouse-grey and bottle-green, also appears more pronounced in historical photos than in the reconstruction. In the interior a red curtain is also hung, although this cannot be seen in the original photos. The honey-yellow onyx wall of the original is much redder in the modern reconstruction, and the grain of the marble is reflected about a horizontal line at half-height. In the original wall there was also a horizontal joint – Mies described the space as being twice the height of the onyx block – but the stone patterning was not originally reflected.
The building as seen from the present
Although specific details of the reconstructed building differ from the original, it still provides us with an insight into Mies’ architecture. Robin Evans discovered in his own slides of the building the phenomenon of a horizontal mirrored axis – a product of the modern version of the onyx wall – that he argues makes it hard to tell apart what is up and what is down: “Notice the difficulty of distinguishing the travertine floor, which reflects the light, from the plaster ceiling, which receives it. If the floor and the ceiling had been of the same material, the difference in brightness would have been greater. Here, Mies used material asymmetry to create optical symmetry, rebounding the natural light in order to make the ceiling more sky-like and the ambiance more expansive.”12 This phenomenon he has described as a “paradoxical symmetry”, although we now know that at the time the photos of the pavilion were retouched to emphasise this effect.
The built context in which the building stands has since been altered. Originally a row of classical columns stood in front of the building through which a path and stairs led up to the “Spanish village”, a part of the original exposition that still exists today. Visitors passed through this building and past the plateau. The Barcelona Pavilion is more than just a building; it is a complex in which the interior fuses with the architectural landscape of its surroundings to form a single entity.
1 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in conversation with Henry Thomas CadburyBrown in: Architectural Association Journal, July/Aug. 1959, pp. 27–28.
2 Justus Bier, “Mies van der Rohes Reichspavillon in Barcelona”, in: Die Form, 15 Aug. 1929, p. 423.
3 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in a manuscript dated 19 June 1924, in: Fritz Neumeyer, The Artless Word – Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art, Cambridge, Mass. 1991, p. 250. Mies was referring to his unbuilt design for a Brick Country House.
4 Cf. note 2.
5 Cited by Sergius Ruegenberg in a manuscript, Mies van der Rohe Archive, MoMA in New York.
6 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in conversation with Ulrich Conrads in 1964, produced on a phonograph record, “Mies in Berlin”, Bauwelt, Berlin 1966.
7 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in an interview on 13 Feb. 1952, in: Master Builder, no. 3, 1952, p. 28.
8 Sergius Ruegenberg in a manuscript in: Eva-Maria Amberger, Sergius Ruegenberg – Architekt zwischen Mies van der Rohe und Hans Scharoun, Berlin 2000, p. 78 (translation JR).
9 Cf. note 2. 10 Cf. note 8, p. 81. 11 Colin Rowe, “Neo-‘Classicism’ and Modern Architecture II” (written 1956–57, first published in 1973), in: The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays, Cambridge, Mass. 1987, p. 143.
12 Robin Evans, “Mies van der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries”, in: AA Files, no. 19, 1990, pp. 63–64.
Carsten Krohn. Mies Van Der Rohe The Built Work. Birkhauser Verlag AG, 2014. P. 76-80.