Original image
The Seagram Building in New York City // Getty Images

9 Minimalist Facts About Architect Mies van der Rohe

Original image
The Seagram Building in New York City // Getty Images

You may not know much about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but you definitely know his style. The German-born architect pioneered the simplistic steel-and-glass skyscraper, and the open urban plaza that abutted it. Every boring shiny glass skyscraper you’ve ever seen is a Mies knockoff. The design may seem banal now that it’s commonplace, but in the early- to mid-20th century, Mies’s minimalism was radical, and his work became foundational for modern architecture.

Mies van der Rohe was born 130 ago on March 27. In honor of his birthday, here are nine things you might not know about the iconic architect.


He started working with his father, a stonemason, on construction sites in his hometown of Aachen before becoming an architectural apprentice at age 15. 


Mies got his first independent commission, a German residence called the Riehl House, when he was just 20 years old, finishing it in 1907. However, he wouldn’t come up with the tall glass-and-metal aesthetic that became his calling card until the 1920s, when he created a pair of designs for “crystal tower” skyscrapers without any masonry on their facades. (They were never built.)


Mies in 1961. Image Credit: Getty Images

The Mies family wasn’t wealthy, and he couldn’t afford higher education. He went to Catholic school as a boy, then spent two years in trade school with the goal of joining his father’s masonry business. He never went through any formal architectural training—instead, he served as an apprentice to leading German designers and architects. He would later go on to play a major role in American architectural education, serving as the director of the architecture program at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). 


Born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, he added his mother’s maiden name, Rohe, as his career began to take off. Many of his contemporaries, such as the architect Le Corbusier, used pseudonyms, and he wanted to reinvent himself from a provincial stonemason’s son into a cosmopolitan architect. The “van der” part of his name, a Dutch title, he simply added to give himself a more distinguished air. (The German “von” was unavailable, since it was only for nobles.)  Another reason for his name change? Mies means lousy in German.


Mies was fond of aphorisms. His most famous one, which he used to sum up his architecture philosophy, was “Less is more.” While the phrase is inextricably linked with Mies by now, he actually took it from industrial designer Peter Behrens, who he apprenticed under in the early 1900s in Berlin. 


The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Image Credit: Carl M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called Mies’s Seagram Building in New York City—the quintessential modern office building, seen in the image at the beginning of this article—“the millennium's most important building” in 1999. But like any artist who garners outsized praise, Mies also has his detractors. “At one time or another his work and influence have been blamed for everything from urban decay to the continued vigor of American capitalism,” as New Criterion editor Roger Kimball explained in a 1989 book review. 


He loved to go see the George Washington Bridge when he was in New York, and in 1963, he declared it “the most modern building in the city.”


Mies was one of many famous designers to appear—clothed—in Hugh Hefner’s magazine. During its early years, Playboy covered architecture’s biggest names in features and interviews, insinuating that being knowledgable about good design was an essential (and seductive!) part of contemporary manhood. Mies was featured in the 1950s (the magazine was founded in 1953), as was fellow architecture icon Frank Lloyd Wright.


2400 Lakeview Avenue, Chicago. Image Credit: Google Street View

In the 2000 film What Women Want, Mel Gibson’s character, Nick Marshall, lives in 2400 Lakeview Avenue in Chicago. Completed in 1963, it was Mies’ final residential project. 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]