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The Seagram Building in New York City // Getty Images

9 Minimalist Facts About Architect Mies van der Rohe

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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.

1. HE BEGAN HIS CAREER AS A STONEMASON. 

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

2. HE GOT HIS START EARLY IN LIFE. 

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.)

3. HE HAD NO FORMAL EDUCATION. 

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). 

4. HE ADOPTED A NEW NAME AS HE GOT MORE FAMOUS. 

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.

5. HIS CATCHPHRASE WILL SOUND FAMILIAR. 

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. 

6. ARCHITECTURE CRITICS LOVE HIM … MOSTLY. 

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. 

7. HIS FAVORITE NEW YORK CITY BUILDING WAS NOT A BUILDING. 

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.”

8. HE WAS IN PLAYBOY

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.

9. ONE OF HIS BUILDINGS SERVED AS MEL GIBSON’S FICTIONAL HOME. 

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. 

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Watch an Artist Build a Secret Studio Beneath an Overpass
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Artists can be very particular about the spaces where they choose to do their work. Furniture designer Fernando Abellanas’s desk may not boast the quietest or most convenient location on Earth, but it definitely wins points for seclusion. According to Co.Design, the artist covertly constructed his studio beneath a bridge in Valencia, Spain.

To make his vision a reality, Abellanas had to build a metal and plywood apparatus and attach it to the top of an underpass. After climbing inside, he uses a crank to wheel the box to the top of the opposite wall. There, the contents of his studio, including his desk, chair, and wall art, are waiting for him.

The art nook was installed without permission from the city, so Abellanas admits that it’s only a matter of time before the authorities dismantle it or it's raided by someone else. While this space may not be permanent, he plans to build others like it around the city in secret. You can get a look at his construction process in the video below.

[h/t Co.Design]

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One of Frank Lloyd Wright's Final Residential Designs Goes on Sale in Ohio
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In case you’ve missed the many recent sales of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed real estate, you have yet another chance to secure yourself a historical starchitect home. The Louis Penfield House is being sold by its original owners, and it could be yours for a cool $1.3 million. The restored Usonian home in Willoughby Hills, Ohio has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.

The house is currently a vacation rental and, depending on the preference of the new owner, it could continue to operate as a tourist destination. Or you could take it over as your private residence, which sounds pretty luxurious. It still has a floor-to-ceiling glass-walled living room that looks out on the Chagrin River, and comes with all the original furniture Wright designed. Like Wright’s other Usonian homes, it has a radiant-floor heating system that draws on a natural gas well onsite.

A retro-looking living room features floor-to-ceiling windows.
A bedroom is filled with vintage wooden furniture.

Around the same time as the original commission, Louis and Pauline Penfield also asked Wright to create another house on an adjacent property, and that home would prove to be the architect’s final residential design. It was still on the drawing board when he died unexpectedly in 1959. The sale of the Penfield House includes the original plans for the second house, called Riverrock, so you’d be getting more like 1.5 Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Seems like a pretty good deal to us.

All images via Estately

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