We walk through a city just like we walk through nature but we are surrounded by an environment that has been molded to accommodate us. We navigate through streets like in a canyon of artificial stone and look up, feeling dwarfed by the walls being built around us. It’s surprising how little we notice. We live our lives surrounded by a manufactured world, take little interest in how it looks, how it feels.
In the middle of the twentieth century there was a movement that shaped our environment. It had been developing for a while but in the aftermath of WWII it found a voice in America. It was called Modernist Architecture and it redefined space, how we lived in it, how we worked in it and how it expressed itself to the world.
One of the founding fathers of this movement was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who contributed his own architectural language to this movement. Architecture is the cornerstone of our built environment and it affects all of us.
Mies van der Rohe designed buildings that made us stop in our tracks and breathe in the canyon of walls. He has set the stage for Modernism, where we work, where we set our values. He has set the spirit of the age. During his career he often used rigid rectilinear geometry, minimalistic detailing and double height ground floors in order to reduce barriers between indoor and outdoors.
This is also the case when he designed the Chicago Federal Center. The vertical I-beam mullions, a technique Mies famously employed on the Seagram Building, combine with black paint and bronze curtain glass are the key expressive elements.
The Federal Center in Chicago received its fair share of criticism because Federal buildings were, up until then, rigorously ornamented buildings fashioned after European architecture, it did not display the grandeur of traditional civic buildings.
But criticism aside, no one could argue about the grand open spaces that architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe has created. He redefined the concept of space in his design. The high ceilings and never ending line of the horizon. The experience of space, how the light fell in, how the materials seemed to invite you in, the form and how it related the humans. It was not just about putting up walls and calling it a building. It was the new era that invited everyone to discover tall, sleek canyons of buildings.
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