Material Masters: Glass is More with Mies van der Rohe

Material Masters: Glass is More with Mies van der Rohe

To celebrate the first anniversary of our US Materials Catalog, this week ArchDaily is presenting a three-part series on "Material Masters," showing how certain materials have helped to inspire some of the world's greatest architects.

Mies van der Rohe, famous for his saying “less is more,” was one of the preeminent modernist architects, well known for pioneering the extensive use of glass in buildings. His works introduced a new level of simplicity and transparency, and his buildings were often referred to as "skin-and-bones" architecture for their emphasis on steel structure and glass enclosure. In addition to Mies van der Rohe, glass was a major influence for many architects of the modernist movement and reshaped the way we think about and define space. Today, glass has become one of the most used building materials, but its early architectural expression is perhaps best exemplified in the works of Mies.

According to Kenneth Frampton's Critical History of Modern Architecture, Mies said of his Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper proposal: "I placed the glass walls at slight angles to each other to avoid the monotony of over-large glass surfaces. I discovered by working with actual glass models that the important thing is the play of reflections and not the effect of light and shadow as in ordinary buildings". Image Courtesy of Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Photo: Markus Hawlik

To Mies, glass was an expression of the current age of industrialism as he believed a building should be “a clear and true statement of its times.” With his unbuilt design for two skyscrapers in Berlin in 1919 and 1921, Mies is commonly credited with designing the original steel and glass skyscraper. These looming structures, which may appear commonplace to modern-day viewers, were the result of groundbreaking innovations in material technology. Part of this innovation came from his 1922 invention of ribbon windows for a German office building. These uninterrupted bands of glass between the finished faces of concrete slabs have become a standard façade technique used in many commercial structures.

Barcelona Pavilion . Image © Flickr User: gondolas

Fundamental to Mies’s design philosophy and one of the driving forces behind his use of glass was the concept of fluid space. He believed that architecture should embody a continuous flow of space, blurring the lines between interior and exterior. The use of glass was essential in making this philosophy a physical reality, and the open spaces created in his column free, glass enclosed spaces such as the Illinois Institute of Technology were seen as revolutionary. The concept of fluid space is further embodied in the design of his Barcelona Pavilion, where movable glass and marble partitions allowed for space to be seen as flexible and independent of the structure itself. Here once again the glass provides enclosure, but does not detract from the architectural idea of a series of perpendicular planes beneath a flat roof.

The Farnsworth House. Image © Greg Robbins

Glass was seen as a quintessentially modern material that also had the ability to reconnect humans to nature and even change how we perceive it. Designed in 1945 and constructed in 1951, the iconic Farnsworth House is the epitome of Mies van der Rohe’s use of glass, and was in many ways an experiment to test his design ideals to the limit. Philip Johnson, another early innovator in the use of glass, remarked, “The Farnsworth house with its continuous glass walls is an even simpler interpretation of an idea. Here the purity of the cage is undisturbed. Neither the steel columns from which it is suspended nor the independent floating terrace break the taut skin.”

Neue Nationalgalerie . Image © Gili Merin

The use of glass and its inherent transparency brought a subtle harmony to the streamlined modernist structure and the landscape of the Fox River beyond. In a sense, the floor to ceiling glass walls allowed the outdoor greenery itself to become the visual boundaries of the interior space. In this way, the Farnsworth House and its use of glass highlight an individual's place within nature, realizing Mies's belief that "We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity." Reflecting on his achievements in the design of the Farnsworth House, Mies added: "If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from outside. That way more is said about nature - it becomes a part of a larger whole."

The Tugendhat House. Image © isifa Image Service s.r.o./Alamy

Mies van der Rohe was also well acquainted with the importance of how architects implement materials in logical and meaningful ways. In his innaugural address to IIT students in 1938, Mies discussed how architects must approach the most basic elements of architecture, with material being of primary importance and said "We must remember that everything depends on how we use a material, not on the material itself. Also, new materials are not necessarily superior. Each material is only what we make of it." Although Mies was an innovator in material technology, he was careful to use glass in ways that emphasized his architectural principles of space, and took advantage of its capabilities to create reflections or frame exterior space in a particular way.

With the Seagram Building, Mies pioneered a particular typology that was the epitome of late 20th century office design. Image © Hagen Stier

Today, glass innovations have progressed and many architects and engineers have redefined the material's potential. With everything from structural glass used in floors and beams, to sculptural facades, to transparent solar panels, the use of glass continues to evolve. However, we have Mies van der Rohe and the early modernist architects to thank for bringing the material to prominence.

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Cite: Evan Rawn. "Material Masters: Glass is More with Mies van der Rohe" 03 Dec 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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