The Barcelona Pavilion was officially only used once, and that was on the 27th of May, 1929, when King Alfonso XIII of Spain participated in a ceremony for its opening. Its role, according to an official statement by President Paul von Hindenburg, was to “present the Spirit of the New Germany: simplicity and clarity of means and intentions—everything is open, nothing is concealed.” As the first official participation of Germany in an international event since the catastrophic end of the First World War, it was a day of enormous symbolic importance, attended by diplomats, aristocrats and dignitaries. Within a few years the peace would collapse, in Barcelona as much as in Berlin, but for a moment, in May, modernity was met with optimism.
The Barcelona Pavilion was intended to embody this moment. Free of external ornament, the building was made of the most luxurious materials. Walls were fashioned of thin plates of luminous semi-precious stone, from green polished marble to golden onyx. According to Philip Johnson’s influential account, they didn’t physically limit space, but rather suggested flowing movement, and didn’t divide so much as bind; bringing the inside to the outside by continuing beyond the roofline into the garden. While the columns provided a kind of cartesian grid of points tethering the roof, the walls were positioned freely. In the courtyard was a bronze nude, arms aloft in a gesture that might be dance, might be grief, reflected in a still pool. With the asymmetrical walls, the luxurious stone, the bright light, the podium on which it sat; the pavilion was at the same time both a hyper-modernist building, and a classical ruin.
It was “perhaps the most important building of this century”, as Peter Behrens said with strategic understatement, but at the time few realized it. Within less than a year the original was demolished, its steel sold for scrap, the furniture dispersed, and the walls broken down for coffee tables (most of which have not been traced). For over 50 years it existed only in the form of some incomplete archival information and a few black and white magazine photographs. Initially very little was written about the building at all. A typical review of the exposition, by William Francklyn Paris in Architectural Forum in 1929 would completely miss the point, “The Barcelona Exposition: A splendid but Costly Effort of the Catalan People.” As Juan Pablo Bonta noted in a classic essay called “Blindness” in 1979, the pavilion could only be recognised as a poetic masterpiece once the way had been prepared for it. Arguably, it was MoMA that forged the legend. Philip Johnson presented Mies van der Rohe at MoMA in 1947 in an exhibition designed and installed by Mies himself. By the end of the 1950s, it was universally acknowledged as the perfect building: It was glamorous, conceptually clear, and best of all, as it had been demolished, it was incapable of disappointing.
The photographs that survived of the original building show it as something halfway between a film set and a mausoleum, and of course, they excluded any glimpse of the crazy Disneyworld of architectural confections that were nearby, such as the Belgian and Italian pavilions, or Brašovan's striking Yugoslavian pavilion. With the exception of the photographs documenting that formal opening, the building is always shown as empty of people. The famous chairs that Mies van der Rohe designed as modernist thrones were never even sat upon. The critics who visit the reconstructed pavilion today write about it as if it was an ancient archaeological site, a temple from a long extinct religion, and in a way, it is.
In the 1980s, the Pavilion was reconstructed using all the documentation available in the MOMA archives. It was a meticulous task of forgery, down to the carefully matched semi-precious stone walls and the construction of the shiny metallic columns. Questions remain. What, for instance, were the two small rooms in the back corner used for? Were they janitor's closets, or discrete meeting rooms for worried diplomats? I asked Professor George Dodds, the author of “Building Desire,” a book on the Pavilion, about those rooms, and he pointed out “Honestly, I’ve never read a damned thing about anything happening in that area of the site.”
Now Archilogic has made an accurate digital reconstruction of the Barcelona Pavilion, so you can explore this modernist masterwork. The Archilogic model is interactive, so you can mess with Mies’ program by furnishing it with a bed, a sofa, and all the other furniture of everyday domestic life, or kit it out as an office. If you’d ever wondered whether your furniture would look good in a masterpiece, this is your chance to find out.
If you want to try out your design skills on your own apartment, you can simply upload a floor plan of your flat on archilogic.com for a 3D model that will be prepared within 24 hours.
Start the tour above, or via this link. The animation will guide you through different aspects of the building and will finally leave you to furnish your Barcelona Pavilion.
- The camera icon will repeat the animation.
- The floorplan, dollhouse and person icon change the viewing mode.
- The black menu bar on the right provides most importantly the account, interior and sharing menu.