In the 1960s James Stirling asked Ludwig Mies van der Rohe why he didn’t design utopian visions for new societies, like those of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City or Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse. Mies replied that he wasn’t interested in fantasies, but only in “making the existing city beautiful.” When Stirling recounted the conversation several decades later it was to the audience of a public enquiry convened in London – he was desperately trying to save Mies’ only UK design from being rejected in planning.
It couldn’t be done: the scheme went unbuilt; the drawings were buried in a private archive. Now, for the first time in more than thirty years, Mies’ Mansion House Square will be presented to the public in both a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)—Mies van der Rohe and James Stirling: Circling the Square—and, if it is successful, a book currently being funded through Kickstarter by the REAL foundation.
Described by Prince Charles as “a giant glass stump” and Richard Rogers as “the culmination of a master architect’s life work”, Mies’ elegant bronze office tower is still controversial – even half a century after its conception. A key element to the scheme was the creation of a large public square to the east of the site, adjacent to the City Mayor’s residence Mansion House. In some respects, this space was the greatest genius of the scheme. Mies took a scrambled, dangerous street pattern surrounding the Bank of England and rationalised it perfectly with a single move. Underneath the mess of medieval laneways was an almost invisible Roman grid, which nearby neoclassical buildings had already begun to try and revive in the preceding century. Mies added a kink to Queen Victoria Street (one of the diagonal streets leading towards Bank), the product of which was a new almost geometrically perfect square.
In the late 1930s Mies had been forced to close the Bauhaus and flee Nazi Germany. As a result, there is a profound rupture in his work with two very distinct periods – one before and one after his emigration to America. The significance of Mansion House Square is that it was one of only two projects designed for Europe in the 25 years between the end of the Second World War and his death in 1969. He was extremely particular about the commissions he accepted, and we can therefore assume that his London tower was to stand alongside the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin as a loaded message to the Old World. Mies’ London scheme is, therefore, unique – a striking lesson in how rationalist modernist architecture should address the ancient urban contexts of Europe.
When Mies came on a site visit to London in the mid-1960s he immediately realised that the module of his planned tower was out of alignment with an adjacent building by Lutyens. The entire module was enlarged and floor heights tweaked so that the horizontal lines between the structures closed off the square like a large urban room. Mies’ great sensitivity to context is remarkably consistent across his lifetime, from the Riehl House in 1907 to Mansion House Square sixty years later.
There is no fantasy to Mies’ thinking. He worked almost exclusively on single or small clusters of buildings, using incredible precision to harmonise his designs with their surroundings. He didn't write manifestos, he built them. His ambition was not revolutionary, but reformist – in other words, Mies attempted to transform and reframe what had already been done, rather than imagine a tabla rasa (which in any case is always a kind of fiction). In conversation with Stirling, Mies had allegedly concluded on utopias with a remark that is either immensely arrogant or strangely humble: “If architects are not happy adding to the existing context, it is because they are unable to adapt their own style sufficiently to blend and harmonise.”
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