Mies Van de Rohe: 1929 Barcelona Pavilion

mr-8-2Barcelona Pavilion from Visitors Center, Catalan flag overheadAfter living over a week in an 1150 AD rural Catalan structure, we went “back to the future,” to the modernism of 1929 Barcelona. The Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. There were no exhibits held in this pavilion. Its simple form was intended as "a zone of tranquility" for the weary exposition visitor, attracted into the pavilion on the way to the next sight. Since the pavilion lacked an exhibition, the architecture itself was the exhibit. Passage through the locale was blocked so that visitors would have to go through the building to get to another pavilion. After the closure of the exhibition, the German government was unable to sell the pavilion so it was torn down in early 1930, not even a year after it was completed, the materials sold to cover its cost.

During the 1960s, architects and critics realized the architectural value of the pavilion and called for the landmark to be rebuilt. Mies van der Rohe's originality with the extravagant materials, such as marble and travertine, was not so much about the novelty of their use as in the ideal of modernity they expressed through the rigor of their geometry, the precision of the pieces, and the clarity of their assembly. Entry was a few stairs, and due to the slight slope of the site, visitors left at ground level in the direction of the "Spanish Village.” One could not walk in a straight line through the building; visitors were forced to make continuous turnabouts. The walls created space and directed movement. The bare structure had but a single sculpture, its curves contrast with the geometrical purity of the building, and site-specific furniture, the Barcelona Chair. mr-6-2"Alba" by Georg Kolbe, in the small internal courtyard and reflecting pool of the 1929 Pavilion

Mies Van de Rohe treated the entire site as continuous space, blurring inside and outside. The structure was a hybrid style, with some of the wall planes acting as supports. The floor plan is very simple. The entire building rests on a plinth of travertine. A southern U-shaped enclosure, also of travertine, helps form a service annex and a large water basin. The floor slabs of the pavilion project out and over the pool, again connecting inside and out. Another U-shaped wall on the opposite side of the site also forms a smaller water basin. This is where the statue, Alba by Georg Kolbe, stands. The roof plates are relatively small and are supported by chrome-clad, cross-shaped columns. This gives the impression of a hovering roof. The reflective columns appear to be struggling to hold the "floating" roof plane down, not to be bearing its weight.

Another unique feature of this building are the exotic materials Mies chose to use. Slabs of high-grade stone materials: Tinos verde antico marble, golden onyx, and tinted glass of grey, green, white, as well as translucent glass, perform as both structural and spatial dividers. In the reconstruction, materials of the same characteristics and provenance as the ones originally employed in 1929 were used. Thanks to black-and-white photos and original plans, Spanish architects were able to reconstruct the pavilion as a permanent structure between 1983 and 1986.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, like many of his post World War I contemporaries, saw the need for an architectural style representative of modern times just as Classical was for its epoch and Gothic was for an era of spiritualism. His clean and simple buildings made use of modern materials such as industrial steel and plate glass to define interior spaces. He strived towards a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of free-flowing open space. He called his buildings "skin and bones" architecture. He sought a rational approach that would guide the creative process of architectural design. He is attributed with the quotations "less is more" and "God is in the details,” both of which apply to this minimalist 1929 structure.

mr-3-2Marble, glass, and travertine planes intersect to form interior of the 1929 Pavilion in BarcelonaThe self-educated Mies painstakingly mined the writings of philosophers and thinkers for ideas that were relevant to his architectural mission. His architecture was created at a high level of abstraction, and his own generalized descriptions of his principles intentionally leave much room for interpretation. Yet, the building seems very direct and simple when viewed in person. Every aspect of his architecture, from overall concept to the smallest detail, supports his effort to express the modern age. The depth of meaning conveyed by his work, beyond its aesthetic qualities, has drawn many contemporary philosophers and theoretical thinkers to continue to further explore and speculate about his architecture. The Barcelona chair, designed especially for the Pavilion, is an example of his abstracted thinking. The form, similar to Roman folding chairs known as a Curule seat (upholstered stools used by Roman aristocracy), is thought to be the inspiration for the Barcelona. And despite the industrial appearance the Barcelona chair, it requires much hand craftsmanship. By transposing an ancient and regal design into a modern setting, the designer enjoyed instant acclaim. The chair was shown off perfectly in the environment of the Pavilion. Royal visitors, it is said, did not actually take advantage of this newly designed seating accommodation, but the chair quickly attained the reputation of being "a design worthy of kings."

Photography Credit: Stephanie and Steve Chambers