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Andrea Tarsia's take on the early work of Mies in Berlin

Sunday's gallery talk at the Whitechapel's 'Mies in Berlin' exhibition was clearly not intended for the cognoscenti - starting as it did with a brief rundown on the International Style as 'linear, sheer, flat and smooth', with a 'pervasive influence on contemporary and corporate building' ranging from Canary Wharf to Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern, and David Adjaye's Ideas Store. And, interestingly for those critics who have condemned architecture exhibitions as doomed to be boring by the very nature of the exhibits, and those in general who perceive modern architecture as being inherently unappealing to the lay public, it attracted a large and eager audience.

Indeed, the so-called cognoscenti have been rather quick to criticise this exhibition as a flagrant challenge to the master's maxim, 'Less is More'.

Crammed with a rich and diverse collection of artefacts, many of which Mies himself never wanted to be publicly displayed in case they should sully the aura of purism and rigour around his work, it provides, however, a refreshing alternative to the insubstantial nature of many architectural exhibitions which invest disproportionate effort in the design of the exhibition frame itself.

As Andrea Tarsia explained, 'Mies in Berlin' is intended to show the totality of work produced by Mies in the first part of his career, and has grown out of a significant reassessment of that oeuvre. In that sense, it is a proper, scholarly exhibition, the like of which is rarely seen in the world of architecture. It represents a celebration of the beauty and finesse of the architectural drawing and model, and a message to the public that the greater part of architectural production, embodying a pure intensity of intellectual and emotional energy, takes place in the studio, not on the building site. Indeed, only a fraction of this achievement is ever translated into real buildings and spaces, and the rest is rarely seen or acknowledged at all.

As Tarsia made clear, a great number of the projects exhibited here were never built, but that does not make them any less important. On the contrary, it was as unbuilt work that schemes such as the Kröller-Müller villa design, which Mies took with him to the US, the Friedrichstrasse glass skyscraper, or the concrete country house, exerted their powerful influence. The rejection of the first of these for public exhibition by Gropius, on the grounds it was 'not the kind of architecture we need', was the catalyst for Ludwig Mies' reinvention as the radical architect Mies van der Rohe - represented by his prompt abandonment of suburban family life for a more avant-garde existence in the city centre.

Maybe it was this change of lifestyle which accounts for the impracticality of his domestic spaces, as assessed by Tarsia. But on the other hand, as she put it, they were 'incredibly gorgeous to be in' - and since no exhibition designer can ever recreate that quality, it seems better not to try.

Andrea Tarsia, head of exhibitions and projects, was speaking about the Whitechapel Art Gallery's current exhibition, 'Mies in Berlin', which runs until 2 March

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