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BOOK

REVIEW - Building Desire: On the Barcelona Pavilion By George Dodds.Routledge, 2005.168pp. £22.50

Mies van der Rohe's German Pavilion for the international exhibition at Barcelona lasted just seven months. Opened by King Alfonso XIII on 26 May 1929 and demolished in January 1930, few saw it.

Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Alfred Barr initially excluded it from the 1932 'International Style' exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, as did Sigfried Giedion from the first edition of Space, Time and Architecture.

Mies declined the offer of re-erecting the pavilion for a Barcelona restaurateur after the show and Dodds suggests that with its thin steel frame and tar-papered plaster roof, the pavilion could not have been recast without major interventions. In subsequent publications Mies permitted an inaccurate plan of the pavilion to be reproduced, just as he allowed Lilly Reich's important role in its creation to be ignored. He had no qualms in allowing his past to be edited.

What was important to Mies were the 16 photographs of the pavilion taken by agency Berliner Bild-Bericht and now in the Mies van der Rohe archive at MoMA. They are the standard images of the 1929 pavilion published in his lifetime and subsequently.

Architectural magazines were just beginning to explore the possibilities of photography to create iconic images of ephemeral exhibition buildings, like those by Le Corbusier, Melnikov and Aalto. Only Mies' building - somewhere between a model villa and a deluxe department store display - has been elevated to such standing within its architect's work to have been rebuilt, on his centenary in 1986. It assumed this status through Philip Johnson's monograph in 1947, where it was seen as marking a critical link between Mies' German years and his later work in the United States.

Yet the photographs are not true representations. Mies and his Chicago assistant George Danworth directed precisely where some should be cropped; others were airbrushed with white or grey paint. Other features, like the chrome on the columns, were accentuated by flash lighting.

For Dodds, the photos are more important than the reconstructed building, which cannot convey Mies' intentions.

The 1986 pavilion highlights elements not immediately obvious in the black-and-white photographs: a red curtain most startles visitors today. At a time when we are being asked to consider the 'preservation' of buildings by computer technology, the argument of what constitutes a building is as interesting as the idea that we are seduced by photos rather than the real thing.

Two things spoil what should have been an interesting book. One is the quality and scale of the reproduced photos; Dodds contrasts the quality of the originals in the Bauhaus archives with the degraded copies held by Mies. The other is the infuriating American PhD speak that obfuscates much of the text. Better to go to Barcelona and decide for yourself if the recreation lives up to the photographs.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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