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BOOK

REVIEW

Mies van der Rohe:The Krefeld Villas By Kent Kleinman and Leslie Van Duzer.Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. 144pp. £25

In 1928, after the lean years since setting up his practice in Berlin, Mies van der Rohe, then 42, was enjoying great success - though the Depression and the Nazis were just around the corner. The Dawes Plan of 1924 had seen a massive injection of mainly American capital and a resultant building boom which he, as vice president of the Deutscher Werkbund, had recently benefited from - thanks to the patronage of Hermann Lange, for whom he had designed a very large, costly suburban villa, at Krefeld, 250 miles away.

This was now on site, along with a remarkably similar design for Lange's friend, Josef Esters, on the adjoining plot. But on the drawing board were two projects that would come to overshadow this odd couple in Krefeld and ensure Mies's lasting fame - the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat House.

Kent Kleinman and Leslie Van Duzer have employed an unusual methodology to re-examine these two adjacent villas, which are now used as gallery spaces. By taking the installations of four artists - Yves Klein, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Ernst Caramelle - as a starting point, they expose the many misconceptions in the received understanding of these works and their place in the Mies oeuvre and, provocatively, suggest their own reading.

Theirs may be a narrow beam, focusing on the aesthetic, but it certainly sheds light on why Mies and his acolytes were content to leave these buildings in the shadows.

'Klein's kleine Kammer', the opening chapter, becomes a discourse on the aesthetic of the interior: radical Modernism versus bourgeois comfort and the solace of art. Lange, active on behalf of the subsequent Nazi regime, nevertheless had a house full of what they termed 'degenerate art'. The gallery's attempt to recuperate a more Miesian aesthetic by careful post-facto deployment of Barcelona chairs ('the machinelike chair that no industrial process could yield') is sharply exposed, while the authors praise Klein's 'void room'. This whited-out space drew attention to the former organ chamber - a late demand of Lange's that 'disfigured' the plan, but which Mies nonetheless accommodated.

'LeWitt and the Art of Instructions' begins a more forensic examination of the construction of these two villas.

Werner Blaser's 1965 drawings of 'Miesian' brick bonding in the carefully redrawn Brick Country House project of 1924 are rightly denounced as a rewriting of history, yet all of Mies' campus buildings for the Illinois Institute of Techology in Chicago were shown in similar detail in Ludwig Hilberseimer's Mies van der Rohe in 1956, and such drawings formed an essential part of the coursework there.

It is shocking, then, to be shown that the 'English bond' of the two villas - a main source of their appeal - is a single brick skin with snapped headers. The chapter's closing observation - that these supposedly brick villas might just as accurately be called 'the steel villas' - is taken further in the next chapter, which details the 50,000kg of steel (350 beams) used in the Esters House alone.

'Serra needed a stable Mies as a pendant for his unstable installations. But his slabs do more than prop themselves up;

they simultaneously prop up a version of Mies that is, slowly, collapsing.' This is incisive writing. Such ambiguity in the use of brick was already evident with all the concealed steel supports for the Liebknecht and Luxemburg monument erected in Berlin in 1926 - another project that Mies was not keen to advertise, albeit for different reasons.

The penultimate section of the book suggests the misalignment of doors, passages and windows as a deliberate framing device, which is clearly illustrated by Ernst Caramelle's mural with its interlocking forms. This argument is reinforced by the lack, anywhere, of the Modernist corner window - Frank Lloyd Wright's dissolution of the box.

With the conclusion, 'Architecture, Acting', the authors move from fact to the speculation that elements of these buildings have been consciously deployed rather like Bertolt Brecht's stagecraft - his 'epic theatre'.

As defi ned by Walter Benjamin, such theatre 'must not develop actions, but reveal conditions': however, the previous pages have effectively shown this not to be the case for Mies. True, both men were highly self-conscious artists with a love of cigars, but there it ends. Brecht's 'down to earth' thinking would offer up a far more prosaic view.

David Wild is an architect based in London

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