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Continental divide

review

Mies in Berlin At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 11 September (then Berlin and Barcelona)

Mies in America At the Whitney Museum, New York, until 23 September (then Montreal and Chicago)

Mies lies between being a god and being irrelevant; any interpretation will be criticised, but fortunately these two New York exhibitions are diverse and rich enough to offer something to all camps.

Although billed as a joint venture between MoMA and the Whitney, each gives a different Mies - separate interpretations of his two 30-year careers - but they are similar in their depth and quality. These exhibitions are not about Mies the man, the teacher, politics, or social implications - they are about the buildings, how Mies saw them, how he wanted them to be seen, and how we think of them today.

'Mies in Berlin' focuses on his lesser known, early projects (1906-38), and looks at them through a contextual filter. The exhibition starts with drawings by Schinkel, Behrens and Frank Lloyd Wright (their influences are immediately and continuously obvious) and another room covers G magazine (Gestaltung, form-creation), the journal of the G circle whose members included Mies, Richter, Arp, Hilbersheimer, Tzara, van Doesburg, Benjamin and Kiesler.

This is Mies rooted in a culture - a culture that is linked to tradition and is developed by the avant-garde.

Three types of projects are shown - urban, suburban and experimental. The urban projects are, by their nature, in the public domain, either as built works (eg the Weissenhof Housing, Stuttgart, 1925-27) or as published, but unbuilt, competition entries (eg the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, 1921): all show Mies' scale of ambition.

More important are the four experimental projects of the early '20s - the Glass Skyscraper Project, Concrete Country House, Concrete Office Building and Brick Country House. All the original drawings are in the exhibition, and they are big, immediate, raw but sophisticated - very different from the bland images of today. These four projects, disseminated through exhibitions and publications, established Mies' reputation, and are key to the future development of his work.

But the main focus of the exhibition is the suburban work, the private houses. These projects are relatively unknown (Mies reputedly restricted their publication), but they are interesting as they give a clear account of his spatial development (projects show the transition from traditional to centrifugal to courtyard to single volume types) and material exploration (render, to brick, to glass).

They also have an awkward elegance, and are so obviously similar to work being carried out by certain young(ish) European architects today.

The adjacent Lange and Esters Houses in Krefeld (1927-30), built midway through Mies' Berlin career, show this well. Both have brick cubic forms with large punched openings, but their plans reflect the different needs of the clients; they were separate commissions, designed together. Both have recently been restored and are now open as museums.

Their north facades are severe and almost institutional, but their mass is broken down to the south, allowing the volumes to interlock with garden rooms. They are very much transitional buildings; designed just before the seminal Barcelona Pavilion and Tugendhat House, they anticipate certain ideas.

Abstraction is sensed in the overall form and in the treatment of the windows, but there is still traditional detailing, and the idea of construction is not expressed (there is much unacknowledged steel behind the brick).

Original plans and drawings, including the only working drawing in the show (a 1:1 lintel and shutter detail), sit alongside new models, which put the houses in their immediate landscape context, together with new photographs by Kate Fingerle and Thomas Ruff.

Ruff 's work, h. l. k.01, with its saturated colour and deep black staring windows, gives, as Jacques Herzog commented, a prehistoric cave quality to an otherwise refined building. We see Mies in a new way.

But although the emphasis is on context, it is context confined to landscape and influences, nothing social. We are looking at sculptural objects, not lived-in homes;

the clients are only present in the names of their houses.

'Mies in America', which covers his work after he emigrated to the US in 1938 until his death in 1969, concentrates less on abstract qualities and more on the process of building. This is the classic Mies of glass and steel - how he developed his language of detail, and applied it to ideas of structure, space, skin and span.

These themes are effectively represented by four well-known projects - Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) (detail), the Farnsworth House (structure and space), the Seagram Building (skin), and the New National Gallery in Berlin (clear span). This presents a very singular view of 'International' Mies, albeit an established and acceptable one - useful, extremely clear, nothing new.

We see the evolution of a working process, from drawings to models and experimentation to the perfect solution. The quantity of sketches and working drawings of the corner details at IIT showed the struggle, and final resolution, in expressing the idea of the frame. Mies' early IIT buildings have a basic vocabulary of exposed steel, encased steel, glass and brick - the relationship between each depending on use, technical requirements (the classroom structure had to be fireproofed, but not the laboratories), and of course, aesthetic intent. It is somehow reassuring to see the process behind such iconic and deceptively simple results.

The later schemes are represented by models and archive photographs only; no process, just the solution. They show how Mies wanted the buildings to be seen, perfect and peopleless, on day one - classic Ezra Stoller photographs, fine models. Even Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's commissioned video of the New National Gallery is highly choreographed in an abstract Miesian way.

It is all extremely beautiful, but this just perpetuates the myth of a timeless Mies.

Buildings are not timeless; they are a response to a certain culture and they change. IIT, for example, is now in a fully mature landscape, but parts of it are in quite bad condition - some steels are rusting, ivy creeps up the walls, rogue air-conditioning units accrete. There is a restoration programme under way, and Rem Koolhaas is working on the site, but you do not learn that here. New photographs by Guido Guidi and Richard Pare are relegated to a side room, not integrated within the whole.

Both the exhibitions, despite their differences, present an aesthetic Mies, while showing how the different artistic and technological cultures in Berlin and the US produced contrast in his work. This contrast is similar to the polarity we have in architectural practice today: critical regionalism versus the International Style, one-off sitespecific versus the repetitive solution, colour and texture versus slick black-and-white.

Two weighty catalogues accompany the exhibitions; both are very academic (one essay has 340 footnotes) and are certainly not for the casual reader. The catalogue for 'Mies in Berlin' is much like the exhibition (wide ranging, new research), but the one for 'Mies in America' gives a broader perspective. Detlef Mertin's essay 'Living in a Jungle', about Mies and organic architecture, and Rem Koolhaas' project for IIT, for example, provide alternative views.

The depth of knowledge, power and money behind these exhibitions is extraordinary. 'Mies in Berlin', curated by Terence Riley and Barry Bergdoll, brings together the might of MoMA and Columbia University, and 'Mies in America', curated by Phyllis Lambert and K Michael Hays, is a partnership between the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Whitney, and Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Extensive archive material and an academic/ commercial collaborative structure - these things do not exist here. We can only follow Mies' dictum: 'Build, don't talk.'

Sarah Jackson is an architect in London

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