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Mies' fertile years

Mies van der Rohe 1905-1938 At the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Whitechapel High Street, London E1 until 2 March After the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Altes Museum in Berlin and the Caixa Foundation in Barcelona, 'Mies van der Rohe 1905-1938' ends up at the Whitechapel Gallery in London's East End - a slightly incongruous setting for the man who added 'van der Rohe' to his name to sound more distinguished.

This is a fine exhibition in chronological sequence; the shortage of original drawings compensated for by models, walk-through simulations and some exceptional new chromogenic photographs by Thomas Ruff.

Considering that Mies died in 1969, this showing of his formative work is certainly overdue. Once again we have to thank the Americans for reminding us of the pre-war avant-garde in which Mies played a part; the RIBA may have given him a gold medal in 1959, but its name does not appear in the list of sponsors for this show.

Mies' early work shows some dramatic shifts. It is quite a shock to see the huge perspective of his 1910 Bismarck Memorial - truly awful, a grim Neo-Classicism that would then be resurrected by the Nazis - and then, just around the corner, the transparency of his office project on the cover of the radical magazine G (pages of which can be turned interactively).

The 1920s marked this dramatic development: coming under the influence of De Stijl while still pursuing clients for private villas, Mies obtained a commission from Eduard Fuchs, the new owner of his earlier Perls House, for a monument to the murdered communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Its abstract form was reminiscent of Georges Vantongerloo's sculptures reproduced in De Stijl, and its expressive material - broken and reject bricks - was suggested by Mies as a reminder of 'walls against which such people were shot'.

Actually they were clubbed to death by the Freikorps militia, and the monument was the first thing to be destroyed as the Nazis came to power in 1933. The background of those turbulent times remains strangely absent in this exhibition, as are people in the images of the buildings.

The 1920s were an incredibly fertile period for Mies, culminating in the justly famous Barcelona Pavilion of 1929 - a synthesis of the Classicism and Neoplasticism that Bruno Zevi suggested were contradictory elements in Mies' development. Certainly the spatial concepts used in Mies' exhibition designs at this time were in contrast to the simple logic of the Concrete Office project and the accompanying manifesto, with its emphasis on economy, open plan, and curtain walling - 'skin and bones'.

The massive perspective is one of the original drawings on display; executed in pencil and pastel, two others show morning and evening shades of the Concrete Country House project of the same period. The totally glazed Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, usually seen as a perspective suggesting links with Expressionism, appears here also as a direct response to the triangular site, thanks to an excellent model.

An interesting, concise film shows how Mies juxtaposed art and nature through such elements as courtyard and winter garden, and saw his free-flowing exhibition spaces as a manifesto for change. His demonstration of this with a half-scale model at the Berlin Baustellung of 1931, however, came in for some hard criticism from Karel Teige: 'a more or less irrational adaptation of the Barcelona Pavilion with added toilet and bathroom supremely impractical and governed by formal sculptural intentions.' An early example of the lifestyle versus dwelling controversy that is much to the fore today, as Miesian interiors feature in expensive TV adverts.

The saddest part of the show illustrates Mies' pathetic attempts to appease the Nazis - the Reichbank project and, most obviously, the sketch of his proposed facade for the German Pavilion at the 1934 Brussels Exhibition, a little swastika over the symmetrical entrance. On the other hand, another sketch - a study for a mountain house - anticipates the enormous influence he would have on those Californian architects after his successful move to the US.

Mies may have been a man of the spirit, who would quote St Augustine - 'Beauty is the splendour of truth' - but it was his style that appealed to those pragmatic Yankees; a mixed blessing. His most innovative work is all contained in this pre-war period. Refinement and a recapitulation of Neo-Classical themes would follow his move to the US; this much in common with an earlier exile, Igor Stravinsky.

David Wild is an architect in London

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