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Reflections on Mies

Fear of Glass: Mies van der Rohe's Pavilion in Barcelona By Josep Quetglas. Birkhauser, 2001. 192pp. £17.50

In 1988 an essay by Josep Quetglas on the Barcelona Pavilion was published in Architectureproduction, edited by Beatriz Colomina. The themes of that article remain in his new book, Fear of Glass. For Quetglas, the pavilion is the empty house of Germany at the onset of Fascism and the 'dispirited reflection' of German glass architecture: the empty stage of an empty spectacle. The agents of this emptiness are the reflective surfaces of the pavilion's walls and pools.

Quetglas' thesis is not new. Earlier texts, such as Architecture and its Interpretation by Juan Pablo Bonta, describe the pavilion in terms of flowing space and freedom of movement. But most recent discussions tend to associate it with nihilism, emptiness and the control of the gaze. Occasionally a negative interpretation is given a positive slant.

For example, Manfredo Tafuri identifies a noble and quiet resistance to capitalism in Mies' 'mute' architecture.

Fear of Glass is elegantly designed and full of arresting images. Divided into three untitled acts, each with three scenes, its structure is that of a play. This is mostly a reference to the idea of the pavilion as a stage. It does not inform the character of the writing, except in act three, scene three, where the theme of emptiness comes to the fore: 'As this scene has been performed with no audience, actors or stage, there is no trace of it.'

Quetglas writes with wit and verve but provides only a negative interpretation of the pavilion. Others, like the artist Dan Graham, supply a more complex reading.

Graham recognizes that the reflective surfaces of the pavilion, and of post-war corporate Modernism, have the ability to exclude 'outsiders'. But they also offer the means to consider the perception of self in relation to others. Of his own work, Graham writes: 'The first pavilions are also philosophical or socio-psychological models referencing the spectator's ego and visual perception process relative to the 'other' spectators or audience.'

One contentious issue for interpreters of the pavilion is how it has been received. For example, Ignasi de Sola Morales, Christian Cirici and Fernando Ramos dispute Bonta's claim that the pavilion did not receive favourable reports at the time of its construction. One section in Fear of Glass, composed of comments on the pavilion and the ideas that surround it, is valuable but it could have been more extensive. Walter Benjamin, one of the commentators in this section, considered composing The Arcades Project, his study of nineteenth-century Parisian arcades, solely of quotations. As it has aroused so many interpretations, it would be possible to produce a very large book of comments on the pavilion.

Fear of Glass is interesting, but it lacks the subtlety of Robin Evans' essay 'Mies van der Rohe's Paradoxical Symmetries' because Quetglas never questions his argument. Like most critics, including Evans, Quetglas refers to a single Barcelona Pavilion when there are three, each slightly different. The first is the 1929 pavilion, which due to financial and technical difficulties did not always conform to Mies' design. The second is the pavilion in the 1929 photographs, which represents an ideal image of Mies' design, and brought the pavilion fame. The third, the 1986 pavilion, is a reconstruction of the 1929 photographs as much as the 1929 building.

The pavilion is an architectural icon, not only because it is seductive and much copied, but also because it has most often been perceived in conditions similar to that of the artwork. Between 1929 and 1930 it was an exhibition building to be viewed, between 1930 and 1986 it was known through photographs, and since 1986 the reconstruction's status as exhibit, gallery and historical monument discourages everyday use. The history of the pavilion implies that contemplation is the experience most appropriate to buildings, affirming the authority of the architect and denying that of the user.

Dr Jonathan Hill is director of the MPhil/PhD architectural design programme at the Bartlett

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