One of the very few certainties in life is that the best books are out of print! When, as now with Peter Carter's Mies van der Rohe at Work, the situation is remedied by reprinting (with a fresh preface by the author and a foreword by Phyllis Lambert), it is a cause for celebration. Perhaps this exception to the rule may herald better times: the re-emergence of books of interest and distinction in architecture as well as other art forms.
The first thing to be said about Carter's book is that it is a serious read - a painstaking and carefully researched record of one of this century's most influential architects and teachers. It is not for those who seek smut or speculation. The text is presented in a straightforward manner, with splendid illustrations, comprehensive data organised in terms of Mies' principal building types, and no diluting comment.
In this manner the images are able to speak powerfully for themselves. They substantiate the aphorism of St Thomas Aquinas that Mies was so fond of quoting, 'Beauty is the splendour of Truth', and one of his own, 'I don't want to be interesting, I want to be good'; and also one of mine, taken from Wren, that 'the aim of architecture is eternity'.
It is all these dimensions that Carter's book brings so vividly to bear on the sensibilities of the reader: the timeless quality of the designs which take their pedigree from the Classical idiom of Greece but are informed by the structural and constructional honesty of the Middle Ages; and the way that the language for the building types of those respective periods was reinterpreted by Mies with the technology of our own times.
The result affirms the proposition that a deep understanding and knowledge of the past is essential if we are to learn to cope with the present, let alone come to terms with the future. It is also a resounding endorsement of the age-old tradition of perfect proportions, meticulous craftsmanship and the use of fine materials.
The logic of the whole body of Mies' work, by no means prolific, is inescapable, but this is because of its carefully considered nature and the strict application of its governing rules. It is in every way the antithesis of the architecture of the New Burlesque, a cynical trumped-up bonanza of frothy confections and anachronisms that masquerade as inventive art.
The great Berthold Lubetkin, a firm admirer of Mies, once castigated these ephemeral designs as 'laborious displays of contrived riddles and puzzles, typical of a zany, goofy architecture which has been demoted to the level of high pressure public relations and which aims only to put itself across by any means. Such buildings are not architecture but packaging glued together with high grade epoxy or neoprene.' As Mies used to say: 'One does not invent a new architecture every Monday morning!'
Carter first studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology before working in his office. His book is an authoritative work of reference for students of architecture, practitioners, art historians and the enthusiastic amateur, such as myself. For the author it is a personal tribute to his teacher, colleague and friend.
Mies was a towering genius whose creativity combined beauty with function and economy of line. Distilled over a lifetime, and as distinct as a drawing by Rembrandt, his work is expressed by his own limpid aphorism - 'Less is More'.