In the years after the war, metaphors of construction and reconstruction became popular, and architects, builders, and engineers were greatly admired. The new approach to architecture was modern in its lack of historical styles yet traditional in its principles. Architect Le Corbusier encouraged this modern classical approach of purity, clarity, and refinement.
The building that most clearly expressed these principles was the Barcelona Pavilion (1928–29), designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). Built for the 1929 Exposición internacional (International Exposition) in Barcelona, the German government’s pavilion held the opening reception. Simple, unembellished, and featuring a flat roof, Mies’s structure differed greatly from the surrounding pavilions that referenced previous styles and periods.
While the extensive use of glass and the chrome-plated columns show its modern setting, the Barcelona Pavilion is a “synthesis of classical form and modern technology,” following the Miesian belief that it was possible to reconcile new with old. The building mixed new materials, such as glass, steel, and chrome, with classical ones, such as Roman travertine, green Alpine marble, ancient green marble from Greece, and golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains. In another form of unifying the contemporary and the ancient, Mies also used new materials for the specially designed chairs, ottomans, and tables, which borrowed the x-shape of the old Roman curule. Installed near a shallow open-air pool was another nod to classicism, the allegorical sculpture by Georg Kolbe (1877–1947) titled Morning (Der Morgen, 1925). This pairing of the classical body surrounded by clean contemporary architecture made the pavilion’s “marriage of the modern and the antique complete.”
When the exposition closed in 1930, the building was disassembled but not forgotten. As time went by, it became important not only in Mies’s career but also in 20th-century architecture as a whole. In 1983, the Fundació Mies van der Rohe was founded with the express purpose of rebuilding the pavilion. The reconstruction adhered to the original characteristics and materials as closely as possible. Completed in 1986, it stands on the original site and is open to the public.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
- Look at several views of the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion on the Fundació Mies van der Rohe Web site at miesbcn.com/en/foundation.html. Instruct students to create a list of adjectives that describe their responses to the structure.
- Is this a place that your students would want to experience in person? Explain.
- Mies van der Rohe believed that architecture could reconcile both old and new. Did he achieve this goal in the Barcelona Pavilion? Explain.
- Mies adopted the motto “less is more” to describe his way of arranging a building’s components to create an impression of extreme simplicity. Ask the class to respond to this phrase. Do your students agree or disagree? Explain.
- In collaboration with the industrial designer Lilly Reich (1885–
1947), Mies also designed a leather-upholstered metallic chair
especially for the pavilion. This icon of modern design is still
manufactured today. The Barcelona Chair was adapted from a
Roman folding chair known as a curule. Have students compare
the chairs and answer the following questions.
o Which would you prefer to own? Why?
o Which would you prefer to sit on? Why?
Next your students can research another historical style of
furniture and incorporate one or more elements into a
contemporary design. When they finish, they can share their
drawings with other students along with the antique inspiration
- International expositions have captivated imaginations and
inspired ambitious, unusual architectural projects. Students can
research plans from previous expositions and world’s fairs and
then design a pavilion that expresses how they would represent
their country to the world. They can use traditional drawing
materials, Google SketchUp, or another program to create 3-D
models. Download Google SketchUp at sketchup.google.com/
- The triumph of the Barcelona Pavilion was short-lived. When
Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was elected in 1933, the Weimar
Republic ended, and a few months later, the Nazis closed the
Bauhaus, the influential design school where Mies was the
director. Mies emigrated to the United States four years later
and continued to work as an educator and architect. Visit
to view some of his American buildings, including:
Crown Hall, Chicago, 1950–56
Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois, 1946–50
Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago, 1948–51
Seagram Building, New York, 1954–58