Washingtonians, Mies and Design — 3/27/2012

Some D.C. people got into a snit about Google’s homage to Mies van der Rohe on his birthday.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/comic-riffs/post/mies-van-der-rohe-google-doodle-celebrates-german-architects-crowning-achievement/2012/03/26/gIQAOoiJdS_blog.html

This is from March 27, 2012:

It is always sad to hear Washingtonians post about architecture.

The Google Doodle depicts Crown Hall, named for Sol Crown, who was Henry Crown’s brother. The Crowns were west-siders like their friend and longtime client… Hyman Rickover. It was for Admiral Rickover, himself a product of the Chicago Public Schools, that one of their companies, General Dynamics (Electric Boat division) built the earliest elements of our nuclear U.S. Navy, which went on, as 1/3 of the strategic triad, to win the Cold War.

Crown Hall transcends any number of architecural precepts.  For instance, it is a clearspan building, in which its skeletal support is actually exterior to its space (an exoskeleton).  This not only eliminates interior columnar supports, but it unifies the interior in a room of grand purpose. In its case, teaching young designers.

This is essentially the idea behind the Washington landmark known as the Capitol Dome, itself creating a unified space — the Rotunda — which represents not only the United part of United States but also the unitied legislative branch (that works in theory…).

If you care about this stuff, the point here is a Miesian step to a future discussed by a great influence, Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright’s quest after spatial unity is embodied in Oak Park’s Unity Temple, and his design of broad open rooms in Robie, Coonley and Tomek.  Mies said Wright saved him 20 years — because they both headed in the same direction.

Unified space and exoskeletal design also distinguish the Farnsworth House, Mies’s temple of a weekend retreat in Plano, Illinois, and a great day trip from Chicago. (But it’s classical and Crown Hall is gothic.)

Mies’ D.C. Public Library, alas, lacked the budget for this type of design, so in it you will find great design, and trademark attention to detail if you care to look, but also columns and rooms.  It is still a stunning legacy and deserving of support and protection.

I lived in D.C. 11 years, and love the city very much, though the fact is very little of its architecture is distinguished. The best bet is probably the East Wing of the National Gallery, or parhps the Hirshhorn.  Generally one finds FDR-era late classical revival blah.  Friends like Ollie Carr never saw the point of great design, and D.C. has the built form to show for it.

I’d point out the Metro was designed by Harry Weese, who studied every line Mies ever drew, and there is a new Mayer Brown building, I think by Helmut Jahn, on the wretched K Street that gives Washingtonians a hint of what is going on elsewhere.

Mies’s greatest honor — as an immigrant son of the U.S. — was receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. (I wonder if the Crowns attended.) I have no sense that President Johnson knew anything about architeure except the words “Brown and Root,” but he did all of us proud by acknowledging modernism’s greatest force, as Google did again today.  Thank you, Google.

Explore posts in the same categories: Current Events, Reading List, Reflection

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