Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Mies van der Rohe
Born in Germany at the end of the last century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. A leading member of the famous Bauhaus School, his great skill as a designer and architect was his ability to make the complicated look simple by using modern technology, new materials and mass production methods.
The revolutionary upsurge at the end of the First World War had a profound effect on many artists and designers. This was the period when Modernism was associated with left wing politics. In Russia and Germany in particular, new techniques and styles were developed by artists and designers as part of the revolt against the old order. Many of these changes reflected the rising aspirations of the working class.
Designers became involved politically, but with the defeat of the movement and the triumph of Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s many of these pioneers suffered censorship and repression. Mies van der Rohe was part of this radical movement in art and design. But with the defeat of the revolutionary wave, the establishment was able to co-opt many of the key features of Modernism--particularly in architecture. Mies van der Rohe's career reflects this.
As a young architect influenced by socialist ideas he pioneered the design of large public housing estates in the 1920s along with other radical architects like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. The current exhibition shows his workers' apartments in Stuttgart. In the 1930s he became the director of Bauhaus but was eventually forced to emigrate to the US as a political refugee from Nazi Germany. His commercial and industrial buildings in 1950s America helped define the modern architecture of the postwar period. The sleek Seagram office building in New York and his Lakeshore Drive apartments in Chicago are famous. They helped to establish his simple yet sophisticated urban style which became his trademark and made him such a powerful influence on modern design.
His chairs and furniture from the Bauhaus period are famous too. They were designed to be mass produced, for the front rooms of ordinary German workers. Instead they became fashionable with the rich and famous.
Mies van der Rohe is one of the great designers of the century. Unfortunately his idealism was appropriated by a system which he set out to challenge.
The Mies van der Rohe exhibition is showing at the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, as part of the 1999 UK City of Architecture, and runs until 29 August
From the bomb to the Beatles
The new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, From The Bomb to the Beatles, gives us a real taste of the 20 years after the Second World War. There are some really stunning examples of how visual layout can emphasise the contrasts of these eventful years. The contents have been selected to expose the contradictions between classes, dreams and reality and the overworked phrase 'a picture paints a thousand words' is certainly apparent here.
The exhibition starts with 'The land of the beginning again' and is full of details which provoke thought. One example of this is the reference to the rebuilding programme. The plate titled 'Architecture in Poplar' shows the illustration for Chrisp Street Market, my local market, as seen by the architect at the time, a definite improvement on the bombed area which it was intended to replace but reality is certainly far short of the designer's dream.
'The atomic age' dwells both on the benefits and the threats of the developing technologies. It starts with the Festival of Britain and ends with the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The beneficial effect that the fast development of materials, such as plastics, had on the majority of the population are well documented and balanced with the threat of the emerging atomic age. The very same people who were gaining from many varied material advances were being put at risk by the threat of nuclear war. The history of the emergence of the CND is brief but informative.
The affluence that was forecast in the 1940s took a long time to filter through to the working class. Things such as the slow derationing of food and rehousing in council houses took time. The building of council houses peaked in 1953 at 300,000 then slowed down with lowering standards and high rise blocks. The emerging idea of the 'home owner democracy' floated by the Tories was well established by the 1960s. There were major changes in social patterns with the development of television. Whereas in 1947 most people went to the cinema at least once a week, by the end of the 1960s the television had become the box in the corner that we have come to love or hate.
The changes that the increasingly affluent young made on social attitudes, from fashion to music, from theatre to television, are also presented. The emergence of Private Eye as the magazine for rebellious youth and the satirical That Was The Week That Was on television were both a response to and a reflection of the times. There was Mary Quant for fashion, Kennedy for political style and the Beatles, for musical direction.
'Times of rebellion without anarchy' was the description that summed up the exhibition for me. If you want to get a flavour of these years then this is a good selection. The book accompanying the exhibition is also a most enjoyable read.
From the Bomb to the Beatles, is at the Imperial War Museum, London. Juliet Gardiner's book accompanying the exhibition is published by Collins and Brown £19.99