The moral condition of the materials | Javier Mozas

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Mies van der Rohe con A James Speyer y George Danforth en el estudio del Departamento de Arquitectura, Armor Institute, Chicago, 1939 | Mies van der Rohe, Lehre und Schule. Werner Blaser. 1977
Mies van der Rohe with A James Speyer and George Danforth in the studio of the Architecture Department, Armour Institute, Chicago, 1939 | Mies van der Rohe, Lehre und Schule. Werner Blaser. 1977

Mies van der Rohe tenía la creencia de que el arte de la construcción debía de basarse en los materiales. En el programa docente que envió a Henry T. Heald, decano del Instituto Armour (más tarde se convertiría en el Instituto de Tecnología de Illinois), el 10 de diciembre de 1937, incluía tres categorías, Medios, Fines y Planificación-Creación.

Mies van der Rohe had the belief that the art of construction should be based on materials. In the teaching program he sent to Henry T. Heald, dean of the Armor Institute (later to become the Illinois Institute of Technology), on December 10, 1937, it included three categories, Media, Purposes, and Planning-Creation.

The students had to start in architecture with a knowledge of general theory and a professional training, to then deepen in the study of materials, that is, in the media with which it is built.


What did the materials mean for Mies?

First of all a search for the truth. Mies attributed to each material a moral condition that corresponded to its properties and that was corroborated by use and tradition. According to Mies, only a use of the materials from their true essence could save the architecture of the idolatry of the object. Just as a letter of Cicero led Saint Augustine to the study of philosophy, the texts of Saint Augustine led Mies in his search for the truth. To the withdrawn personality of Mies, the precepts of St. Augustine were morally correct, which advocates that the truth is not to be sought in the external world, but that it is achieved through meditation and the look within oneself.

The truth dwells in the inner man, wrote Saint Augustine.

In the opening speech1 that Mies delivered in November 1938, when he assumed the position of Director of the Architecture Section of the Armor Institute, he indicated to the students that, beyond the aims and before the formalization, is the “disciplinary path of the materials”.

“Where does the interlocking of a house or a building appear more clearly, than in the wooden constructions of the ancients?” (…)

“In the construction in stone we find the same thing. What natural feeling speaks from her. What a clear understanding of the material, what safety in its use, what sense of what you can and know how to do in stone. Where do we find such dominance in the structure? Where do we find more healthy strength and natural beauty than here? With what understandable clarity a roof beam rests on those old stone walls, and with what sense we cut a door in those walls.” (…)

“The brick is another teaching teacher. How spiritual it is and its format, small, manageable, good for any purpose. What logic shows your system of proportions. What vitality your rigging game. What sovereignty has the simplest wall cloth. But what discipline does this material require? Thus, each material has its own qualities, which must be known in order to work with it”.2

Mies considered that learning materials was a long and arduous task and his goal was

“Get order in the incurable chaos of our days”.

That same month, twelve days before he delivered this speech, the first antecedents of horror took place.

Maintaining order in the face of chaos was a difficult challenge imposed, at that time, by Western democracies against totalitarianism.

A rational, reticular and modular order that matched well with words such as economy, series and production, base principles of American Fordism and its massive production for a massive demand. However, America did not feel comfortable with Mies when she spoke with that deep feeling about architecture. American pragmatism evaporated, through the action of the market, all the moral concepts on which Mies intended to solidify his theory, such as the immovable principles of architecture and the search for truth through materials.

In America, Mies was better understood when talking about technology.

With it, it was possible to identify the progress of American technology with an architecture based on the constructive rigor, the slenderness and the transparency provided by steel and glass.

“That also applies to steel and concrete. We recognize that nothing is achieved by the material, but only by the correct use of the material. Neither the new materials assure us superiority. Every subject is worth what we do with it.”.3

Mies ended his speech at the Armor saying:

“There is nothing more linked to the goal and meaning of our work than the profound words of St. Augustine: ‘The beautiful is the radiance of truth”.4

Javier Mozas, architect, a+t research group
Vitoria-Gasteiz, juny 2004


1 Inaugural Address. 1938. Neumeyer. Artless Word. 316-317. Original title: Antrittsrede als Direktor der Architekturabteilung am Armour Institute of Technology, November 20, 1938. W. Blaser: Mies van der Rohe, Lehre und Schule, 1977.

2 Ob. cit. 1.

3 Ob. cit. 1.

4 Ob. cit. 1.

Full text originally published in the revista a+t 23. 2004. page. 4-9, y en Rashomon. The triple truth of architecture.

Aurora Fernández Per – Javier Mozas

Aurora Fernández Per es periodista y Javier Mozas es arquitecto y urbanista. Ambos son fundadores de a + t architecture publishers, 1992, y editores de la revista de arquitectura a + t desde 1992 hasta la actualidad, así como fundadores en 2011 del grupo de investigación a + t – cuyo objetivo es promover la ciudad compacta a través de la investigación y el análisis-. Son además autores y editores de numerosas publicaciones, incluida la serie ‘Densidad sobre vivienda colectiva’.

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