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Mies: Super Career, Irregular Documentary

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Mies van der Rohe: Regular or Super? is a 60-minute Canadian documentary film of the legendary 20th century architect (1886-1969) that’s currently on a tour of North American museums, but its distributors tell me that it should be available on DVD in a month or so.

Two-thirds of Regular or Super is a fairly conventional biography of Mies that would fit in nicely with the programming on A&E or the History Channel. But it’s book-ended with an annoying postmodern twist. The film begins and ends with lengthy shots of one of Mies van der Rohe’s last and sadly, least important buildings–an Esso gas station (hence the title), along with interviews with its customers.

The gas station was built on Nun’s Island near Montreal, to fuel and repair the cars of those who lived in the series high-rise condominiums that Mies’s firm had designed to open in conjunction with Expo ’67, Montreal’s World’s Fair. Near the end of documentary, we learn that Mies had little to do with this gas station; it was designed by Mies’s chief lieutenant, Joseph Fujikawa. Mies merely glanced at his plans and signed off on them.

Fujikawa appears several times in Regular or Super. He was a student of Mies’s at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1940s, joined Mies’s architectural practice in the 1950s, and later became one of the principals in Fujikawa-Johnson, Mies’s Chicago-based successor firm, before passing away in early 2004. (Full disclosure: I met and spent a half hour interviewing Fujikawa on a sort of Miesian architectural pilgrimage to Chicago in late 1997; he appeared to be a heck of a nice guy. He was also an excellent architect in his own right, who could design buildings far more impressive–and far larger–than an Esso gas station.)

Fujikawa who one of several employees that Mies hired to staff his architectural practice to fill the overflow of commissions it was receiving in the 1950s and ’60s. They received many of their projects thanks to Mies’s chief benefactor, who is also mentioned in Regular or Super, Herb Greenwald. In 1946, he was a 29-year-old former rabbinical scholar who had wanted to break into the burgeoning post-war real estate boom, and was looking for a top-flight architect to be associated with his projects. To his surprise, he discovered one of the best, living and teaching in Chicago. Greenwald died in a plane crash in 1959; his successor firm continued an association with Mies’s architectural office, and hired it for the Nun’s Island project.

From Aachen To Berlin

Mies van der Rohe was born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, a city best known as the location of Charlemagne’s cathedral, where he was buried in 814 A.D. But it was in Berlin where Mies rose to prominence as an architect in the 1920s after a series of revolutionary sketches for all-glass skyscrapers.

However, the actual buildings he built in Germany’s inflation-ravished Weimar Republic were on a more modest scale. But by the end of the 1920s, he began to gather attention, as his career rapidly gathered steam. First, in 1929, he built the German national pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition, more commonly known as the Barcelona Pavilion. Then in 1930, he followed it up with a house for the Tugenhadt family of Brno, Czechoslovakia.

The Tugenhadt house was an attempt to create a livable, domestic version of the Barcelona Pavilion. It became one of the most influential homes of the 20th century, with its enormous plate glass windows, tubular steel furniture, and open planning concepts.

With the Depression causing building opportunities to rapidly shrink even as his European career was its apogee, Mies turned to teaching, and became the last head of Germany’s High Monastery of Modernism, the Bauhaus, before the Nazis closed it down in 1933. Because of the Nazi’s general disgust with modern architecture, Mies was unable to find work in Germany, and was ultimately fearful of his life.

He ultimately left Berlin in the mid-30s to become the head of the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Architects of Fortune by Elaine S. Hochman is a superbly written look at this period of Mies’s career; it parallels his life in the 1920s and ’30s with that of a frustrated architect who would eventually carve out a career in German politics during that same period: Adolf Hitler.)

The “White God” Effect

Because of Hitler’s art background and hatred of modernism, the Nazis persecuted numerous modernists in the 1930s. When many of these artists emigrated to America, they encountered what Tom Wolfe would famously dub the White God effect. Eager for work, Mies, Walter Gropius (who founded the Bauhaus), and other European architects and artists were somewhat astonished as they became superstars in the American art and intellectual world, which had long taken its cue from Europe. As Wolfe wrote in From Bauhaus To Our House:

The reception given to Gropius and his confreres was like a certain stock scene from the jungle movies of that period. Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie & Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses–who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant.

The White Gods!

Come from the skies at last!

* * *

Mies was installed as the Dean of Architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago [later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology]. And not just dean, master builder, also. He was given a campus to create, twenty-one buildings in all…Twenty-one large buildings, in the middle of the Depression, at a time when building had come to a halt in the United States–for an architect who had completed only seventeen buildings in his career–

O White Gods.

In actuality, the IIT campus was, and is, surprisingly modest in appearance, especially Mies’s Depression-era buildings, all of which were built on Spartan budgets. But once World War II ended, and the American economy took off and war-related construction restrictions were lifted, Mies began to build, and in quantity. For better or worse, the skyline of urban America is to this day shaped by Mies’s glass box designs, as the interviewees of Regular or Super explain.

One of those interviewed for the documentary is Phyllis Lambert, one the most important figures in Mies’s American career. Her father was Samuel Bronfman, owner of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, the famous distillers. In the mid-1950s, she convinced him to hire Mies to build Seagram’s office building on Park Ave, thus giving New York what is arguably its best post-World War II building. The Seagram Building’s interior contains two restaurants, the Four Seasons and the Brasserie. While the Four Seasons is a landmark–and islandmarked, along with the Seagram building itself–the Brasserie was almost an afterthought. Philip Johnson, who also designed the Four Seasons (and detailed much of the Seagram Building’s interior spaces), designed it as a sort of a minimalist coffee shop in the late 1950s, but it closed after a mid-1990s fire. Regular or Super spends quite a bit of time exploring the space and interviewing Elizabeth Diller, the architect in charge of remodeling, but precious little time is explaining the restaurant upstairs, even though a few of the documentary’s interviews were filmed there.

Lack of Footage Distorts Story

Of course, considering when the documentary was made (presumably early to mid 2003), Johnson, who passed away just this month at the incredible age of 98, was already probably not in the best of health.

The omission of a serious discussion of Johnson’s role in Mies’s career in this film highlights a problem with many documentaries. To produce something visually interesting, the documentarian almost has to “go where the footage is” when assembling a film, which may or not be the most important elements of his subject’s life, and can dramatically distort how a story is told in documentary form.

Curiously, there’s also no motion picture footage of Mies himself, although his daughter produced her own film about him in the late 1960s for the Knoll corporation, which manufactures his furniture designs. Or audio, even though he was interviewed by the BBC in the late 1950s.

Those are problems with Regular or Super, but not as big of one as the gas station framing device. Mies’s story is the story of 20th century modern architecture in America, its rise in prominence after World War II, and its decline, which began in part, as a backlash against Mies’s austere minimalism, and only accelerated after his death. (That his acolytes such as Johnson built many inferior buildings didn’t help matters, either.) There’s a great story here, but you have to fight the filmmakers to get to it.

“I don’t want it to be interesting; I want it to be good!” Mies has been quoted as saying. Too bad the filmmakers sacrificed the latter and decided to get cute, instead of spending more time fleshing out the story.

Those who want the story of Mies told conventionally are advised to pick up his mid-1980s biography written by Franz Schulze. It’s still the best single book written about the architect. But second only to seeing the buildings in person, is watching them beautifully filmed in Regular Or Super. Whatever its faults, the handsome cinematography is not one of them.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Ed, you’re the best. Great article; interesting and informative all the way through. You know your subject and you’ve done your homework. I’ll look for the documentary.

    Have you ever read Daniel Boorstin’s The Creators? Pretty good general guide through Western art and culture, I thought; a good crash course in a great deal. It has an interesting section in it on architecture, Louis Sullivan in particular. It may not tell you anything you don’t know, but you might enjoy it.

  • Huh?

    “In 1946, [Herb Greenwald] was a 29-year-old former rabbinical scholar who had wanted to break into the burgeoning post-war real estate boom, and was looking for a top-flight architect to be associated with his projects. To his surprise, he discovered one of the best, living and teaching in Chicago.” Yes, because Chicago is a backwater, *especially* in terms of its architecture . . . .

  • marac

    Ed. I feel you are a little too tough on the makers of this documentary. I love the opening snowy Esso scene. I wasn’t expecting this..It’s a surprise..a nice hook. And as you mite know..most great docs open with a something to grab the viewers attention.
    By the end of the film, after learning so much about Mies and his work from others, we discover the brilliance behind the design of the gas station. How many gas statons fall under that category? I learn that with imagination even the bland gas station can add something positive to our architectural landscape. We can do so much better when designing any building…and the Esso station in Quebec proves that.
    The rest of the documentary features wonderful interviews with the subjects given some nice backdrops. The photography here surely must have been nominated for awards as the buildings are as beautifully shot as I have seen. The filmmaker also makes wonderful use of the cool jazz music throughout this doc.
    I mite agree that some footage of Mies could have been used. However, I’m not sure this doc suffered for lack of Mies footage. I mite have added some grainy b and w footage of Meis superimposed over some of his glass towers..for a neat effect..I’m sure the editor would have loved playing with something like that.
    That’s a minor quibble. If I were to find any critism of this piece is that there really isn’t a journey here….However, somehow this filmmaker pulls off a delightful piece. And kudos to the person who came up with the catch title of ‘Regular or Super.’ Bravo!

  • http://johnwoolfrey.com John Woolfrey