The Barcelona Pavilion

The Barcelona Pavilion

Did Mies van den Rohe make a lasting contribution to architecture when he built the entrance pavilion to the German section of the 1929 Great Exhibition in Barcelona? After all, the space’s purpose was to house innovative products of the nation. He gave it an entirely different purpose. He sited the building away from the other halls. He used expensive materials and added unexpected refinement to a temporary building at a time when Germany was still reeling from repaying costly WW1 reparations.

I propose to argue he demonstrated a keen understanding of the architects that preceded him and he added a great deal of knowledge so those who followed him could learn.

The site chosen for the pavilion was deliberate. He reasoned, visitors would appreciate a mental break from the onslaught inspecting thousands of new ideas, new products, and new ways of doing something old. The use of site was to become a signature of his. When he later moved to Chicago and earned the commission to build the Seagram building he deliberately set it back in a court, back from others along the street.

It could be argued that, to have busy people held up in a building without any quickly reasoned escape route was a folly. But that doesn’t appear to have been a problem.

Mies worked in the office of German Architect Peter Behrens, the man responsible for the AEC building. This giant building borrowed something from Greek architecture in that it had an enormous base. Van der Rohe borrowed this idea from Behrens. Although this building, by comparison, was tiny he gave it an enormous base. And to enter the building the visitor had to climb a set of stairs. By climbing the base the structure of the pavilion was disclosed, step by step. Through this simple choice, the building reveal added to a sense one was moving into an important area.

To climb up a very large base and find so little there was a risk Mies was prepared to take.

The reveal must have been extraordinary. Once on the plinth the guest was presented with something new. Instead of a building enclosed by walls. This building had voids. For a start it couldn’t all be seen at once as you might if you walked into a hall. There you could run your eye around the enclosed space and see the dimensions of the walls, the floor , the ceiling and the ornamental features. This had all of that but your inclination led you through the building much like it does when in a labyrinth, despite it being a series of 6 stone walls of straight lines. At every turn you were directed to examine the extraordinary detail of this neo classical industrial building. The surfaces were reflective. He had terrazzo floors throughout. Your eyes met stone, onyx, marble, travertine, large panes of glass, clear, white, green and black. There was water in a small pond and a much large one. Under the ceiling ones eyes met chrome metal pillars.

One of the most common pieces of steel, is steel “angle-iron” it has ubiquitous uses because it is strong and light. It is never used as it was in the pavilion. Van den Rohe when bolted, or welded, four pieces together in a cruciform and sheathed it in a chromium wrapper he gave it new life. He used the steel as eight columns to hold up the roof. The thin flat plane of the roof also used hidden steel to give it the strength enable it to appear to float above the space below. To resolve the need for stability the solid block walls, hidden behind reflective stone veneer, perform that function in a perfunctory manner.

The notable features of the building are the mixed geometry of the horizontal planes of the floor, the ceiling, and the roof, and the vertical planes of the walls and glass. In an apparent trick to give lightness of it. A trabeated system as seen in Greek buildings existed in this building although it is not noticeable. The building’s roof formed a flat beam resting on columns.

Were the materials used as efficient as it might have been if the walls had been wood? Would a better solution have been to use the Gropius method of hanging glass, as he had in the Fagus shoe factory? After all Gropius had also worked with van der Rohe so he could have used similar methods to make the pavilion yet her preferred his own solution. Had he used an arched roof would it have been more appealing to the eye? I think not.

The Barcelona Pavilion was only supposed to be a temporary building. To build so innovatory a structure demonstrated how new materials, glass and steel, would carry architecture into the new century. Like all artists van der Rohe borrowed from the past, he used what he wanted from his contemporaries and he found new answers to the age old problem of providing shelter with what was available.

The Postscript is that a century after his birth, and 56 years after it was dismantled and sold off as scrap to partly pay for the exhibition, a reconstruction was opened on the same site in recognition of his conception. The new building has the same ornamentation as the sleek steel chairs designed by his collaborator, Lilly Reich, and Sculpture Morning by Georg Kolbe in an outer small pond.

Time to set things right. Part 3


Many year before the world read, or listened, to Alain de Botton or Kevin McLoud you had an interest in architecture. It started when you were at school and it was heightened when you commenced tertiary study. At that time you found the most effective way to study was to swot in the civic library because it was only a few block from your dorm.

But you are no swot and you were too easily distracted by the variety of books, and magazines available.. You spent too much time on those magazines; Architecture Today , and Design. So much that the intention to swot and assemble the information of the lectures of the day was forgotten. Perhaps it was your academic interest however you had the sense to recognise the limits of your poor record at school and you dabbled at the edges in these publications rather than commit to certain failure.

In the sixty years since then you have remained interested in good design and style as an interested bystander and you are incandescent with rage at what is happening.

The source of most fundamental of human rights is found in the UNHCR. On housing it states,

“The human right to adequate housing is more than just four walls and a roof. It is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity”

(Reference –

“I love you.” These were the first words spoken to me by a girl in grade 4. She said them as I walked around on playground duty on my first teaching round. (I am reminded of her words a few months short of sixty years ago.) The school was overflowing with children. I am now guessing the Tate St Primary School in East Geelong class had children from thirty different language groups then.

This child lived in an area of social housing. Geelong was an industrial hub for the greater western district of Victoria. The city was a distribution centre for wool, wheat, timber, oil refining, tractors, carpets and cars. Victoria was the centre of the country’s wealth in post WW11. Consequently it had an insatiable need for workers. These workers needed immediate housing, and the State stepped in to help.

The need for housing and classrooms was overwhelming. Holmesglen Technical School, later to become Holmesglen technical college, taught building. This place developed new building processes that enabled the government to quickly build new suburbs of social housing. East Geelong had its share of mid height brutalistic flats built in the Baurhaus style. It also built hundreds of independent bungalows of light timber construction and concrete kit homes.

The residents, from all corners of the globe, became the backbone of the country because they worked in repetitive factory jobs others rejected. It happened, regardless of their previous occupations, because an absence of skills in the English language held them back. The government took a small percentage of their wages as rent – so they quickly became financially secure as many families had both parents working. Some even worked two or more jobs.

What their suburbs did not have were centres for socialising. Life for our migrant cohort was relentless. It was isolating and this caused family disruption, and in time, social problems. Certain suburbs became notorious, are still notorious, for antisocial adult behaviour. (For instance, in Geelong people still think badly of Corio, Norlale)

That was yesterday. In the past government played a leading role in housing. It accepted it was best equipped to fill this basic need quickly. Times change – the government sold off much of its stock over the years. This was because most had become dated or uninhabitable. Once most Victorians (around 80% owned their own homes. The state, and some charities, now provided housing for around 3 – 3.5% of all housing. Alarmingly many people are homeless today.

The rental market is mainly in the domain of private investors. Government policy has allowed tax breaks for investors and they invest with self interested motives. Cheap rent is a thing of the past. Tenants have fewer rights than owners so many people pay big rents for unsuitable premises.

It has reached the stage the breaks given to investors have the effect of locking out new homeowners from old suburbs.

The upside is interest on loans have never been cheaper. The downside is the affordability is steeper. (Once a family could pay off principal and interest on a home loan in twenty years with the initial loan taking about 25 – 30% of the average weekly earnings. Today with at 20% deposit it will take 55 x-60% of the average weekly wage and 45 years to own a home.

Today a new home buyer can (usually) only buy a home in a distant suburb. Profit is the motive at every level of what comes next. This new suburb is the sole responsibility of a developer who has purchased a tract of farmland. Before any development starts the developer denudes the topsoil, installs drainage and basic infrastructure and commences a scheduled selloff of home allotments. The actual building is done by a bevy of selected national builders.

The nearest development is Armstrong. If you read the development brief it reads like a new Camelot.

Despite all I read, all I understand is the motive remains profit. Although it is designed to become a new city unlike Corio or Norlane once were. It will take fifty years to assess whether it has worked any better than the government plan did years ago. Housing persons is a first right, nevertheless once they have a roof over their head they need to feel loved as that loveless child once made clear to me.

Armstrong is really just a dot on the map. Australia currently has hundreds of similar dots all over the country. Pick a city and it will be being developed this way.

Is the new way going to end with the horrific results of another Grenfell Tower Fire? Many of the buildings look fine but are they? Few if any meet the design factors the owners really want because the house they buy is a compromise of affordability and style.

Don’t get me started on (largely) unoccupied city towers that are basically vaults for the surplus capital of the wealthy. Capital has no interest in the unmeasurable things like style, structure, design and substance found in magazines like Architecture Today and Design.

If I had become an architect I would be like many of today’s architects. I would be caught trying to satisfy the greedy wants of my clients instead of the humble need for aesthetics.

Alain de Botton and Kevin McLoud have tried to teach us good architecture is worth the investment and not to count the cost of anything less.

Thanks for reading. Now please have your say. You can educate me to open my mind.

This photo of the Tate St School was posted on a history website it is from a class in 1958 two years before I had Amy first teaching round there. Note the number of kids one teacher was expected to teach.