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.