Thoughts on Mies’s Lemke House: Architecture—Feminism—Philosophy

“I had hardly reached Italy before I felt I was being addressed by . . . an element that made me very sad. . . . Look how in a landscape in which all the risings and fallings and measures and proportions came together in one clear melody, along with the lofty bell tower there was suddenly a smokestack, and everything fell apart. . . . We are used to it in the North. ”

— Romano Guardini1

“I remember the first time I ever went to Italy. The sun and blue skies were so bright. I thought I’d go crazy! I couldn’t wait to go back to the North, where everything was gray and subtle. ”

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe2

The Lemke House, built between 1932 – 33 for Karl and Martha Lemke, who had no children, on a pair of lots in the Berlin suburb of Hohenschönhausen (now Berlin-Lichtenberg), is modest. It’s the last house that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built in Germany, before closing the Bauhaus, owing to Hitler, and moving to Chicago. Karl Lemke, who ran a graphic arts business that catered to the art world, was a friend of the architect. That this work entailed a great deal of thought on Mies’s part is attested to by a huge quantity of preliminary drawings, starting from much more ambitious ideas.3 The economy was taking its toll; yet something excellent was envisioned. Two significant features of the project do not seem acknowledged, however: the role of a woman designer, and the fact that the house, small as it is, is an extraordinary example of the influence on Mies of his most admired living philosopher, Romano Guardini.

Ortega y Gasset once remarked that modern life is like an apartment; and this single-story house is pretty much like a mere apartment, with certain qualifications. First: it does not seem accidental how it sits so forthrightly upon the earth. In America there is nothing metaphysical about a building’s “first” floor; but while the German term Erdgeschoss is parallel to the workaday English “ground floor,” the German has an earthier sense (French is similar but citified, with rez-de-chaussée, “down on the pavement”). Second: by virtue of service areas being kept out of the way, phenomenologically we do experience something more like the uncrowded spaces of a house, even of the same size, whereas superfluous practicalities seem to impinge on the spaces of an apartment. This question vexed Mies, for, while planning this house he told the annual meeting of the Deutsche Werkbund, in 1932: “The concept of the apartment is totally unclear. In fact the apartment must be defined from the point of view of man. The question of the [praxis—crossed out] basic forms of houses, whether small house, large house—surely there are intermediate forms.”4

Structurally, the house couldn’t be simpler, based as it is on load-bearing brick in “English bond,” like that other radically simple anomaly that Mies would build in Chicago: the also much on-the-ground chapel at Illinois Institute of Technology, 1949 – 52. It could not have been more different from his recent “star” building, the stately Barcelona Pavilion, 1928 – 29, so celebrated that not being aware of it in 1930 was already considered a mark of philistinism.5

It’s been known that Mies’s girlfriend Lilly Reich designed some of the furniture of the Lemke House. I believe, however that she, working in Mies’s office, was responsible for the genesis of the basic ground plan. When I first broached this subject in 2015, I did say that the plan derived from a project for a “Ground-Floor House” by Reich for the Berlin Building Exposition of 1931, where Mies also built a “Model House”; but thanks to a careless remark in one of the standard books on Mies I reported that Reich’s went unbuilt.6 Just to see, side by side, the Reich 1931 plan and the Mies c. 1932 Lemke plan is to see substantial induction from the earlier to the later design.  

Because we’re dealing here only with the plan—and, later, the setting—of the house, it’s important to emphasize how primary the ground plan is for modernist architecture in general. Unlike a conventional architect beginning with how a house (even specifically an upper-middle-class house) is supposed to look, the modernist began by setting out a rational layout of spaces devoted to particular activities. Le Corbusier is famous for his doctrine of the building’s plan as “the generator,” as he puts it at the beginning of Towards a New Architecture (1923): “The plan proceeds from within to without; the exterior is the result of the interior.”7

Yet Mies is also terrific on the level of the plan, from a more reformist standpoint—and not only the nifty De-Stijl-like ground plan of the Barcelona Pavilion. More tellingly, I mean the adept but covert subdivision of a bounding rectangle. Floor plans of workaday classroom buildings at Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago in the ‘50s, show veritably lyrical attention to the division and subdivision of the overall rectangle, with astutely non-intrusive utility spaces so as not to break the plane of a wall and the volume of space it defines. Today, much recent, post-postmodern but illiterate building built by “suits”—businessman-builder bosses instead of artists—shows itself ignorant of this vital modern problem.

Lilly Reich is not credited with having anything to do with the disposition of the Lemke House. Not that her own architecture wasn’t itself influenced by Mies. A bird’s-eye view of Reich’s (likewise flat-roofed modernist) Exposition house,8 her first and only actual building, shows it with a carport whose roof was supported by two Miesian devices: one wall extended as a freestanding exterior wall, and spindly columns supporting the roof—both nods in the direction of the Barcelona Pavilion. Again, the Lemke entrance wall, off the driveway, has, high up, a horizontal pair of narrow windows, where the Reich house had one long narrow window similarly placed; yet Mies already had one long narrow window placed high up on the entrance wall of the Tugendhat House, at Bruno (Czech Republic), in 1930. So much for stylistic Miesianism. The essential point is that the Lemke House, which like Reich’s was planned for a couple without children, rose up from a ground-plan like Reich’s of only a year or so before, where Mies’s Model House was different.

Concerning the Lemke House, my thought is that, after frustrations with the multifarious project designs, Mies would have sat back with his Cuban cigar to reconsider not only his own Exposition house but also his companion’s, and thus settled on the basic ground plan of Reich, with its definite similarities to his final Lemke plan. Orienting the L-shaped Reich design so that the entrance hall is at the upper right, with the kitchen and living quarters similarly positioned in both plans, the Reich design is wider on what is Mies’s street front, with a bedroom wing not so deep into the site at right; while the Mies design is narrower in front, with a longer wing at right, coming close to its neighboring house on that side while allowing the study to benefit more by the garden terrace. Still, these divergences only highlight a remarkable similarity.

Apart from the bare bones of the ground plan as likely owed to Reich, the Lemke House testifies to another influence: Mies’s enthusiasm for the German philosopher Guardini, his almost exact contemporary. Guardini’s brief early classic Letters from Lake Como (1927) so struck the architect that he not only underlined most of the book but wrote enthusiastic words across entire pages of underlining.9 Reading it now, helps to set the scene for the house as a signal work of art, especially in respect to the site. We think of Mies as a “monument” kind of guy, but it’s probably a mistake to take his siting for granted (e.g., when he designed the plaza of the Seagram Building, the whole idea of tax benefits for open space was yet to come).

At the start of Letters from Lake Como the wonderful Lake Como itself strikes Guardini (whose family had emigrated to Germany from Italy) as a paradise unspoiled by modernity. Anything as modern as a motorboat categorically intrudes on ways of life that go back to antiquity, such as a sailboat’s lyric lines. Step by painful step, Guardini comes to see that there is no non-exploitative way to protect country life by screening it from modernity, which must wind up producing touristic sites for urbanites whose wealth derives from industry and commerce. No; we have to take the places assigned to us in history and do the best we can as moderns, taking heart that new wonders may be possible.

Guardini’s epigraph (above) might have been one of the rants of Cézanne, who called the incursions of industrial civilization on the landscape “the invasion of the bipeds.” On its very page, Guardini says, “The world of machines comes from the North, which also produces its motive force. In the South it will bring naked barbarism.”(Letter I; 7). But then we realize that humans live in culture, not “[i]n nature ‘untouched’” (Letter II; 10). Further along, Letters from Lake Como can only point up the Lemke House’s siting on this nice little “lake” (or pond) of the Obersee as being actually very much manmade, even industrial, having been built as a cistern for rainwater for a brewery across the street.

It is futile to despise modern civilization, even though Guardini already sees something like yuppie culture in the prosperous 1920s: “In many houses people live who are not suited for them; they merely inhabit them as though they were dressed in clothes that belong to others. They want to be autonomous, but only in the form of petty revolt” (VII; 62). However: “We must not oppose what is new and try to preserve a beautiful world that is inevitably perishing. Nor should we try to build a new world of the creative imagination that will show none of the damage of what is actually evolving. Rather, we must transform what is coming to be. But we can do this only if we honestly say yes to it and yet with incorruptible hearts remain aware of all that is destructive and nonhuman in it” (IX; 80 – 81).

As with the Lemke House on its post-industrial lake, new situations allow new possibilities:

I see buildings in which technology has been given true form. This form has not been imposed from outside but is of the same origin as the technological image itself, so authentic and self-evident that one might think that a properly constructed machine and a perfectly functional house had already been given artistic form—though this would be a mistaken conclusion since technological correctness is not itself artistic form. This form gives evidence of something greater—namely, that the technological means has been brought into relation to our vital feelings. If we have eyes to see them [a biblical phrase that titles a section of Le Corbusier’s book], there are everywhere advance evidences of the achieving of the great coming form by which the technological will be not merely adorned but truly expressed and molded. (IX; 92 – 3)

Today, this aspect of Guardini makes him prominent in Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home (2015), where conservatives ignore the Guardinian point that technology “can . . . also produce art and enable men and women immersed in the material world to ‘leap’ into the world of beauty” (Laudato si’, §103). At the time of the Lemke House, such advice on making cultural peace with modernity must have been only more welcome as Mies faced moving to America.

Can the feminist point about Reich and the philosophical point about Guardini be combined, on behalf of this worthy work of art? The curator of the Lemke House, Wita Noack, is right to insist that it’s an incipient Miesian “court house,” insofar as the volume of the house begins to enclose its terrace.10 This has a classical resonance in light of the Letters, with its section (Letter V) on the Greek notion of oikumene: the human realm. Considering that Hannah Arendt first studied philosophy with Guardini, let’s end with a phrase often borrowed from her by the great historian-critic Kenneth Frampton, saying that finally architecture concerns “the space of public appearance.”

Notes

  1. R. Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromley (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 1994), Letter I, pp. 4, 6-7; further quotations by letter and page.
  2. P. Blake, The Master Builders (New York: Norton, 1975), 221; qu. in K. Frampton , ‘Preface: The Unknown Mies van der Rohe’, 7-11, in D. Spaeth, Mies van der Rohe (London: Architectural Press, 1985), 10.
  3. L. Mies van der Rohe, The Mies van der Rohe Archive, Vol. III, ed. A. Drexler and F. Schulze (New York and London: Garland, 1986), q.v. On Mies: J. Masheck, ‘Reflections in Onyx on Mies van der Rohe’ (1986), in his Building Art: Modern Architecture Under Cultural Construction (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 95-109, 259-61.
  4. F. Neumeyer, The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art, trans. M. Jarzombek (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), 312.
  5. See Ö. von Horváth’s satyrical novel The Eternal Philistine: An Edifying Novel (1930), trans. B. Dorvel (New York: Melville House, 2011).
  6. Masheck, ‘Johnston in the Spirit of Mies,’ in Alan Johnston: Tactile Drawings (Berlin: Mies van der Rohe House, 2015), 43-45.
  7. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. F. Etchells, 1st ed. 1927 (London: Architectural Press; New York: Praeger, 1946), 8, 11.
  8. M. McQuaid, ed., Lilly Reich: Designer and Architect (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), frontispiece.
  9. See the extended discussion of Mies’s reading of Guardini in Neumeyer, The Artless Word.
  10. W. Noack, Konzentrat der Moderne: Das Landhaus Lemke von Mies van der Rohe; Wohnhaus, Baudenkmal und Kunsthaus (Munch and Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2008),156; quoting B. Bergdoll, ‘The Nature of Mies’s Space,’ in T. Riley and B. Bergdoll, eds., Mies in Berlin (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001), 103.

Contributor

Joseph Masheck

JOSEPH MASHECK, art historian and critic, has been awarded the 2018 "Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art" by the C.A.A.

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