Few authors could have written this book, and it reveals as much about Mies as it does about Dr. Detlef Mertins, who was uniquely qualified for the task. Mertins spent a decade researching and writing this monograph but sadly died before it was published, at 56. He spent the last 10 years of his life living Mies, and I cannot imagine a more touching and selfless tribute to one of the 20th century’s most influential architects.
860–880 Lake Shore Drive, 1948–51, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Photo courtesy of Phaidon
Growing up with a father who was an architect and a mother who worked for
Knoll, Mertins’ appreciation of the built world began in childhood. Born in Stuttgart and raised in Canada, he had an understanding of German and North American culture, which served him well in his roles as architect, historian and writer and as professor of architectural history and theory at the University of Pennsylvania. An avid reader, his Toronto home had to be structurally reinforced to support the weight of his library of more than 4,000 titles that were recently donated to Penn.
The Riehl House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
A love of books is something Mies and Mertins shared, and it was through the study of books — especially the unusual ones in Mies’ library — that the author gives us insights into the ideas behind the architect’s work. Mies’ concept that architecture can enable a type of self-experience is connected to his readings of Nietzsche, Kant and Goethe — philosophers he was introduced to by his first client, Alois Riehl.
“Through the collaboration of architect and client, the Riehl House achieved a remarkably sophisticated alternative to the architecture of reform, one that emphasized critical self-reflection, cognition through experience and personal development through dialogue with nature,” Mertins writes.
The Riehl House — a neo-Biedermeier structure with peaked gable roof and eyebrow dormers — and Mies’ relationship with this client are presented by Mertins as the seed from which everything grows. “The house is at once closed and open, opaque and transparent, autonomous and interwoven in the spaces and landscapes around it,” Mertins writes. “It is an independent three-dimensional object that functions at the same time as part of a greater unity with nature.”
The Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Photo courtesy of Phaidon
Mertins’ encyclopedic knowledge of architecture, literature, art and history invites a multilayered understanding. He presents Mies through those disciplines and presents those disciplines through Mies. It’s like studying two sides of a coin simultaneously. We get to know the architect through the avant-garde of the 1920s, the rise of modernity and the application of organic architecture, and we glean a better understanding of those subjects through Mies’ challenges and experiences. This multidisciplinary approach makes the text demanding but worth the effort.