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Archive for November 28th, 2011

In his biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Franz Schulze says that the reason Mies said “Less is more” is that he didn’t speak English very well.  That sounds like a joke.  It’s true, Mies learned English in middle age.  But Schulze may have come up with the quip out of irritation at how the saying is being bandied about. He may have been tired of its extreme pithiness and then its subsequent casual overuse. You can hear “Less-Is-More”  from people who have no idea where it comes from, in what context it was used or who originally said it.

In 1937 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at the age of fifty-one, was invited to teach architecture at IIT in Chicago, after heading the architecture department at the Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus innovators had grown up with Victorian clutter, sentimentality, devotion to antiquity, deceptive uses of materials, and social stratification. The Bauhaus, founded in 1919, was a school of design dedicated to finding a new visual vocabulary for all artifacts, from teapots to theater costumes to buildings.   The way to achieve these ends was through technology.

It’s easy to see what Mies meant by “less.”  What did he mean by “more?”  More what?  Well, more integrity, more honesty, more awareness, more equality, more thoughtfulness, more compassion.  The Bauhaus people, like all modern artists, thought that by cleaning up the decorative affectations in our visual world, we would become more truthful.  More moral.

Can’t say we’ve arrived at that ideal.

But Mies’s  wonderfully quotable “Less-Is-More” has certainly gotten twisted and satirized.

In 1966 architect Robert Venturi  published “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,”  both of which he said were just fine. Main Street was fine, Las Vegas was fine.  “Less,” he said, “is a bore.”

Since the 70’s the optimism at the heart of Less-Is-More has been replaced by irony and self-referencing.

While we now live with irony and self-conscious despair in our art and artifacts—oh, and tattoos– “Less-Is-More” keeps surfacing to consciousness and slipping off the tongue.  Ignorant of its derivation, people will say “Less-Is-More” when they’ve just moved into a new apartment but can’t afford the Crate-and-Barrel couch yet.  Mies’s monkish mystery is now constantly trivialized.  Unlike Schulze, however,  I don’t mind because when I hear it used, even by the ignorant, I’m reminded of what he meant.

Passing a hair salon not long ago, I read “Mess is More” in the window.  This turns out to be a slogan promoting a hair product that makes your hair look excessive, in a sort of seedy, cluttered, Victorian way.  Precisely the stuff Mies was revolted by.  So I walked on and reviewed his buildings in my mind and thought of his courage and that made my day.

Top: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, design for Berlin Hochhaus, 1919. Iron & steel skeleton and glass curtain wall.  Couldn’t be built in the Germany of the 1920’s for economic and political reasons.  Lake Point Tower (just West of Navy Pier), 1960’s,  was designed by two of his students, George Schipporeit and John Heinrich as an homage to Mies’s 1919 vision.

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