Mies van der Rohe - The Barcelona Pavilion
Please link to this update after reading here.
In 1972 I had some skills in calligraphy and drawing, having used them for Art ‘A’ level. I had been seduced by the world of medieval art and International Gothic. Thames and Hudson were publishing sumptuous reproductions of illuminated manuscripts and I was powerless to resist them. Embarking on a degree in art history meant that practical skills were all but discarded. This was never a happy state of affairs as I trundled through and came out with a third-rate degree. Meeting my first-rate wife at the same time in Norwich would generate a much more meaningful certificate and will always count as huge compensation.
UEA’s School of Fine Arts and Music (FAM) was peopled by a stellar cast of academics at that time. I failed to take full advantage of their wisdom and enthusiasm but still remember them as terrifically accomplished and positive examples of the teaching profession.
Eric Fernie introduced me to the glories of Norwich cathedral on days when I shivered less with the cold than with the delight of revelatory intimate detail about the building.
Nigel Morgan appears since to have shifted his focus forward a few centuries... right up to the fifteenth. Back then he was all Carolingian, Insular and uncial... and so enthused it almost hurt.
It was Stefan Muthesius who would drag me kicking and screaming back into the twentieth century as he prepared a group of us for a subsidiary paper on Modernist Architecture. The contrast between its "less is more" approach and the visual minutiae of High Gothic is stark. But I was prepared. Walking daily in the 'Brutalist' UEA campus of Eaton Park had prepared me. I was already in a casual relationship with slabs of reinforced concrete. There, in seminars, alongside Gropius, Le Corbusier, Lloyd Wright and... well, others fade into comparative insignificance... was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. We studied his early visionary sketches for mostly unfulfilled designs and soaked up the continent-spanning works of his realised genius. And we looked at photographs of his iconic German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona.
We necessarily looked at photographs. Black and white photographs. The pavilion was commissioned months before inauguration of the Expo, completed on time and disassembled at its end in 1930 before a year had passed.
I first visited Barcelona in 1973 as a hitch-hiking student. I returned in 1996 with my wife and two sons on a day trip over the French border to visit Park Guell and have lunch at McDonald's. This March, a further twenty years later, I was able to look at, walk around and feel the impact of the architect’s genius. Since the late 1950s it was proposed to reconstruct the pavilion. Finally, in 1986, it rose again in the original location.
I was totally unprepared for the impression the building would make upon me. I have since filled in certain details of construction and read more analysis by art historians but the overpowering memory is that of wonder at the intensity of feeling created by such restrained and simple elements. I say restrained, but, of course, the polished marble is sumptuously rich. Yet, for me it does not shout out its luxury and decadence. Instead, it joins with other elements to calmly guide you round the space like a reassuring, concerned, loving parent might. You feel, at once, cocooned and free. All weighty things achieve a confounding lightness. The whole concept was intended to demonstrate the spirit of the Weimar Republic and "the clarity, simplicity and honesty" of Germany at that time. Modern architectural language expresses itself all around us now but I cannot remember being previously aware of it speaking to me so succinctly and with such assurance and conviction. It was poignant that most of the other visitors were groups of students experiencing Mies van der Rohe's design first-hand. They were discovering the building at the same age as I did but without that tantalising wait of forty-five years before actually seeing it.
Finding this picture of dignitaries at the pavilion's opening presented a lovely contradiction to me. These are people who sport the trappings of formal fashion. Yes, they have the restraints of convention and expectation, but I can't see them as anything other than helpless anachronisms in contrast with the space which has been designed for them. They seem rooted in time while, all around them, the ideas of one inspired person float and fly towards us eighty-seven years in the future.
I have interspersed pictorial ‘slices’ of my experience in this post. There is an album of selected pictures from my visit here. You can, of course find multiple images and sources to investigate further on the internet and in libraries.
Mine was a rather strange and special experience. My wife and I still enjoy so very much together. But for once I walked up the few steps onto the elevated marble slab floor on my own. Jan can be seen in one of my photographs, reflected in the building’s glass sheets. Footsore after a trek around Monjuic, the Miro Foundation and the Olympic park and stadium, she sat all the while on a bench about a hundred metres away. I waved once but never beckoned her over to share what I was basking in. This 'trial separation' actually elevated the whole thing for me. It was thrilling to be somewhere magical and to have the chance to enjoy it alone, without distraction. After nearly forty years of marriage, I was almost at ease with my selfishness. And, if the mild pangs of guilt do fail to subside, I have half-baked plans to return in another twenty years to walk together up those steps on our Diamond wedding anniversary.
Once again, it will be very difficult to prevent Professor Muthesius from being there. I'll set aside room for the rest of my old tutors on that distant bench vacated by my wife... or they might all just sit quietly on Barcelona chairs.