Source: Mies’s Collages Up Close and Personal

“The Significance of Facts”: Mies’s Collages Up Close and Personal (Neil Levine) – Notes

  • Mies chose the pictorial medium of collage as the one best suited to his expressive purposes
  • The readymade images were not neutral in political/cultural terms
  • Method of appropriation and application implicit in collage technique soon informed the system of structural expression he developed in his IIT buildings
  • Became his way of characterizing/representing “the will of the epoch”
  • Convention Hall Collage
    • 3’ x 4’ collage
    • produced to illustrate what the building might actually look like when in use
    • Franz Schulze:  “Mies’s motive in making the collage must have been more poetically representational than technically instructive”
    • Made of 3 horizontal bands
    • Single vertical element (American flag) hanging near left edge
    • Republican imagery for a city controlled by Democrats
    • Collaged imagery condensed a visual representation of core symbolic moment of American democratic political process
    • Most powerful political statement of architecture in Cold War era
    • Blurs boundaries between modern technology and modern mass culture – submerges crowd of people beneath deep walls and roof structure

mies_convention hall collage

  • Clement Greenberg’s phrase “homeless representation” – somewhere between abstraction and traditional illusionism
  • Continuing effort by Mies to pomote an architecture of geometric abstraction as expression of collective ideas/technological prowess of new National Socialist state (classical representation favored by Hitler)
  • Concert Hall Collage
    • Created by pasting colored paper and reproduction of Maillol sculpture over interior of assembly plant photo
    • “space eddies in all directions among interior planes of subaqueous weightlessness” (Johnson)
    • “here interior columns have been eliminated.  They are replaced by a vast steel truss of the sort used in airplane hangars or factories…Mies suspends completely separate wall and ceiling planes”
    • instead of designing the building himself, used a photo of one already built, into which he inserted his spatial arrangement and iconographic treatment through collage
    • building as an “assisted readymade” (Duchamp phrase)
    • unlike Resor House and Museum collages of paper, this was a gradual/deliberate process of negation (erasing, defacing, masking evidence)
    • image of self-absorption that defines a zone of silence within an interior of machine toold, motors, metalworking
    • elements of collage erase almost all evidence of war

mies_concert hall (kahn image)

  • His work underwent significant change by being rendered through collage
  • American collages had physical imprint of real-world elements, speaks of search to construct a new practice/identity, profound change
  • Resor House (Jackson Hole, WY)
    • Two collages – one looking south, one north
    • Collages are perspectives seen from living room that bridges the stream
    • Compositions of cut and paste photos that sandwich the room
    • Compress the space into a strange, depthless void
    • Foreground becomes background and vv
    • Architecture as construction disappears in this “photographic tabula rasa”
    • Sense of disorientation, displacement – physically reinforced by play on distance/perspective
    • Singular drama of the scene – seems like nothing else is there but the mountains
    • Spatial discontinuity, sense of alienation contrasts with Mies’s earlier designs

mies_resor house 1

mies_resor house 3mies_resor house 2

  • Difference b/w seamless continuity of the drawing and abrupt transitions/dislocations of the collage
  • Alexanderplatz (Berlin)
    • In earlier photomontage, new is highlighted in contrast to the old – modern building foregrounded, surrounding environment is in dreary relief (priorities reversed in Resor House collages)
    • Continuous surface and hierarchically gradated design show architect in control
    • Manipulating existing urban fabric, asserting new presence in center
    • Collage maintains environment’s “otherness”


  • Museum for a Small City
    • Collages of museum’s interior dependent on Resor House – same type of planar composition
    • Completely different from dynamic, diagonally based German/Soviet compositions (Lissitzky or Schwitters)
    • Driving idea:  to create a space for Picasso’s Guernica so “it can be shown to greatest advantage,” becoming “an element in space against a changing background.”
    • Nature becomes calm background for culture
    • Flat cutouts describe a perspectival space where Picasso’s painting (only scene of activity) is isolated in space and time – an event still unfolding
    • Reaction to terror of a new form of technological warefare
    • Construction of a “museum-without-walls”

mies_museum for a small city

  • War is naturalized and aestheticized by act of collage (in Museum, painting is framed by two works of art – in Concert Hall, evidence of war is obliterated)
  • Mies’s collages become a denial of war itself
  • Ambiguities of collage (as opposed to unified/totalizing character of photomontage technique he explored earlier) – became architectural correlative of his evolving political thought
  • Question of representation came into play around 1945 – start of construction on building at IIT – Mies externalizing steel structure of the building – acknowledged the applied (collaged) character of elements by stopping them just short of the ground
  • Collages provided a basis for this development
  • I-beam was new to his vocab, contrasted typical cruciform support he favored earlier
  • Abstraction of form came into conflict with “reality” of photographic image
  • Farnsworth House – physical reality of steel structure in background of Concert Hall is brought into the foreground as the declarative image of the building
  • Concert Hall was on the cusp of Mies’s changeover from cruciform to I-shaped column
  • Concert Hall as inversion of Resor House:  in the house, physical reality of the readymade imagery is given to nonarchitectural elements; in concert hall, architectural structure is made physically present through the photo
  • Realities of construction forced Mies to make distinction between real and ideal, and thus give evidence of deception
  • Change from one material to another read as a sign of artistic progress and quality – image of this sign being the illusion of representation
  • Representation (of human body or trees of primitive hut) substantiated the myths in which forms were grounded
  • Steel mullions were a “reiteration” and not a transformation of what was underneath
  • Mies’s collaged I-beams don’t represent something other than what they are, simply function as sign of what is not there to be seen otherwise
  • I-beams redefine process and meaning of representation in modern terms – matter of signification
  • By definition – representation is a matter of concealing something else, something suggested by its replacement as well as something we’re dissuaded from thinking about by the act of replacement
  • Mies’s wartime experience as viewed through collages as a time of profound/substantive reorientation

Levine, Neil.  “The Significance of Facts:  Mies’s Collages Up Close and Personal.” Assemblage 37.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1998.  Print.


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