Bauhaus Innovation

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

From the opening of the 20th century to the present, there are three massive talents in the study of architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, the midwest American of Prarie School fame, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier) of France who popularized the use of slender columns on modernist first floors and created some lasting furniture designs, and Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, the German practitioner of Bauhaus minimalism and another designer of original furniture made to this day.  Houston only has one structure by any of these figures that is publicly accessible, and fortunately it’s convenient to all.  The Cullinan Hall and Caroline Weiss Law buildings of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston are Mies Van der Rohe originals, two of the last buildings he designed before his death in 1969.  They combine to form one of the finest structures in the world.

Cullinan Hall/Caroline Weiss Law Hall constitutes the first major extension of the original classic revival building at the joining of Montrose and Fannin that curves along Bissonnet, and the facade is the distinctive glass-and-black-metal one close to the east, north and west sidewalks.  In addition to exhibit space it contains the museum library, administrative offices and a film theater, all designed according to Mies’ rigorously clean perspective.

Recently an underground tunnel was added to allow indoor access to the newer structures to the east (the large new Beck building and the new parking garage).  The section along the Bissonnet sidewalk facing the Glassell Art School is one of the main entrances to the MFA Houston complex, often used for gala balls and fundraising occasions.

The buildings are instances of Mies’ method of using structure that consists of “almost nothing” (as he put it).  Maintaining classical perspectives and orientations, he makes use of brick or stone walls, plate glass, marble flooring and steel I-beam framing to create only what is needed to enclose the space and no more, the use-only-what’s-needed approach being distinctive to the 1920’s Bauhaus school of design to which Mies subscribed.  Walls can be made opaque with white curtains (two stories tall as are the north walls) and this huge second-story north space (almost the size of a football field) has movable non-structural white dividers that vary in placement as needed for different exhibitions.  This space is unbreached by any internal roof support.  From the outside, one can see why: the roof beams fly over the roof, extending over the entire structure so as to support the roof by simply hanging it under the skeleton rather than lifting it from the lower side.  This is in the manner of Mies’ earlier designs for the Illinois Institute of Technology campus in Chicago, except that he curved the massive design to fit not only the curve of Bissonnet Street but to join with the curve of the original building’s corners, which did so.

Not only was Mies making use of the cutting-edge material of plate glass (sections so large that entire walls could be made from it) only just possible at the turn of the 20th century, but he used the steel I-beam (also conceptually new) as the basis of the standardization of sections that could be either prefabricated or quickly built onsite after quick design due to almost no parts needing customization.  All buildings were custom jobs at one time; many still are.  Mies, like Wright, saw that new materials could be used in novel ways.  He further saw that to eliminate tacked-on ornament but retain classical perspective with high-quality materials (even traditional ones like stone or brick) gave a solid design that could be built faster due to the component parts being familiar to crews and designers in advance.  Stocking only standardized components could further bring price down, and simplicity of assembly created fewer failure points in environments of poor soil stability or potential earthquake.  Many aspects of modern construction that the industry enjoys today were pioneered by Wright & Mies (who were friends) and we have local examples of this leap forward right in the center of town, with the MFAH structures.

I’ll be doing more stories detailing the MFA Houston’s impressive assets.  For hours and upcoming show schedules, click here.

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