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Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Review: 2G 48/49

2G 48/49 Mies van der Rohe: Houses edited by Moisés Puente
Editorial Gustavo Gili, April 2009
Paperback, 180 pages

As the cover photo to this double issue of the Spanish architectural magazine 2G attests, when one thinks of the houses of Mies van der Rohe, the Farnsworth House immediately springs to mind. Overlooking the Fox River near Chicago, the composition of glass, steel, travertine and wood is a house most distinctive, a museum piece notable for its transparency, purity of form and structure, and ability to attract architects from all over the world. Philip Johnson may have built his Glass House first, but the detachment of Mies's design from the ground signals something much stronger than Johnson's at-grade solution. Mies would follow the Farnsworth House with two more single-family residences, but it was only in his unbuilt Resor House designed to span a ravine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming -- a project predating Farnsworth by about ten years -- where the framing and flattening of nature achieves its fullest potential. These two projects, in their distance from the earth, turn architecture into a canvas and nature into paint, a phenomenon that architects still strive for today in the numerous glass houses found in all corners of the globe.
How Mies managed to reach the apparent pinnacle of the Farnsworth House is a voyage documented and retold endlessly, though a focus on his residential oeuvre is nevertheless incomplete. Billed as the first collection of all his houses built in Germany and the United States, this beautifully photographed and carefully documented double issue illuminates the movement from German beginning to glass houses that can be seen as extensions of the high-rises he is known for in his late career. This illumination is aided by all three contributors to this 2G, editor Moisés Puente's house descriptions and essay, Beatriz Colomina's particularly eye-opening essay, and the newly-commissioned photos by Hans-Christian Schink. The latter is marked by bright whites and dark darks, but the contrast helps in giving depth to the shadows and make the less-than-ideal conditions of shoots like the Farnsworth House's gray autumn day become a positive and result in magnificent photos.
Colomina's essay elevates the exhibition projects and competitions of Mies's early years as key to his development as an architect, including the media's role in shaping his perceived identity. Mies did not start as an avant-garde architect, but he skillfully became one via the above and his relationship with art collectors, of which he was one. To have all of Mies's houses in one bound collection -- including unbuilt projects in the magazine's nexus -- is beyond convenient. It is well-crafted and valuable investigation into the continuity (and discontinuity) of the master's architecture as read through the all-important building type of the single-family house.

(As an addendum to this review, I'd like to ask 2G and other publishers who do not tab the first line of flush left, ragged right paragraphs to consider otherwise, or to consider another layout that makes paragraphs more recognizable. On one particular page in this double issue what looks like one big paragraph is in fact three, a fact not apparent when the last line of each paragraph ends close to the right-hand margin. The online equivalent of such a layout can be found at blogs like BLDGBLOG and Subtopia, though I come across such muddled paragraphs far too often in books these days. I don't understand the appeal, minus making the text appear more solid, dense.)

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