Robin Schuldenfrei (PhD) is a tenured Lecturer in Twentieth-Century Modernism at The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. Her research focuses on the subjectivity, materiality, political agency and social impact of architecture and its objects. She received her PhD from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and previously held tenure-track positions at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has written widely on modernism as it intersects with theories of the object, architecture and interiors. Her publications include numerous articles and essays and two edited volumes: Atomic Dwelling: Anxiety, Domesticity, and Postwar Architecture (2012) and the co-edited volume Bauhaus Construct: Fashioning Identity, Discourse, and Modernism (2009). Her book, Luxury and Modern Architecture in Germany, 1900-1933, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press. She is concurrently writing a book on objects in exile and the displacement of design.
Re-Inscribing Mies’s Materiality.
Architecture’s materials have always been an essential component of understanding every other constituent element—what a building wants to convey or elects not to convey about its structure and cladding, its context in time and locality, its aspirations and its realities. As substance and as surface, materials were doubly tasked: with demonstrating the modern movement’s ideas via physical, built manifestations as well as representing the movement’s conceptions of a new, modern world. Within that paradigm, the materiality of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s buildings and interiors stand apart. The materials of his modern architecture are striking, whether in their stark, unadorned plainness, their technical virtuosity, or in the visual allure of chromium plating, travertine, marble, onyx. Looking specifically at Mies’s domestic projects and the exhibition works he designed in collaboration with Lilly Reich in the 1920s and 1930s, this paper will problematize for architecture, modernism’s rich materiality.
Key here will be an examination of the nature of modernism’s materials, and the ways in which Mies’s materiality served as smooth points of connectivity between modern architecture’s objects and its dwelling subjects. This examination of Mies’s architecture will engage his materiality as it relates to substance and ephemerality, to frames and voids, to the refinement of man-made materials, and the mastery of natural ones. It will argue that Mies used the properties of his materials, not to shore up modern architecture’s common goals, but as representative substances and surfaces that might serve to constitute his subjects and their internal and external relationships with each other, and with their surroundings. By dematerializing certain components of architecture while simultaneously deploying materiality, Mies was able to heighten subjective experience in modernism, re-inscribing meaning therein.