Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe: the classic in the Neue NationalGalerie of Berlin

In the world of architecture often happens to come upon the figure of Mies Van Der Rohe, recognized as one of the fathers of the Modern Architecture. His works, although renowned, are sometimes studied as if they belong to history, like the closing chapter of a book, a common lot of other architects. Notwithstanding this, many of his projects affect also the people of today; watching these works people sometimes have the feeling of a pleasant déjà-vu, as if that place is familiar to them.

The Neue NationalGalerie in Berlin, the last work of the architect, is one of his most cherished realizations, and perhaps the most emblematic, a sort of testament of his architecture. It’s a masterpiece of modernity that smells of classic: am I saying a contradiction? Below I will explain the sense of my assertion.

Meaning of “classic”


Before speaking of the Neue NationalGalerie in Berlin, it’s good to understand what I mean by “classic”.

Classic is a term that derives from the Latin word classicus, which literally means “belonging to the first class of citizens”, translated then with the value of “good, excellent”. In an extensive way we speak of “classics” relating to artists and works that have become points of reference within a specific cultural context, thanks to their formal and stylistic values. In other words, the classics of today are all those artists and writers that we imagine can be considered “indispensable” by culture and civilizations of all times.

In the architectural and artistic field things result more complicated,  because there’s the issue of style. In Western culture, there have been periods of great cultural expression that were defined as classical, in particular the ancient Greece and Rome, and periods of revival of historical styles attributed to classicism (Neoclassicism, Historicism etc…). Modern architecture would rather talk of Rationalism – although the idea of movement distorts the concepts – which takes from classic the proportion, the rationalization of space, the harmony with the natural world and a careful attention to the constructive technique.

Is Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe a “classic” architect?


Throughout times the adjective “classic” was given to many architects, sometimes with arbitrary criteria, which looked only to the apparent surface of their works. Some features were brought into a major focus in spite of other ones who often really identified the author. For this reason we cannot say that Ludwig Mies is a classic architect, because in some ways its architecture is sometimes at the opposite of what is termed as classic. My intent is to identify what is classic in the philosophy of the architect of Aachen, explaining on one hand what really picks up from classicism, especially from the Greek world, on the other what makes its architecture universal and timeless.

Ludwig Hilbersheimer, one of Mies’s friends, defines his architecture as modern, being it classic; the classic world brings within the concept of modernity, as an expression of a greater freedom and a social and cultural opening. Classic forms are the forms of nature, which is life; so these forms are the forms of the time,  then they’re eternal and universal. Here’s what happens when we see any work created by Mies; in them there’s something familiar, as if we’ve already seen it. It’s interesting how his architectural concinnitas makes his works more closer to nature.

Notwithstanding this, Mies is a modern architect, mainly because he lives his time, and designs according to the techniques that are proper of his era; He raises steel pillars in the same way as the ancient people did with the marble columns  for their temples. The temporal contingency forces architects to realize their works in certain ways, but is thank to the knowledge of the constructional basis _the techné_ that their projects smell of universality.

“Only then will our buildings express the potential greatness of our time; and only a fool can say that it has no greatness.”


For Mies, the first objective of the architecture _ because Germany Architecture is Baukunst, art of building _ is building the real following intelligible forms; “the beauty is the light of truth“, said St. Augustine, and the truth is revealed in nature. According to Mies, we have to start from nature to build a formal world.

Ludwig Mies and Friedrick Schinkel

While he’s working with Walter Gropius in the studio of Peter Behrens, the young Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe gets in touch with the architecture of Friedrick Schinkel, the greatest architect of the nineteenth-century Prussia (the ancestors of Walter Gropius had hosted him for several years).

Karl Friedrick Schinkel formed his culture during a period of changes in the world of architecture. Northern Europe is the homeland where architecture takes experimental features. The Germany of his time is full of fervor, the first industries and the first railways start to develop, and the iron architecture is promoted. Schinkel puts the industrial technology in correlation with his design; he uses iron and integrates technology and modern infrastructure in Neoclassical or Neoromanesque style contexts. A clear example is the famous Unter den Linden bridge (1830), one of the projects of the Prussian Berlin, realized in a distinctly neo-Renaissance style, but with cast-iron railings and gas lamps. For Schinkel, new materials and technology are not incompatible with high standards of design. This can be seen even in an attempt to make new inventions using elements of well-made craft, as a sort of precursor of Art and Crafts of William Morris; Schinkel realizes a book of sketches for artisans that will be studied by Behrens and therefore also by Mies.

As regards the Architecture, for Schinkel it expresses an idea; the classical architecture is the custodian of the democratic idea of freedom, whereas the Romanesque-Gothic one is the expression of spirituality and transcendence, representing so the German tradition. Architecture as idea is then understood in terms of pure form; with this Schinkel goes beyond Historicism, for him the utility is the fundamental principle of the entire building. He said also that without history and poetry the construction and utility are “rigid and dry“.

In the 20th century, architects such as Loos, Behrens and Mies live in a period of transition as concerns  architecture, in which the conventions of the previous century are no longer acceptable. Schinkel was recognized by architects of that time as the one who placed the attention and sophistication in detail and expressed clarity and coherence in his projects, but especially for its unsurpassed balance of function and architectural poetry.

The Neue Nationalgalerie of Berlin

Analyzing the latest projects designed by Mies, the Neue Nationalgalerie, we can see what is “classic” in its architecture; in this case has extraordinary value because it represents a kind of summa of his Baukunst, in a place that celebrates the great art of the Contemporary era.

This project started to be built in 1962 and was completed six years later in the Kulturforum area, after years of negotiations with the Senate of the city that wanted a monument signed by his own hand. The Kulturforum was a much suitable place instead of the Deutscher Kunst _ mutilated by the last war_  where the works of major artists of the twentieth century would be hosted, going to be the town’s cultural centre; there were, in fact, the Kammermusiksaal of Hans Scharoun and buildings designed by Hans Hollein.

Working at this project, Mies recalled the classical Greek temple architecture, but especially one of the projects of his dear Schinkel, the Altes Museum, with which we can quickly establish a comparison. For Mies, the Greek classical temple represents the symbol of the ancient civilization, through which it has sublimated. The temple is a sacred edifice, a temenos that divides the divine world from human reality, so that humans can emancipate themselves. Since their emancipation polis, democracy, philosophy and art developed.

The Altes Museum (1823-1830), built emulating the Stoa Poikilé of Athens, is the Mouseion, the Temple of the Muses; it’s the Freistatte fur Kunst und Wissenschaft (the shrine of art and science). The building consists of a portico on a high basement; the monumental podium gives dignity to the building, from it we can have a higher look of the town. The basement, reserved as a warehouse and laboratory, also protects the halls from wetland and marshland (it’s near the river Spree). The colonnaded facade has no windows, which are arranged where paintings are exposed, that’s in the North; the natural diffuse light of the North  does not damage the works.

The Neue Nationalgalerie, like the Altes Museum, stands on a podium and consists of a large hall completely covered by windows; this hall is surmounted by a steel roof supported by eight pillars of steel. In contrast with Schinkel project, the served space and the serving one are reversed, so the exhibition space is located underground, at the interior of the podium, whereas the upper space is used for temporary exhibitions.

Mies prefers to focus on the hall that he defines universal space, indefinite and defined at the same time, which makes glass as a link but also a divider between inside and outside.

The architecture of Mies also incorporates classical proportions. Everything is balanced and accurate in his project; the coffered ceiling recalls the floor tiles, the interior walls define the space, the window frames seem to link the roof to the floor, the sky to the earth. The external columns reflect the peristasis of Greek temples, but at the same time takes to extremes the technical possibilities, the columns at the edge of the frame leave free the vertices of the square of the roof, making the corner as perhaps the most striking element.

This project celebrates the philosophy of Mies, his “classicism” makes its forms universal and eternal. He’s also a man of his time, thanks to the mastery of technique and the knowledge of materials; This makes him as one of the most modern architects of the XXth century.

by Andrea Pagotto

Neue Nationalgalerie

Credit Photo:


One thought on “Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe: the classic in the Neue NationalGalerie of Berlin

  1. Pingback: Potsdamer Platz, Station for the regional traffic – 15/17 « ArchiTexts Association

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