Conceptual Starchitecture

Mies van der Rohe at MoMA is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: In 1942, Mies van der Rohe designed a concert hall around a plane factory's bones.

This gorgeous photomontage by Mies van der Rohe, in the "Cut 'n' Paste" show at the Museum of Modern Art, is a study for an imaginary concert hall, prepared for Architectural Forum magazine for a 1942 feature on the American “town of the future". It is striking how Mies, who was a builder through and through, made truly stunning works on paper, whereas his colleague and rival Le Corbusier, though always claiming props as a painter, was really only good in 3D. (That comes clear in the Corbusier survey that’s just upstairs from where the Mies is hanging at MoMA – I Daily Pic’d its best painting yesterday.)

But there’s way more to Mies’s image than its visual brilliance. As the scholar Neil Levine has discussed, the background image for the concert-hall study shows an aircraft assembly plant built by Albert Kahn in Maryland in 1937, as the largest open-span structure achieved until then. When Mies grabbed its image for his study, the vast space was being used to build bombers just then attacking the Nazi regime – from which Mies had recently fled, later than most of his peers and after years of less than evident opposition. (You can just see one plane behind the collaged sculpture; Mies blacked out details of others.) As Levine points out, the potent formal values of this study come steeped in politics and the real world – precisely what photomontage was designed to invoke.

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