Jan Kinsbergen: What’s fascinating about Mies is that even though he seemed to be a kind of down to earth person, his ideas were revolutionary.
I rediscovered and became more interested in the 50 x 50 feet house at a vast MoMa exhibition in New York during the 90’s. It was followed shortly after by the publication of two significant, large books: Mies in Berlin and Mies in America containing plenty of unpublished research resources.
At the exhibition there was a large model of the 50 x 50 house. Mies’ idea was to create a house, a prototype with a single space, a continuous environment undivided by full height walls. At that time, it was apparently so new and different, that it eventually never got built. Probably people expected to have a living room, bedrooms, private and public rooms. Mies instead believed that living in one space was a good way to be a family, what a beautiful idea! With this spatial configuration it would be possible to have a very social conception of life. Suddenly, a family shares everything and could live in one space without doors or locks. It’s members just need to behave accordingly, so that the minimum of intimacy is respected.
IS THERE ANY SIMILARITY BETWEEN 50X50 AND YOUR FAMILY HOUSE?
Our family is from a small town, a classical bourgeoisie environment, quite opposite to what 50x50 represents.
During Easter when everyone was away, the streets were completely deserted, and all the houses were empty. All the stores were closed and the shutters down. When you passed in front of a house, you didn’t see anybody, you couldn’t look inside. I remember I didn’t like this atmosphere at all.
Living together both as a family and in society ideally means not locking yourself up. A good concept of life is based on mutual respect. This is much subtler in preventing unpleasant and unexpected events than building walls around you. I am drawn to free, lively urban conditions where you see people and their daily activities, you can be part of it or leave in all directions.
WHAT ABOUT PRIVACY?
I am quite skeptical about the idea of privacy and really enjoy people who have no problems with it. I don’t care if somebody knows where I use my iPhone, how much money I have in my bank account and which company deals with my insurances. I don’t share the paranoia of being persecuted by some type of authorities that would exploit my private data and use it against me. This obsession brings people to build large fences around their properties, dividing and closing up space rather than unifying, maybe even sharing it.
Today we speak about a house - a little spark of open, shared space that could be used neutrally with a silent agreement of where the boundaries between the private spheres are. I like the publicness that 50x50 house proposes. It is radically opposite to a closed, divided space. It’s essentially modern.
A HOUSE GLAZED IN EVERY DIRECTION NEEDS A CERTAIN MARGIN OF LAND OR GARDEN. YOU CANNOT BUILD AN ARTICULATED PUBLIC SPACE WITH THIS KIND OF HOUSE.
I don’t think Mies wanted to make a statement about the urban potential a house like this would have.
It was developed in America for the suburban condition, where one could imagine, there was maybe enough land. As you say, you probably need to have a surrounding garden for this house. However, I would say that Mies’ idea was rather a structural and sociological experiment in its purest sense, without a direct link to regional planning.
Mies searched for principles, ideas and tried to express them in the most direct and radical way. This gave them a potential to live their own life and to reappear somewhere else in another form, which I find fascinating. It’s the underlying principles that remain interesting more than the individual formal aspects of each project. Houses stemming from the same conceptual root don’t have to end up being the same; a non-oriented roof typology, with the columns on the axis, and glass all around. For instance, the house of Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Casa Butanta is a built example of parts of the Miesian 50x50 idea in a somewhat articulated context, in another material, with another grade of opening, but it’s one space, and even though it has many bedrooms, they are open, the walls don’t go up to the roof. When you are inside, it feels like a museum space, very elegant.
AS YOU SAID, AT THE TIME, IT WAS SO RADICAL THAT IT WAS NEVER BUILT. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MAIN CONCERN PEOPLE HAVE WITH THESE KINDS OF SPACES?
I think it’s both convention and convenience. Someone needs to be interested in doing something else other than the standard and most people aren’t. I can also understand it. I mean, it’s probably not feasible for all families to share everything. I just think it could work in some cases, and this would be great!
America in the 50s seemed quite interesting, a highly diverse intellectual culture was apparently developing. The society was on the brink of becoming modern, Eisenhowers social reform happening and later, Kennedy being ready to go to the moon.
I can imagine that the intellectual reception of Miesian proposals was at that time more fertile and open than today.
Anyway, regardless of epoch and people’s preferences, I really enjoy, be it a functional, structural, or spatial proposal, when it goes far. When I see that not everything could be built, because for instance the engineer said it was not possible or the user said no, it gives a feeling that I have tried to go to the limit, to push the envelope as far as possible. The fact that the experiment ended earlier than conceived tells me that the ambition was wide enough, and that is a good sign, at least for me.
WHEN WE SEE THIS HOUSE, IT’S A COMBINATION OF TRANSPARENCY AND MONUMENTALITY. IT EXPRESSES THE MIESIAN IDEA THAT A HOUSE IS MORE A TEMPLE THAN A DWELLING. WHAT IS THIS HOUSE A TEMPLE OF?
Well, one of the most important strategies that I work with in my practice is coming from Mies and I think it has a lot to do with the aspect you mentioned. He says that if you solve the program and the room arrangement first, everything gets blocked, and a clear construction is impossible. In our office, in the very beginning, we look for a clear construction, meaning - the logic arrangement of structural elements in space, regardless of the spatial functionality. And only later we see how we can fit the functions within. I think, this brings in the topic of monumentality. Temples embody a limited amount of pragmatic functionality. They are basically pure construction. It’s all about creating a space which is so clear and driven by principles that you have the impression that God himself actually did it. You can find a good examples if you look for instance at Greek temples and the amount of structure they have in proportion to their literal functional space.
It is an important aspect in our daily architectural practice. If we build in order to make an argument for a flexible space arrangement with very few resources and very few elements, the construction becomes significant. This strategy is not about space arrangement, it’s about structural thinking that needs to be conceived in a precise way. Applied to a house it changes the character of a dwelling into something more abstract. If the construction has the primacy - it gains a monumental or let’s say a temple like character. I think this is what Mies meant.
CAN ARCHITECTURE HOLD THE RISK OF BEING DIFFICULT TO USE? WHAT ARGUMENT WOULD YOU DRAW ON IF YOU WERE CONFRONTED WITH THIS KIND OF CRITICISM?
One argument could be to say that every obstacle tells you more than everything just going smoothly and falling in place. An obstacle in use informs you about life conditions and how to deal with them.
Not all churches for instance are very comfortable. The benches are maybe hard, you cannot really hang out for too long. They’re often not heated. It is sometimes a humid space. It’s mostly cold or it is too dark. Some things limit us in our activities for another purpose. A building can broaden the consciousness about our existence, it is not only and not most importantly a comfortable environment. It’s always a question of how far you want to go.
This is true for many human activities. Do I buy a sofa, which is a kind of a fluffy landscape, comfortable in all arrangements? Or do I buy one, where I must sit straight and can have a conversation? If I wear a stiff ironed shirt with a tie, I cannot play basketball so well. What if I always want to be able to do sport? I have to wear jogging pants and sneakers all the time.
One could claim that buildings should always fulfil every demand. But they don’t, and anyway if they try to, they don’t talk about anything. And this is a significant disadvantage. Every good work has certain valuable aspects, strengths, but it also has weaknesses. If a work covers all topics, it will never have a remarkable presence. There are always conflicts. It’s difficult to be uniform and democratic on a high level, it’s almost impossible.
One can look at Mies’ National Gallery in Berlin, and criticize it, because the exhibition space downstairs is not really inspiring, and the upper entrance hall is not very usable because of the glare of the sun maybe and so on, plus the whole building was difficult to execute. But still, all this doesn’t really matter because what is interesting is how it is constructed, conceived, how the building process was invented, how the roof was lifted and what it stands for. Merging architecture with the contemporary technical possibilities and limits. In the end it’s not a good building because of this or that sum of functional conveniences. To criticize something that undeniably has outstanding qualities, is like criticising a very talented architect, writer, or anything because he or she cannot play ping pong.
If Mies was building today, he would still be a great architect and he would solve all the technical problems in an ingenious way. I’m sure about that. Yet, he was not happy facing certain issues and providing a pure service. I profoundly appreciate this kind of radical research because it brings new aspects to life. It is not targeted at answering all the questions and it cannot be used to produce generic solutions for all kinds of conditions. The experiments will always remain special cases. However, it doesn’t diminish their value, after all.