Barcelona Pavilion: Techniques of Perception
“Here you see the spirit of the new Germany; simplicity and clarity of means and intentions all open to the wind, as well as to freedom – it goes straight to our hearts. A work made honestly, without pride. Here is the peaceful house of an appeased Germany!” – Georg von Schnitzler, German Kommissar, 1929
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain (commonly known as the Barcelona Pavilion) has been touted as an exemplary work of modern architecture, renowned for its weightless and effortless appearance. While the open floor plan of the Pavilion may seem simplistic, Mies has carefully orchestrated every aspect of the building to work together in order to create a phenomenological experience. Through the careful application of material, colors, and symmetry, varying between reflective, opaque, and translucent surfaces, and the placement of sculpture and furniture, Mies has crafted the way in which a visitor views and interacts with the structure. Following the disassembling of the Pavilion in 1930 the site could only be visited through photographs, creating a new, completely different, method through which the building is considered. Whether seen through the photographic medium or personal immersion, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion is a carefully formulated sensory adventure in which the perception of the viewer has been manufactured in almost every way.
In 1928, Mies van der Rohe, nominated by German High Commissioner George von Schnitzler as the artistic director of the German portion of the International Exposition, was tasked with designing what was then called the “German representation room2”, later to be named German Pavilion and colloquially known as the Barcelona Pavilion. With only six months to design and build the structure, Mies, along with lesser known assistant Lilly Reich, were given free rein in the conception of the space, including selecting the site. Though few people recognized it at the time, Peter Behrens saw the importance of the Barcelona Pavilion, stating that it “will someday be hailed as the most beautiful building of the twentieth century3.”
The asymmetrical qualities of the Barcelona Pavilion stand out in stark contrast to its surroundings. After rejecting several sites, the final selection by Mies van der Rohe was located at the termination of the plaza, directly opposite of Spain’s own National Pavilion. Rather than being a destination, Mies’s choice of site allowed the Pavilion to be integrated into the path of travel; visitors would meander through his project on their way to the next exhibit in the Spanish Village. When approaching the Pavilion the visitor would be forced to veer off from the linear path they had likely followed through the entire exposition, entering instead to the right of the main axis. By placing the Pavilion on a podium Mies has created a sense of arrival and grandeur, as well as a transition of spatial qualities, making the visitor aware that they are entering a drastically different environment from whence they came. Upon leaving the building, however, the ground has been raised to become flush with the Pavilion’s floor plane and the path of travel is once again axially aligned with the expo’s promenade, returning the traveller to a sense of regularity and symmetry and allowing them to compose themselves and reflect on their journey through the building4.
Flanked on either side by monumental classical revival facades, and situated axially between a row of Ionic columns and a grand set of stairs, the placement of the Pavilion created a datum by which Mies could measure his asymmetry against. Although the Barcelona Pavilion is very asymmetrical in its structural plan, the regularity that it produces creates a sense of order. The walls, when viewed in plan, appear to be placed at random and are not symmetrical in the least, however when viewed in elevation it can be seen that the materials themselves display many planes of mirrored symmetry (Figure 1). The same is true for the pools, roof plates, windows, and pavers, each having at least three axes of reflective symmetry. The result is a distinct juxtaposition between the asymmetrical structural composition and highly symmetrical building materials. These concepts work together by substituting the regularity of the materials for the symmetry of the plan, in the words of H.R. Hitchcock and Philip Johnson:
Standardization gives automatically a high degree of consistency in the parts. Hence modern architects have no need of the discipline of bilateral or axial symmetry to achieve aesthetic order. Asymmetrical schemes of design are actually preferable aesthetically as well as technically. For asymmetry certainly heightens the general interest of the composition5.
By accentuating the asymmetrical structural with reflectively symmetric materials and components, Mies has created a visually unique building that, while being at odds both with itself and its surroundings, is a harmonious and aesthetically pleasing composition, where the space is “contained by geometry6”.
In addition to his careful site selection and overarching composition of the Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe was very particular about the usage and placement of different materials. A substantial amount of the design process was devoted to the exploration of cladding options for the only interior partition, known as floating wall, a piece which captivated much of Mies’s attention: “One evening as I was working late on the building I made a sketch of a free-standing wall, and I got a shock. I knew it was a new principle4.” Refusing to settle upon a material for this crucial element, Mies finally decided upon a slab of golden onyx, and it was around this piece that the rest of the Pavilion emerged, as its size dictated the height of the space (3.10 meters). As the height of the building was realized, Mies began to design furniture and select the Morgen sculpture based on this dimension.
Following the selection of the onyx wall, material colors and structure began to coordinate with each other. Juxtaposing glossy, veined marble with translucent glass and reflective chrome enhanced the spatial experience, evoking what Justus Bier described as an “extraordinary moving change of feelings whilst strolling through the rooms”2. The use of travertine walls echoes the materials of the surrounding palace, while the green marble placed around the pools seems to be a continuation of the tree canopy above, firmly rooting an otherwise autonomous structure to this specific site4.
Reflectivity and Translucency
Reflectivity and translucency play crucial roles in the perception of the Barcelona Pavilion. While physically the Pavilion may be constructed of travertine, onyx, glass, steel, and stucco, what shapes the experience of the space is the reflections. Perhaps these materials were used as a product of the technology and customs of the time, but it is just as likely that Mies chose these highly polished services due solely to their reflectivity. This principle is most evident in the polished steel columns, so slender and reflective that they seem to disappear completely. The fifth material used in the Pavilion is less apparent – water. By lining the pool bottoms with black stone, the pools essentially become large horizontal mirrors, created a plane of symmetry throughout. While traveling through the Pavilion and surrounding landscape, the effect is a blurring of inside and outside as the walls are dissolved by their own reflections. Upon entering the room the occupant simultaneously sees their reflection leaving it, evoking a feeling of entering a room someone has just left or of chasing their own shadow6.
The reflective nature of the pools enhances the symmetry already present in the walls. Mies’s use of glass planes allows the roof to appear to be floating weightlessly upon the walls while simultaneously illuminating the space from within at night. For Mies glass was much more than a transparent plane, it was phenomenological tool through which he learned that “the important thing is the play of reflections and not the effect of light and shadow as in ordinary buildings.4” The use of these modern materials juxtaposed against a large amount of marble, a classical material, creates a unique quality of space.
For Mies van der Rohe, sculpting the structural and materialistic qualities of his Pavilion was not sufficient to shape the experience of the space as a whole. Mies went on to design custom furniture that he then carefully positioned throughout the Pavilion, forcing visitors to meander through the obstructions and follow a set circulation path. This concept had been present since the early design phases, as there was an “intensive discussion was about the route designation and flowing organic movements in space”2. By enforcing this path, Mies ensured that the viewers would hit his preconceived vantage points, including the statue Morgen. Contrary to the traditional desire to arrange furniture to suit the comfort of the inhabitants, Mies’s arrangement created a feeling of discomfort, not so much physically but psychologically, thus discouraging lingering and promoting the continued progression through the space. The importance of the furniture, especially the Barcelona Chairs (Figure 2), was truly realized once they had been repositioned. Upon the reconstruction of the Pavilion in 1986, the chairs were situated into what would be considered a more traditional or conventional layout. This discrepancy has resulted in a misreading of the space originally sculpted by Mies1.
The previously mentioned statue Morgen (“Morning”), by Georg Kolbe, is an important focal point located within the rear reflection pool of the Pavilion (Figure 3). During the early 20th century a shift occurred in which sculpture and art went from being retrospectively added décor to integral pieces of the buildings, crucial to understand and define the space2. Early sketches illustrate the intention to include several sculptural pieces, one in the large pool near the main staircase, a second near the garden stair, and a third within the rear pool4. Ultimately Mies decided upon the third location only, rejecting the placements that would be highly visible from the exterior. The decision to exclude these locations meant that visitors would not be tempted to spend time at the entrance to the building, but rather would be drawn inwards. Although the location was decided upon fairly early, Mies would not decide on the specific sculpture until much later2.
Georg Kolbe created the Morgen in 1925 for a residential estate in Berlin, Cecilie Gardens. Designed following the ideals of the Gartenstadtbewegung, the Garden City Movement, the estate was to include park landscapes in the personal home. It was these gardens for which Kolbe originally sculpted Morgen and her counterpartAbend (“Evening”). The rough surface and reclining posture of Morgen makes her appear very dynamic; her outstretched arms seem to encapsulate the surrounding space. Though she was not intended to be displayed in the Barcelona Pavilion,Morgen has become synonymous with the building, often being prominently displayed in photographs, a fact that is almost inevitable given her location2.
Following the opening of the Pavilion it was almost immediately celebrated for its design and contribution to modern architecture. The inclusion of Kolbe’s Morgen, however, was only briefly mentioned and was often not a part of the critical interpretation of the building. It was Helen Appleton Read who, in 1929, realized the importance of the statute to the spatial organization of the building, saying “The vitality it imparts to the austerity of the scheme, the enhanced plasticity and grace which the setting in turn imparts to the figure is a brief for the use of sculpture in modern arrangements”, thus igniting and interest in the relationship between sculpture and architecture. Originally sketched as a reclining figure rather than standing, the statue’s verticality creates a vantage point that a shorter sculpture could not have achieved, while the use of a figure sculpture within a minimalistic structure creates a tension that would not exist had an abstract piece been selected. By placing her within the relecting pool, Mies has created an intangible goal, only to be observed from the outside. The inclusion and placement of the Morgen statue resulted in what Paul Bonatz described as “the most beautiful interaction of sculpture and architecture2.”
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Upon the conclusion of the International Exposition in 1930 the Barcelona Pavilion, a temporary structure, was disassembled and its components dispersed. In the following decades the beauty that Peter Behrens spoke of was fully realized and attempts to reconstruct the building began, eventually coming to fruition in 1986. For over fifty years the Pavilion had existed only through memories, photographs, and drawings, and upon its reconstruction many questioned the authenticity of the rebuilt structure. Rem Koolhaas felt that “its aura was destroyed” upon rebuilding, as if the legend that lived in black and white photos had been dispelled. When photographing the original structure several rules were adhered to, such as always including both the floor and ceiling planes, avoiding frontal views, and withdrawing deep within the structure when shooting outwards. Often these images were retouched; removing the mirrored effects of the glazing, altering the patterns of the stonework, reducing the dramatic shadows, and even editing out the surrounding buildings were common. When viewing a series of photographs of the Pavilion, the most famous being taken by the Berlin Picture Bulletin, it is possible to experience the space as a whole; a sequence of four images allows for an orbital view of the floating onyx wall, a sight that would not be possible whilst in the built structure. The often photographed Morgen is frequently misrepresented, her proportions skewed by the simple act of the photographer standing on a ladder, producing an image taken from above eye level2.
With many people being familiar with the Pavilion through black and white photographs, the color infused reconstruction shattered their preconceived notions of its appearance. When viewing the later work of Mies van der Rohe, as well as that of LeCorbusier, and noting their strict white and muted palette, the colorfulness of the Pavilion was deemed less “heroic” than its fellow modern works of architecture. The only way to truly understand the Barcelona Pavilion in all aspects, both physical and experiential, is to walk through it as Mies originally intended and personally witness every texture, material, reflection, shadow, and line he carefully crafted2.
The Barcelona Pavilion, while beautiful in its simplicity, holds much more complexity than meets the eye. In designing the building Mies sought to create a dynamic, rather than static, experience that was active in every dimension. From the distinct forms down to the discreet details, each piece plays a role in the perception of the whole. Beginning with the site selection and continuing through early sketches and writings it is evident that Mies intended to sculpt a unique, unprecedented experience from the inception of the project. The choice and placement of varying materials, the use of differing surface conditions such as reflectivity, translucency, and opacity, and the placement of the furniture and Morgen sculpture work together in order to achieve the phenomenological journey through the Barcelona Pavilion, however fleeting the stay may be.
- Amaldi, Paolo, and Annelle Curulla. "Chairs, Posture, And Points Of View: For An Exact Restitution Of The Barcelona Pavilion. "Future Anterior: Journal Of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, And Criticism 2 (2005): 16.
- Berger, Ursel, and Thomas Pavel, et al. Barcelona Pavilion: Mies van der Rohe & Kolbe: Architecture & Sculpture. Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2006.
- Bonta, Juan Pablo. An Anatomy of Architectural Interpretation: A Semiotic Review of the Criticism of Mies Van Der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1975.
- Constant, Caroline. "The Barcelona Pavilion As Landscape Garden: Modernity And The Picturesque." AA Files 20 (1990): 47-54.
- Evans, Robin. "Mies Van Der Rohe's Paradoxical Symmetries." AA Files 19 (1990): 56.
- Quetglas, Josep. Fear of Glass: Mies Van Der Rohe's Pavilion in Barcelona. Basel: Birkhäuser-Publishers for Architecture, 2001.
© 2014 Victoria Anne