Monday, July 10, 2006

Fritz Neumeyer: Mies' Barcelona Pavilion as Viewing Machine

Fritz Neumeyer's book about Mies van der Rohe's writings, The Artless Word (1991), fetches an astronomical price on numerous bookseller's catalogues. In this book, Neumeyer, a professor at the Technical University, Berlin, muses on Mies' oft-cryptic writings about technology. However, writing about the Barcelona Pavilion in Detlef Mertins' collection, The Presence of Mies (Princeton 1994), Neumeyer considers the flat, orthogonal planes of Mies' most famous building as a type of viewing device. Neumeyer writes:
In the second phase of Mies' attempt to turn technology into art and to promote construction as architecture, the objective structure of the frame became an instrument of perception as well. Technology did not simply rule out art, but instead was treated as another instrument in the service of metaphysics. In his statement of 1932, "The New Time," Mies contended that whether one built high or low, in steel or glass, brick or stone, "would say nothing about the value of this way of building." Now Mies distinguished between a "practical question" and "questions of value," giving the latter the privilege of being "decisive." "We must set out new values," he wrote, "and point out the ultimate goals in order to gain new criteria. For the meaning and justification of each epoch, even the new one, lie only in providing the conditions under which the spirit can exist."

Leaving behind his earlier, Darwinian, thoughts of architectural evolution, Mies transformed the frame into a reflexive architectural element and an instrument for perception and for exploring the realm between subjectivity and objectivity. No longer did the abstract ideal of a viewed construction provide the compositional model; rather its opposite, the perceptual frame ot the construction of the view, served this role. As an essential architectural unit, the dialectical setting of podium and pavilion provided a thematic construct strong enough to reflect objectivity and subjectivity together, the self and the outer world.

As such a modern viewing machine, which constructs the viewer by arranging a set of frames and sequential spaces, the building now appears in a morphological transformation whose complexity is revealed only by passing through and strolling around. The sublimity of stepping aside engenders a new awareness of the whole -- a process of discerning the world and self in one. The structure constructs a viewer who himself constructs a coherent space when moving through it. This moving through the building entails an ambiguous play of opposites, with the viewer participating in the process of setting and abolishing boundaries through the opening and closing of vistas.

In the Barcelona Pavilion, Mies demonstrated brilliantly the extent to which the observer had become an element of the spatial construction of the building itself. From one position, the viewer looking into the patio gains the impression of being in an enclosed space, sheltered by walls from all sides. In one moving step forward the side wall opens and reveals itself to be only a slab, thereby generating an ambiguous space; depending on the point of view this space can be closed as well as open

So this idea of the Barcelona Pavilion as a viewing device interests me, especially how, in Neumeyer's view, the building requires a negotiating of subjectivity. I also wonder if this idea of the viewer "opening and closing" vistas necessitates investigating the power relationships between the subject and the object.

From Fritz Neumeyer, "A World in Itself: Architecture and Technology" in Detlef Mertins, ed., The Presence of Mies (New York: Princeton, 1994): 76-78.

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