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The Glass Chain Letter of Ludwing Mies Van Der Rohe - A Material Issue

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
David Syn Chee Mah
Curtin University Perth Australia
The reading of the significance of glass as a symbol in itself (as utilised in the specific example of the Frederichstrasse skyscraper project), requires the isolation of Mies in the strategy and trajectory that was adopted for positioning himself within the field of the architectural avante garde. For a practitioner who has been attributed with the self regard of a ‘self created man’ as opposed to a self made man (Schulze 1985), the transformation from theory to practice would have undoubtedly been a process receptive to the demands and nature of the field.

Myth is perhaps one of the most potent tools that may be used to generate symbolic value of a work in the actual process of architectural production. It is in the full analysis of architectural production, that we are able to isolate the significance afforded to glass in this process. In comparison to the criticism of an architectural product based solely on writings, polemics and myths surrounding the author or in this case, the architect, an elucidation of the product and process of production will be considered within its historical context. This specific context is the “field of cultural production” (Bourdieu 1993) that Mies had consciously engaged with as an agent. It is through he study of the process of an accumulation of the symbolic and cultural capital for the Frederichstrasse skyscrapers and subsequently Mies himself, that an understanding of the manner in which glass has been invested with a symbolic value may be informed. The study of a historical context will also need to engage with the various myths and anecdotes that have been associated with Mies Van Der Rohe’s architectural career as it could be argued that it these myths which have further endorsed the cultural and symbolic significance for a material such as glass.

Through this analysis of the process in which glass was invested with a symbolic value, and understanding about the general production of an architectural product may be implied. It is not the agenda of this investigation to suggest that the use of glass in architectural production is restricted to its symbolic value. What is proposed is that the promotion and subsequent use of glass construction by Mies and his contemporaries as a result of purely technical demands is problematic and subject to conditions external to the realm of the specific architectural project.

Morgan, G. 1996, 'The Glass Chain' in 'Sites And Stations, Provisional Utopias', ed. S. Allen & K. Park, Lusitania Press New York, Korea. pp. 208-211

Colomina, B. 1994, 'Mies Not' in 'The Presence of Mies', ed. D. Metlins, Princeton Architectural Press, USA, pp. 193-221

Shepheard, P. 1994, 'What Is Architecture? An Essay On Landscapes, Buildings And Machines', The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Schulze. F, 1985, 'Mies Van Der Rohe, A Critical Biography', The University Of Chicago, Press, Chicago

David Syn Chee Mah

David Syn Chee Mah's dissertation "The Glass Chain Letter of Ludwing Mies Van Der Rohe-A Material Issue" was written as one of the assignmens under my unit titled "Theoretical Practice". This theory unit is designed for 4th and 5th Year architecture students, in which a variety of inter-disciplinary perspectives are introduced to students with a view of arming them with a critical mind to reinterpret history.

David has chosen to look at the symbolic aspects of technology, in particular the glass issue of Mies' architecture. This is precisely the issue Alan Colquhoun pointed out back in 1960's. (Colquhoun, 1981: 26). This issue once again has become a good starting point to reinterpret Modernist architecture by looking at those aspects which are often taken for granted or have not been commented on by most writers.

By using Pierre Bourdieu's notions of symbolic capital and field, this dissertation certainly has been given a strong critical flavour. However, a rather detailed 'thick description' of Mies' architectural production processes with the glass has rendered this article a sense of "materiality". In other words, the glass is the issue, hence the social processes of gaining symbolic associations with this particular material. In so doing, this thesis has avoided a tendency of offering a cynical sociological critique without dealing with the substance of the architectural or artistic production itself, namely taste and myth making.

In conclusion. this dissertation has clearly demonstrated an ability of conducting empirical research and a critical inquire of exercising the power of making judgments, which, in my opinion, is to a large extent what architectural theory and criticism are about. A dissertation such as this written at 4th Year level is highly commendable.

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