“The reconstruction of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion was a challenge”

* The author is part of the community of readers of La Vanguardia.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
12 May 2024 Sunday 16:41
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“The reconstruction of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion was a challenge”

* The author is part of the community of readers of La Vanguardia

The Barcelona Pavilion, an iconic work of the Modern Movement, has been exhaustively studied and interpreted while inspiring the work of several generations of architects. Today we are going to discover its corners and secrets that “the eye does not see” with the help of the architect Cristian Cirici i Alomar.”

This building was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich as Germany's national pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. Built with glass, steel, travertine, and four types of marble of different origins, the Pavilion was conceived to house the official receptions, such as the inaugural one presided over by Kings Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia together with Mies, and the German authorities.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born in Aachen (Germany), on March 27, 1886, and died on August 17, 1969, Chicago, Illinois, United States, where he had gone into exile during the Second World War. He received several awards and honors, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Lilly Reich entered the field of interior architecture, after having studied design and textile industries. In 1908 she moved to Vienna, where she worked at the Wiener Werkstätte, an association of artists, architects and designers who advocated the integration of all the arts in a common project, without distinction between major and minor arts. She also worked briefly with the architect Josef Hoffmann, one of her ideologues. She returned to settle in Berlin in 1911, already working independently. There she became part of the Deutscher Werkbund, an association founded in 1907 made up of industrialists, architects and artists and which marked German industrial design. Lilly Reich stood out for her ideas and organizational capacity, acquiring more and more responsibilities until she was named its director in 1920.

Between 1925 and 1938 Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe collaborated closely on different projects and, in 1928, she was appointed “artistic director” of the German section of the Barcelona Exhibition, thus sharing the same position held by Mies van der Rohe. Her situation in National Socialist Germany was not easy, she spent three years in a forced labor camp during the war. After the conflict, she fought to try to bring Berlin back to some normality and she was responsible for the reestablishment of the Deutscher Werkbund, which was finally restored in 1950, after her death.

Known as one of the most relevant works of modern architecture, the pavilion is characterized by the radical simplicity of its spatial organization and forms, together with an ostentatious elegance of the materials applied. As a result of the continuous analysis to which it has been exposed over the years, different influences are attributed to it, among which the creator's particular taste for traditional Japanese architecture, suprematism and neoplasticism stand out.

At the closing of the Exhibition, in 1930, the Pavilion had to be dismantled. But due to the great interest that the work generated and its subsequent recognition, its reconstruction was considered on different occasions.

Oriol Bohigas in 1980 was the promoter of this initiative from the Urban Planning Delegation of Barcelona City Council. This is how Ignasi de Sola-Morales, Cristian Cirici and Fernando Ramos were assigned as the architects in charge of the research, design and direction of the reconstruction that began in 1983. The new building was inaugurated in its original location on June 2, 1986.

The German Pavilion is located at the west end of the Plaza de Carles Buigas, in a space transversal to the great axis of Montjuic. It stands on a horizontal pedestal covered in travertine, which in addition to being the support of the building, as occurs in classical Greek temples, distances it from the immediate vicinity of the street.

On the base a composition is developed based on a regular grid of eight columns. The Pavilion defines its spaces through the orthogonal game of displaced planes, the walls are arranged in such a way that they generate an absolute spatial fluidity inside the building. Large continuous windows draw the outer limit, thus declaring transparency, the idea of ​​freedom and progress that the German Republic sought to reflect at the time.

Today we have the opportunity to interview for the La Vanguardia Readers Network, Cristian Cirici i Alomar, one of the three architects in charge of the research, design and direction of the reconstruction of the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition .

Would we like to know your proposal for a visit to the Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion?

I want to anticipate that I do not intend to tour the pavilion in a descriptive way and pepper it with the anecdotes and memories that each corner suggests to me, but rather I will try to explain the hidden parts of the construction process and, especially, the design decisions that we had to make, despite the fact that our starting objective was to be absolutely neutral, and to reconstruct appearances without worrying, however, about doing constructive archaeology.

It seems that they lacked the necessary documentation to rebuild the pavilion?

The lack of sufficient graphic or written documentation on some elements of the pavilion, and the commission received to make it more perennial, made us reinvent some details such as the treatment of the body of services, both in terms of its internal compartmentalization and the opening. later of the same. In the treatment of the walls we proposed to finish them on both sides, which in the original pavilion, and for no apparent reason other than the speed of execution and the economy of efficient construction, what we could consider rear faces were simply plastered and plastered. .

On the roof, we are more inclined to interpret Mies' intentions, clearly evident in the sketches archived at the MOMA in New York, constructing a flat slab of reinforced concrete rather than reproducing the original roof, consisting of a metal structure waterproofed on top with asphalt fabric and finished on the lower part with a plastered reed ceiling. The original roof was quite thick, only hidden at the edges, and its construction system was suitable for an ephemeral construction, but not for a construction that was intended to be perennial. For this reason, a concrete slab of the same thickness as the edge of the original roof was built.

How did the project come about?

At the end of the funeral of a mutual friend, Oriol Bohigas (at that time chief architect of the Urban Planning Delegation of Barcelona City Council and promoter of this initiative), told us his idea of ​​rebuilding the pavilion and proposed that we accept that challenge. After a few days to see what reliable material we could gather regarding it, we accepted the unusual assignment of directing a work by a now deceased architect, whose professional career we greatly respected, but whose work did not excite us.

Where did you find the graphic material?

Apart from interpretations that are not very adjusted to the reality of the plant, without its surroundings, such as the one published in the well-known book by Bruno Zevi, Knowing how to see architecture, we managed to gather in a few days copies of the material archived at the MOMA in which the heirs of Mies deposited their professional archive; a lot of graphic material from the Mas Archive in Barcelona; and the doctoral thesis of the German architect Wolf Tegethoff, on the work of Mies, which provided a lot of specificity about the materials of the pavilion, such as the light tint of the different glasses.

And the reconstruction?

A topographical survey of the site occupied by the pavilion was immediately carried out, and from the existing photographs we calculated the dimensions of the different architectural elements thereof. An error of several centimeters in the plan dimensions of the entire pavilion would have been imperceptible, but an error of one centimeter in the thickness of the walls or in the dimensions of the cross of the pillars would have been striking. But the remains of the removal of the pillars embedded in the foundation found at the beginning of the works corroborated the accuracy of our calculations and the position of the pavilion on the ground.

Was the design difficult?

The building was highly modulated by the square pavement slabs, and for construction reasons it was only possible to build the pavilion with the pillars located at the meeting point between two slabs. Once again, the position of the different architectural elements: walls, pillars, carpentry, had no difficulty looking at the photographs we had. For the detail of the frames and beadings of the metal carpentry, the sketches preserved in the MOMA archives were essential, corroborated by many of Mies' later works. And for the details of the wooden carpentry of the service module, of which we did not find any photographs, we copied the detail of the lobbies of several Chicago apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive.

What were the limits of interpretation that they had?

Although as I mentioned before, we do not faithfully reproduce the original pavilion, for the reasons that I have already justified on the cover; in the openings of the service body; and in the treatment of the face, considered secondary to the walls, we were faithful to the original, but not to the sketches or to the opinion of Philips Johnson, in the idea of ​​not reconstructing the pavilion on a complete podium in the manner of classical Greek temples. The steeply sloping natural terrain would have required earthworks with steep slopes, had they wanted to rebuild the pavilion on a podium that had not existed in the year 29, although it appeared in all the interpretations of the plan disclosed to date.

A whole process...

Although among the preserved graphic material is the plan of the industrialist who carried out the work, of the cutting of all the travertine of the pavement, we interpret that the great variety of pieces close to a 1.10 m module. X 1.10 m., Responded more to the need for the already built pillars to be between two pavement modules correcting the small dimensional errors of a very artisan -construction process, than to the will of the design of Mies, and we We adopted that module, interpreting that that module had been their intention.

Could you tell us a story about a curious fact?

As the pavilion had been dismantled once the Barcelona International Exhibition of 1929 ended and the material could not be stored here because it had been placed under a temporary import regime, Germany was forced to return the material to its place of origin. We do not know what its final destination was, if it reached its destination or if it ended up in a landfill, or if it was recycled for some other use on its return to Germany.

One of the first issues we wanted to do in the reconstruction was to succeed in using the same type of materials that had been used in the original pavilion. We learned that the surveyor who had been on site during construction claimed to keep samples of the different marbles and travertine used. After a telephone conference with Mies' collaborator, in which he confirmed that he kept those samples, we agreed on a date and time to visit him in Berlin where he lived.

Accompanied, as an interpreter, by an Austrian architect who worked in my studio, we went to the agreed meeting, where we had a rather picturesque interview. Mies' collaborator, accompanied by his wife, and after an initial intervention criticizing various aspects of Mies' work and his behavior, pointing his finger at some curtains, told us: "I have those materials there, if you want them, you must compensate us financially with three million dollars for the effort made in maintaining these materials during the war and in the different changes of address that we have made during these years.” I picked up the phone, called the then mayor of Barcelona, ​​Pascual Maragall, explained the issue to him and he asked me: “What do you think?” And since I was not sure that it would actually keep the samples we wanted, we decided to do without them. Thinking about it, they would not have given us more information than the photographs of the pavilion and Wolf Tegetoff's thesis.

Currently and due to its interest as a representative work of the Modern Movement, the Mies Van der Rohe pavilion receives visitors every day, who can take instructive tours throughout the year. At the same time, it sporadically hosts temporary presentations and exhibitions.

It only remains for us to thank Cristian Cirici warmly for giving us this magnificent opportunity to get to know Germany's national pavilion better for the Barcelona International Exhibition of 1929, with his valuable contributions, his detailed story and the patience and kindness he has shown us. dispensed throughout the interview.

Due to its interest as a representative work of the Modern Movement and after 41 years of its reconstruction, the

Essences of the ingenuity that the pavilion has left for posterity are still relevant:

The Barcelona chair has turned 95 years old. In addition to its innovative structure, the work of Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich left another element for posterity: the Barcelona chair. This piece of furniture, designed to be placed inside the building, was inspired by the chairs used by Roman magistrates.

It stands out for its polished chrome steel structure and leather seat and backrest. Like the building, the chair also has clean and simple lines.

The Barcelona chair has been reproduced and copied countless times, and has gone down in history for its radically innovative design that remains fully valid today, 95 years after its creation. Today, this model is still produced and marketed.

Managed by the Fundació Mies Van Der Rohe Barcelona, ​​the pavilion's 2024 activities program includes: architecture, awards, music, cinema, artistic interventions, debates, exhibitions, documentaries, and open exhibition days. During all the months of the year, every month, there are activities.

The sculpture, probably the third life-size bronze reproduction, is an allegorical representation of Alba (Der Morgen), in the form of a naked woman with her arms raised to protect herself from the sun's rays, situated on a pedestal in the small pond. , which contrast perfectly with the rectilinear rigor of the environment.

Georg Kolbe was a German sculptor, painter and draftsman who was born in Sculptor, Waldhein, a city belonging to the District of Döbeln, federated state of Saxony (Germany), and died on November 20, 1947 in Berlin, capital of Germany.

The sculpture is located in the rear pond of the German Pavilion made for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. It is a bronze piece measuring 1.73 x 0.87 x 0.75 m, the original of which was executed in 1925; In 1929 a copy was made for the International Exhibition, while the work currently displayed in the pavilion is another copy made in 1986.

This sculpture was paired with another by the same sculptor entitled Night, both made to decorate a housing development subsidized by the Berlin Tram Company in 1925. The work pleased Mies van der Rohe, who chose it for his pavilion. Framed in expressionism, Kolbe had a predilection for the representation of the human figure, a characteristic derived from the influence of his main reference, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

The sculpture is an allegorical representation of the morning, in the form of a naked woman with her arms raised to protect herself from the sun's rays. Located on a pedestal, the work is strategically located in a pond in the pavilion, whose silhouette when the sun appears is projected multiple times on reflections of the water, but also on the marble and glass, which further enhances the whole. .

The pavilion was conceived as an enclosure of modest dimensions and refined materials. The built core is determined through wall plans in different materials and views controlled through transparencies, opacities, overlaps and voids.

Here the noble materials used come into contact, glass, steel, and the types of marble that cover the metal frame of the building: Roman travertine (it is a natural sedimentary rock composed mainly of calcium and calcium carbonate and of Italian origin), alpine marble green, green ancient marble from Greece and golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains in Africa. An almost minimalist purity of forms characterizes its layout and design.

Visiting hours.

Open every day 10am-8pm, (March-October).

From 10am-6pm, (November-February).

Maximum access to the Pavilion, up to 15 minutes before closing.

Open doors.

First Sunday of the month.

Also, 02/11, Santa Eulalia.

23/04, Sant Jordi.

05/18, Museum Night.

24/09, La Mercè.

Entry price, €8

The space is lived intensely and the tranquility is enjoyed, a place that inspires and transmits peace, the simplicity of the structural elements, the purity in the geometric composition and the total absence of ornamental elements, makes it a “small earthly paradise.”

At the end of the tour of the Pavilion, I recommend that you sit quietly in any corner, close your eyes for a minute and try to remember the place that you liked the most. Open your eyes again and visit the chosen place again, you will find it even more beautiful.