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Mies van der Rohe Haus curator on the philosopher of the Bauhaus architects

INTERVIEW! Mies van der Rohe Haus, an often overlooked gem of Bauhaus architecture, was rescued from a state of almost total disrepair during East German rule by its curator Wita Noack. She tells us about the masterpiece of modernist design.

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Photo by Thomas Grabka. Mies van der Rohe Haus in Berlin’s Alt-Hohenschönhausen is a wonder of Bauhaus architechture.

Straddling a sizeable portion of the Obersee in Berlin’s Alt-Hohenschönhausen, a district Berliners tend to associate with the former Stasi prison and labyrinthine Plattenbau complexes, is an oft-overlooked masterpiece of modernist architecture. Originally named Haus Lemke, art historian and museum director Wita Noack, opted to rename the villa after its architect, the pioneering Mies van der Rohe, commander-in-chief of the Bauhaus School. Faced with the task of rehabilitating a building that had fallen into almost total disrepair under East German rule and opening it to the public post-Mauerfall, Dr. Noack considered a number of options. Today the Mies van der Rohe Haus, peculiar in both shape and material, quietly beckons visitors seeking artistic enrichment, architectural inspiration, and above all: a space to contemplate the self and retreat into nature. 

Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Haus Lemke’, built for Karl and Martha Lemke in 1927, was only converted into a public space in 1933. Can you tell me a little about its transformation over the twentieth century?

There’s a lot of ground to be covered. First of all, the house was first used by the East German State Security Services [Stasi] after the end of the Second World War and wasn’t considered an architectural monument. The magistrate of Berlin only designated it a monument for preservation and protection in 1977. Until then it stood in a restricted area and operated as a kind of ad-hoc hostel, with a washhouse, warehouse, canteen and common room for staff. The garden had been levelled and converted into a parking lot. So it was in a dire state at the time of the Fall of the Wall. Our principal aim was to restore the house to its original condition.

That said, your ultimate aim was to open it to the public.

You’ve got to picture the situation to yourself. You have this house, and suddenly the municipality of Lichtenberg declares that it wants to open it to the public. Because for a long time it hadn’t been. That was the first step. The second step was to actually research the house, because it had always only played a peripheral role in the Mies biography, and we needed to scrape out its role and meaning. So that’s what I did: researched the house, analysed correspondence between Mies and his client [Bauherrn], investigated the history and tried to ascertain the place of the house within the framework of Mies’ complete oeuvre, and that’s what I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on.

Until then the house had been heard of, but not really understood—it was considered a marginal work, there was false information lying about, and so on. That was one reason to properly investigate the house, and another was that it was relatively small and remote. In comparison to Mies’ other works—you know, the Barcelona Pavillion, Villa Tugendhat in Brno with its stately stone-marble pillars—this was a rather simple building. I eventually came to the conclusion that this house represented a concentrate of modernism: it was here that Mies realised what he had only been able to realise elsewhere with much more funding, and he realised these principles with more consistency, too. Also of interest were the building’s status as a courtyard house, and one with an indispensable connection to the attached garden. Nature and architecture are indelibly entangled with each other here. And there isn’t a single corner in this house that doesn’t have a purpose.

What were the challenges you faced in rehabilitating this space to the place that Mies had first built?

Well, the next step was to give this house a concept that worked. One of the challenges we faced was that the furniture wasn’t there anymore. Through the division of Germany and in particular Berlin—Karl and Martha Lemke were evicted from the house in 1945—matters of property grew complicated. In 1951 Karl Lemke was ‘enteignet’, stripped of the factory he owned, and subsequently migrated, full of justifiable frustration, to West Berlin with his wife. Martha Lemke lived well into old age and donated her entire inheritance to various museums in Berlin in 1984. You’ve got to imagine it: they couldn’t return to their home because of the Wall, and ended up giving their furniture to the Kunstgewerbemuseum by means of a will. Their artwork, meanwhile, went to the Brücke-Museum, the Gemälde-Museum, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, here stood the house: an empty shell.

Like Mies, I’m more oriented towards the future. So the question facing me was: what do you do with this heritage and how do you make it interesting for the public? And how do you do that without the original furniture? From the very beginning I was taken by the concept of a ‘living museum’, considering that the house needed to be renovated. Between 2000 and 2002 it was restored to its original condition for a million euros, and what you now see is almost exactly true to the original. We had a good starting position and had the sources we needed to remain true to the original, and were therefore able to carry out our work with accuracy. But then what? We could have opted to focus on the Lemkes.

But that wouldn’t have helped the ‘living’ aspect of ‘living museum’.

Precisely. We had a lot to thank them for as builders and clients, but we weren’t going to reconstruct their life here. Then there was Mies, one of the four most eminent architects of the twentieth century, and I believe that his influence reaches right into the present day, that he continues to inspire artists, designers and architects. You just can’t get around Mies. So we wanted to make him the central figure here, and that was why we renamed this institution from ‘Haus Lemke’ to the ‘Mies-van-der-Rohe-Haus’. And because this building was empty, we needed to find a way to fill it—so we opted for exhibitions, exhibitions of art from the heyday of modernism to contemporary work. We ask, “So, what have artists been up to in the last hundred years?” And then we try to connect that work directly to the house, with an eye to its proportions. The artists we exhibit only do in-sito installations; there’s none of this importing pictures and hanging them business.

The house shows how rich Mies was in his thinking and how far he was ahead of his time.

How are those exhibitions connected to one another?

We work in yearly themes. Last year the theme was ‘Mies sitting and lying down’, and for that we combined the furniture we have in the Kunstgewerbemuseum with contemporary art, always juxtaposing a piece of furniture with a piece of contemporary art—like the photography of Thomas Ruff with Mies’ chaise longue, and that kind of thing. This year was the anniversary of Bauhaus, obviously, and because Mies was the director of the Bauhaus at the time, we asked ourselves what it actually was under his direction. And we arrived at four themes: Delighting the World (Beglückung der Welt), White Box (Weiße Kiste), Innovations and Prescriptions (Neuheiten und Rezepte), and Movement as Dream (Bewegung als Traum). Those were simultaneously the titles of our four exhibitions, and for each we invited three contemporary artists. And next year—you’re the first to hear of this—our theme will be ‘Space-Time Odyssey’. Because the nexus of space and time played a significant role in modernism and we actually also find ourselves in a time of transformation [Zeitenwandel], and we too are asking ourselves: where do we actually want to go? Where’s the future? And this house was built in the midst of precisely such a discussion that culminated in the conclusion that time and space flow into each other, Einstein and all. That is demonstrably constituted by the house.

And in its constantly changing surroundings?

Absolutely. The air seems to be pregnant with the question: “what about this future stuff?”, people seem to be asking. It seems we should begin to extricate ourselves from the past, from the looking back, and finally take a peek into the future the way that Mies and his modernist contemporaries, who had absolutist ideas of the future, did. So to return to your question yet again, our concept is to identify the spirit of the place and to reignite it again and again. And these exhibitions do that—they animate the house, keep it in motion. They always bring one particular aspect of the house to resound, an aspect that’s rooted in the principles of the house, and thereby show how rich Mies was in his thinking and how far ahead of his time he was.

Singular an architect though Mr. van der Rohe may have been, how exactly does this house differ from other exemplars of Bauhaus in Berlin?

The Bauhaus masters were actually very heterogeneous. Each of them had his own individual cosmos and outlook on the world and what the future held. And Mies was, in a way, the more traditional among them—you’ve seen that this house is made of brick. In the 1920s they even had the saying that ‘Backstein tut uns leid, Glas bringt uns die neue Zeit’ (‘Brick is so passé, glass will herald a new day’), because brick is a material that has been used for millennia, and the Bauhaus school tended towards these new, white plastered façades.

Mies, however, managed to reconcile the modern with the traditional by constructing block-formed buildings from this historical substance. So the choice of material is unique. In other respects, though, it’s representative of the Bauhaus style with its key concepts of light, air, sun and movement. The house is structured as a series of walls and openings—it isn’t entirely walled but comprised of walls and openings that force the person to move around the house. Complementing that is the omnipresent proximity to nature, which is helped by the house comprising only a single storey.

Mies is the philosopher of the Bauhaus architects. He wanted to create a contemplative space that gave the resident opportunity for self-expression and the freedom to do as s/he wanted. In other Bauhaus buildings you have a series of prescriptions, whether in the form of ‘this must be understood as X’ or ‘this goes here, not there’, or ‘one must move along these lines’. Mies provided only the walls, only threw the die—but the ultimate choice is left to the resident.