Van der Home

Renovating Mies

It’s said that there are two kinds of architects: those who will only live in vernacular homes and those who would only live in a home of their own design. Now I know why. My partner Laura and I ignored both options and bought a townhouse designed by Mies van der Rohe. With my colleagues at Dash Marshall, we made limited renovations after devouring all of the books about Lafayette Park, looking for clues as to what Mies would do if given a do-over.

At one point Laura found me laughing at a copy of GA Houses Farnsworth. I was consumed by the beauty of the thermal heating diagram. She thought I had lost it. In all the research we were looking for some version of historical truth that could be restored, but what we found were two things that changed our minds.

Said diagram

First, the original condition of these houses was not actually that nice when you got down to the small details like closet hardware, appliances, and lighting. Bathrooms and kitchens from the 1950s were not all that great, nor are we so devoted to history that we want to live with an antiquated stove just to satisfy the ghost of a dead architect.

The original Lafayette Park stove folds down like an electrified murphy bed. I applaud my dedicated neighbors who have kept them up.

Second, as I spent time with Mies’ archives at MoMA I was drawn in by the numerous versions of our house that were never built. There was the plan that had two bedrooms instead of three, with the space of the final room devoted to an upstairs sitting room divided only by a curtain. Interesting.

Courtesy of MoMA, Floorplans from April ’57 on the left, showing an open bedroom at the top of the stairs and September ’58. The ‘58 plan is what was built. The interlocking ‘L’ shapes of the second floor are deceivingly efficient and introduce a nice variety to the units which are otherwise repetitive. The archives contain variations of the ’57 plan with a curtain giving the open bedroom at the top of the stairs more privacy.

Another showed covered parking where we have a surface lot. Probably overbearing. The specific plans that, in the end, were approved by the city and built by the original developer were one of many parallel options. Instead of trying to restore some contingent, “original” version of the house we instead decided to explore the architectural language that Mies and his office established here. The active words were floors, walls, ceilings, details, textiles.

Floors

Originally the floors in Lafayette Park were covered with vinyl asbestos tile. We decided to skip this option due to durability concerns with a cat who refuses to let us clip her nails. While we considered multiple options, one thing was certain: wood was off the table. Early modernists, including MVDR, so carefully sought to remove all traces of their dusty past, including the heavy wood and brocade interiors of the late Victorian era they were born into.

There’s no clearer statement than a famous poster advertising the Weissenhhofsiedlung, an exhibition of modernist multi-family housing designed by MVDR, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Bruno Taut, and others.

The early modernist floor is a pure floor, a smooth floor. The working class of the future would have no time for dirt and dust, the logic went, so there should be no place for either to hide. Grainy photos of MVDR’s house at Weissenhofsiedlung, found in Detlef Mertin’s book MIES, depicts a glossy surface with no apparent seams or tonal variation. I suspect it’s sheet linoleum, or perhaps tiles and their tight seams are lost in the photographic reproduction. It could be finished concrete, but we could not find evidence of MVDR using concrete as a finished flooring surface.

It’s tempting to look for clues in the decisions of Tugendhat House or Farnsworth House, two of MVDR’s notable residential commissions, but these were both single family private residences, which are a different ballgame. Both were for wealthy patrons where the budget would not have been as tightly controlled as in a larger project such as Lafayette Park. While they may contain clues, what we learned from these projects are only that: hints that pointed towards — but did not provide — an answer.

Laura and I traveled to Vienna shortly after buying our house, and that means we were near Villa Tugendhat. We took the opportunity to drag two friends through the Czech countryside for a look. It features a combination of sheet linoleum (lovingly restored and visible in the second photo below) and something that feels more right for Mies…

Photos from a visit to the Tugendhat House in March, 2015

There it is…. Travertine. Often described as marble, this creamy stone with hints of yellow and brown is actually a kind of limestone that has been a workhorse of demanding architecture since ancient times. Rome is travertine. Grand Central is travertine. Boutiques on 5th avenue are travertine. MVDR used the material for flooring in high traffic areas at Villa Tugendhat, such as the entrance and stairs (seen above). At Farnsworth House (completed 21 years after Tugendhat) the palette is more reductive: travertine becomes the only flooring material, indoors and out. Rectangular pavers are laid down so their length and grain are parallel to the long dimension of the house, leading one’s eyes through it and out to the surrounding meadow.

Photo by Peter Guthrie on Flickr
Farnsworth House floors. Photo by Minke Wagenaar on Flickr.

The surface of the stone is honed and unfilled which eliminates the shiny reflection one would find on a polished stone floor. When light hits a polished surface, it bounces off and finds an eyeball to harass for attention. But when light hits a honed surface it seeps in, eventually nestling into and through the micro thickness of calcite before reflecting back to the eye. This produces a subtle glow, uneven but present, that makes the stone feel alive. Polished stone, particularly on flooring, so often feels like a lifeless taxidermy version of itself. Friends do not let friends polish stone.

Ceilings

Living spaces and bedrooms in Lafayette Park, like many modernist houses, have no recessed lighting. Lamps were meant to light the space. This can be practically cumbersome, but the serenity of a completely blank ceiling is a thing of beauty.

Without any lights cut into it or vents protruding from it, the ceiling starts to feel more like a taut floating plane stretched above your head rather than a heavy drywall cap. To accomplish this, the plaster ceiling ends just short of the facade, creating a visual meeting between horizontal and vertical without any physical connection and the shadow that would result. This also creates a little soffit that hides all curtain hardware out of sight. Perfect.

Soffit detail (with old blinds)

With all of this work put into making a very special ceiling it’s a mystery to me why the the bedroom closets were originally installed with such clumsy hardware. Sliding closet doors originally ran on a ceiling mounted track which was hidden behind a small valance, weighing the whole room down and impairing the feeling the hard-fought levity described above. We fixed this by adapting Mies’ original facade soffit detail for use at the closets as well.

Closet (BEFORE) with red arrow indicating the wooden valance that hides the closet hardware

By raising the ceiling of the closets up by about six inches we were able to hide the track hardware and lighting up and out of sight. Now the horizontal plane of the ceiling takes visual precedence over the vertical plane created by the closet doors—and both meet with a slim line of shadow.

Closet (AFTER) with red arrow pointing to the recess that allows hardware to be hidden. Photo: Mark Wickens

Walls

Over the years, the kitchens of Lafayette Park townhouses have been the subject of repeatedly applied architectural imagination. The quest seems to have been driven by a desire for more storage (the animating force of kitchen renovations through the ages) and while this was a concern in our project, our primary preoccupation in the kitchen was how to gracefully let new meet old.

The ground floor plans of the Lafayette Park townhouses feature a rectangular “core” in the center that contains powder room, coat closet, and kitchen wet wall. Functionally, the existence of this core and its relationship to the walls adjacent to its four sides creates four spaces by implication: dining room, hallway, living room, and kitchen.

Floorplan courtesy of MoMA. “Fin walls” highlighted with red arrows.

A further step was taken by the architects to establish a sense of order by allowing the walls that span the short dimension of the floor plan to extend a few inches past the walls of the core that span the long dimension. We call these “fin walls.” In the floor plan this turns the core into a fat I-shape instead of a pure rectangle and this gives the walls that face the dining room and living rooms prominence, by extension casting the stair hallway and the kitchen as minor spaces. Have a look through MVDR’s floor plans and it’s rare to find a corner where two walls meet as equals; instead they hover next to each other with an air gap or one wall shoots past the other in the way that is employed in Lafayette Park. All of this is to say: you cannot just jam something up against the fin walls because the fin walls are special.

Farnsworth House, Tugendhat House, and Barcelona Pavilion with wall extensions circled

Our approach was to create a new set of fin walls just inside the originals — a kind of formal echo, slightly reduced in size. Between the original fins and the new ones is a gap of 2.5 inches that visually creates a strong shadow between new and old, revealing an intentional deference towards the original. In this case the absence of something does a lot of work. The reveal is architecture’s equivalent of the vacuum gap between two layers of a thermos, letting the old be old and the new be new without having to worry about cross contamination.

New core floorplan courtesy of Dash Marshall
Gap between old and new

Details — Coat rails

Open your closet today and the articles of clothing that hang are likely to be resting on a coat hanger hooked around a wood or metal rod. This has been a durable solution to the quandary of the closet for who knows how long, but in 1958–9 Mies van der Rohe and his office apparently had a vision for the future of closets. The rod would be no more.

The drawings for Lafayette Park show a custom piece of galvanized sheet steel, now known colloquially as a “J-bar” or “J-Rail” that replaces the typical closet bar. If you were to slice into this J-bar and look at the profile, it would look like a capital letter J drawn with straight lines. The top of the J was meant to be attached to a wooden shelf with screws and the tail of the letter bent around to catch the hook of a coat hanger.

Left: wooden shelf that used to have a J-bar attached, showing outline in layers of caked on paint. Middle: J-bar removed from shelf, before being spruced up. Right: stripped, powder coated, re-installed.

In later drawings the direction of the J was flipped, creating a backwards J, so that the gutter opens to the back of the closet instead of towards the front, and the angular bends of the letterform were smoothed out into what you see above. This has the pleasing effect of hiding the top of the coat hangers, making the clothing appear to float in midair beneath a steel-capped shelf. This is how the J-bars were built and installed in the units at Lafayette Park.

If you take it at face value that the closet rod should be reinvented then this is a clever way to do it. Giving the material a couple bends allows its thickness to be reduced, and attaching to the wooden shelf eliminates the need for any metal support hardware. Yet I can’t help but think of it as an inside joke. It’s a surprisingly complex piece of metalwork for such a mundane component in an overlooked part of the home. If it were chrome it could almost be a scrap from a factory churning out automative bumpers — protecting your vehicle on the avenues, and your coats in the armoire?

The geometry of this component stands out surprisingly curvy among the works of MVDR, so it’s tempting to think of this innovation in closet architecture was the product of both the time and place where it was invented. In the throes of a large urban renewal project, why shouldn’t the deepest of domestic interiors also be reinvented? And if you’re building anything in Detroit in the late 1950s, wouldn’t you want to take advantage of the city’s skills at bending sheet metal?

These historical factors are not to be dismissed — neither is the likely possibility that someone in MVDR’s office designed the rail with limited oversight — but we can also find a way to appreciate it as consonant with what is perhaps Van der Rohe’s defining fascination through his distinguished career: metal profiles and their combinatorics.

Architects are often defined by their preferred drawing. Eisenmann is known for his labored axonometrics, Le Corbusier for his floor plans, Koolhaas for his collages, and then there’s Mies, who is known for his detailed planimetric facade sections. These drawings crystalize the architect’s obsession with extruded metal “profiles” deployed in a variety of combinations and metals.

MVDR’s prolonged interest in the combinatorics of metal profiles provides a way to rationalize the surprisingly expressive J-bars hiding in the closets of Lafayette Park: an artful profile crafted out of the manipulation of a simple material, steel, through available means, the ample fabrication capacity of 1950s Detroit.

Thanks to Socks Studio for collecting all the profiles in one place. Could the J-bar be an extension of this fascination?

Textiles

Without textiles and landscape, modernist architecture is cold, hard, and sterile just like its critics claim it to be. This is also a story about heroic female designers whose role has been systematically downplayed.

Without Ray’s textiles, Ray and Charles Eames wouldn’t have infiltrated our lives to the extent that they have today. Without Eileen Gray’s screens and expressive use of textiles and rugs, Le Corbusier’s work would have been aseptic. And without Lilly Reich, MVDR would have been building sad, empty boxes.

Left: Ray Eames (Image from Vitra). Right: Shop designed by Eileen Gray (image from V&A).

Curtains to divide and shape interior space are where things get most interesting. By using steel columns to hold buildings up, early modernists liberated the floor plan have irregular and curving walls. Whether it’s the wood veneered curving dining nook at Villa Tugendhat or the suspended textile walls at Cafe Samt & Seide, there’s a clear modernist desire to create walls, one might say, as free as a curtain. What better way to do that than to literally employ curtains? When it comes to the architecture of MVDR, I think it’s safe to say that Lilly Reich gets a lot (most? all?) of the credit for introducing this to the vocabulary.

Left: Samt & Seide Cafe designed by MVDR and Lilly Reich. Right: Tugendhat House dining nook (photo: Greatbuildingsonline)

MVDR continues the use of in later projects, even after his collaboration with Reich had ended. Farnsworth uses curtains for privacy and definition of interior zones. The sketches for Lakeshore drive towers show a space dividing curtain, likely to keep the facade free of walls. At Lafayette Park the presentation floorplans show an ambiguous mark near the front door. The rendering of the plan is so reductive that it’s unclear weather this is intended to be a curtain or a freestanding screen, either of which are defensible based on MVDR’s prior work.

Screen/curtain highlighted in red

We could not determine what this was meant to be, but based on the use of curtains in other projects, and the logical function of a curtain to block the dining room from the entrance (in a cold climate no less) we liked the idea of a curtain. Whatever it was meant to be, this detail was never built or installed in any of the units, as far as I could tell from my research in the archives. There were no photos showing a screen or curtain in this position. We decided to put our faith and trust in Lilly Reich and built that which was never built. The secret weapon of modernism is textiles.

Photos by Mark Wickens

See the rest of the project on the Dash Marshall website.