The 20,000 visitors a day who came to the building that topped the Weissenhof hill to view the apartments designed by Mies van der Rohe would have seen not just a new kind of living space but also a new spiritual consciousness. From the exterior, the apartment building is straightforward and lacks the airy lightness of his later works and the consciousness that windows could be an innovative grid composition of transparency against white blank walls. The windows and walls are equal in visual weight, and only occasionally is the relentless march of uniformity broken by a vertical succession of four balconies above the entry doors. Because of the rise of the land, this stalwart block acted as a backdrop for the smaller dwellings, which descend in terraces down the hill.
As blank-faced as it looked, the design by Mies contained a decade of complex thinking. When much of his pre-war work was still in the experimental stages, Mies had expressed a philosophy of Neues Wohnen or New Living. By examining his own life in his own Berlin apartment after the War, Mies came to understand that spaces formed social personalities, and that people shaped the spaces in which they lived. This exchange or interaction between people and places became the philosophical basis for his understanding of the capacity of architecture to become a spiritual experience. The utopian idea of modern architecture having its own spiritual essence was commonly expressed by modern architects in the sense that modern technology had a beneficial end for the betterment of humanity.
Mies had deliberately put himself in the midst of such post war architectural intellectual thinking. Immediately after the Great War, he joined the Novembergruppe, an eclectic gathering of artists, such as Lyonel Feininger and Otto Müller and architects, like Walter Gropius and Erich Mendelsohn, and the creator of modern theater, Bertolt Brecht. He was widely read, combining into his own concepts, classical German sources with his unacknowledged borrowing of Dutch philosophy, through the ideas of Theo van Doesburg, who brought a uniquely Dutch sensibility to architecture, namely the concept of elementare Gestaltung, or “elementary form-giving.” Functionalism was a practical solution to an acute problem—the desperate need for modern housing in Germany, but it was soul-less and bleak, lacking a thickness of thought and relying upon the thin concept of materialism or New Objectivity.
By 1926 Mies became convinced that new technology and new materials and new methods of the modern world were also carriers of a new modern state of mind, a new consciousness, which he believed, was a new spirituality expressed in architecture. Mies felt that modern life needed to have its full expression through its own container, the place where one lived and worked. In other words, he gave up the idea of style for form which would be generated by need, the needs of society. In other words, as Frank Lloyd Wright’s work had suggested, spaces needed to opened, eliminating rooms with definitive purposes, which limited their use, in favor of individuality. The imposition of architectural purpose upon the inhabitant had to be renounced, so that each person could actualized the space and his or her own life. Space had to be flexible enough to allowed those who lived in their private quarters to configure a room to their individual needs.
Until the Weissenhof project, the concept of “Flexible Living” was only a dream, until, behind the uniform exterior Mies made it so. The architect suggested a sequence of rooms, but, aside from the kitchen and bathroom and stairs, moveable partitions allowed the resident to alter the function of the rooms at will. Rather than being timeless of eternal, frozen in time, his apartment building with all its domestic units was a firm shell for interior spaces that could be altered according to the needs of successive generations. The key term for the Weissenhof was the rallying cry for architects of the Twenties was rationalization. Sentiment and tradition must yield in the face of social necessity and cultural change.
But Mies wanted to go beyond mere technology and acknowledge the need to reform life itself through new places to live. His challenge was a profound one and Mies was, knowingly or not, attempting to do for modern architecture what the Biedermeier architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg claimed was the virtue of traditional German architecture which nourished the heart and mind, creating a place called “home” in the sense that a modern dwelling, in its hard coldness, could not.
Although the other architects in the Weissenhof were tasked with installing furniture in their homes, Mies designed only two areas in his free plan, once again suggesting to the viewer the endless possibilities for furnishings that were personal choices. As historian Carsten Krohn noted, the apartment building was deceptively fragile, writing in he said that “Without maintenance and renovation, the building would today be a ruin.” Plaster, rather than stucco, would always be a problem, white walls in a city experiencing pollution would be rarely clean, and, as was pointed out in the discussion on the homes of the Masters at the Bauhaus, the glazed walls let in cold air and the heat of the summer.
As soon as the Nazis assumed power in Germany, the thirty-three houses and sixty-three apartments were under threat and the innovative and significant work architects from Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria barely escaped Hitler’s wrath. In 1939, the city of Stuttgart sold the complex to the Nazi who planned to raze the structures and replace them with army barracks, but almost half of the buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War. And the roof wars continued, even after World War II. The architects had intended the flat roofs to be used as gardens, intensifying the experience of terracing that was so consequential to the Weissenhof. but tradition-minded residents modified the white geometry and the open spaces to their own needs and tastes. Today only a handful of surviving buildings have been restored and pilgrims still come and pay homage to the Weissenhofsiedlung.