The German-American architect Dirk Lohan began to record his conversations with his grandfather Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the summer of 1969. The tapes, recorded during the final weeks of Mies’s life, captured some of the architect’s very last words. They were sent to the Mies van der Rohe Archive of the Museum of Modern Art in New York after his death, though they went missing under unknown circumstances. Only an incomplete typescript remains as a testimony to the conversations. The Lost, Last Words of Mies van der Rohe presents this text in its entirety for the very first time.
The conversations relayed in the typescript reveal the famously reticent Mies speaking about his own life with a level of detail, precision, and candour found nowhere else. They shed new light on Mies’s character – not only as a serious, philosophical man but also as a human being alive to the humorous aspects of life. This book features a foreword by Dirk Lohan and an introductory essay by Fritz Neumeyer, one of the world’s most eminent scholars on Mies. Neumeyer’s commentary and analysis provide keen insights into how Mies developed his architectural thinking during his early career, on his way to becoming one of the most important modern architects of the twentieth century.
The inside flap of this book’s back cover indicates that The Lost, Last Words of Mies van der Rohe was “published as volume 111 in the Basics series” put out by Berlin’s DOM Publishers. The young yet sizable series aims to “scrutinize critically the debate on architecture and urban development and also to help shape it.” It does this through titles in German, English, and other languages on subjects as varied as patches from Soviet and Russian space missions, shrinking cities in Romania, modern architecture in Venice, Jacques Derrida, and Peter Eisenman (the last two are separate titles, by the way). Featuring what is certainly the last recorded conversation with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and what is therefore a truncated recounting of his life story, The Lost, Last Words is, at first glance at least, mainly recommended to completists: to those assembling the whole series and those who must have every book devoted to Mies.
Mies’s conversation was with his grandson, architect Dirk Lohan, who moved from Germany to Chicago to work with his grandfather in the 1960s and ironically ended up working on Mies’s only German commission, the recently refurbished Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. As Lohan recounts in the brief foreword, he and Mies had regular Thursday night dinners, “lively discussions” accompanied by cigars and drinks. It wasn’t until many of those dinners went by that Lohan realized he should have been recording them for posterity. By the time he did, sometime in the summer of 1969, his grandfather’s failing health had caught up with him, resulting in his death that August and the interruption of Lohan’s plan to get Mies’s whole life story on tape. Coincidentally, I’m guessing, Lohan — himself a successful architect in Chicago, who restored Mies’s Farnsworth House decades ago — is now 83, the same age as Mies when he died.
The Lost, Last Words is a book in three parts: a facsimile of the original transcript, most of it in German; an English translation of the transcription keyed to the pages of the original; and, before both of those parts, nearly thirty pages of commentary by Fritz Neumeyer, author of The Artless World, which Lohan considers the “eminent book” on Mies. People with deep knowledge of Mies’s architecture and life will no doubt jump to the transcript, which is rewarding for the information he shared on his early years in Germany as well as for revealing what Lohan describes as “a sense for the humorous aspects of life.” But they should not skip Neumeyer’s commentary; his knowledge of Mies is deep and he’s not afraid to raise flags of skepticism during his dissection of the conversation. The value in the book is most directly evident in it making a long-lost tape available to German- and English-speaking audiences, but Neumeyer’s historical/critical/annotative text is what holds the book together, putting Mies’s last words into context and making this contribution to the Basics series worthwhile.
* Syndicated content from A Daily Dose of Architecture Books.
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