Text by Dan Handel
Mies van der Rohe’s built works often provoke an unresolved contradiction: on the one hand, these are works of rational thrust, in which the logic of building is manifest in its structural and volumetric articulation; on the other, there is frequently an idealist undertone, apparent in certain material and architectural choices that do not conform to the rationalist framework, in luxury marble and artworks that decorate interiors, and in majestic natural landscapes that appear in collages for unrealized projects.
The McCormick House in Chicago, today part of the Elmhurst Art Museum, is probably one of Mies’s more rationalized built works. Originally built in 1952 as a suburban house for the developer of the well-known Lakeshore Drive towers, the project was designed as a prototype for the McCormick’s intention to develop a line of prefab houses. In that, it followed the Case Houses program run by the Arts&Architecture magazine in the west coast, and other prefab projects by modern architects, including fellow émigrés Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann. In comparison to these experiments, and especially to the better Case Study House examples, Mies’s house is simple and indistinct. It carries some of the architect’s familiar tropes but it mostly speaks of the attempt to simplify these tropes to a set of elements that can be recombined in different ways for different layouts and site conditions.
It is precisely in this project that Chicago-based artist Assaf Evron proposes an uncanny intervention that resurfaces the less rational aspects of Mies’s architectural work. Evron studied the architect’s collages on paper, in which he portrayed American landscapes as would be seen through the projects glass windows to propose a similar operation in one-to-one scale. The windows at the McCormick House are layered form the inside with printed curtains that transport two idyllic landscapes – from the outside, rock formations from the Dead Sea taken by the artist and from the inside, a historic photograph of Bavarian Alps, taken in the first decades of the twentieth century. These two landscapes sketch an unassuming analogy between two migrations – the artist and the architect – that ended up in Chicago. In that, the museum text argues, it is possible to highlight notions of foreignness and global citizenship in eras of nationalist politics. However, beyond the more theoretical arguments and debates that are part of the contemporary art world, the work operates quite directly on the senses. The moment it takes to realize that what you see is not a reflection, the lunar rocky landscape that is contained in the modules of the window frames, and even the majestic alps through which you see the cars parked outside all enforce the feeling of a mirage that landed in the building. This mirage, blending as it is time, space, and perception, that allows for an unexpected, yet very natural, kinship between an active Israeli artist in his forties and a dead German architect, last seen in Chicago c. 1969.
A Conversation Between Christine Mehring and Assaf Evron
On the occasion of Assaf Evron’s architectural intervention in Mies van der Rohe’s McCormick House, he conducted an interview with the art historian Christine Mehring. The conversation ranged from the house’s structure, modern architecture, other artists, and their own heritage.
Assaf Evron: The McCormick House was an experiment in prefabricated modular architecture. This is the unique thing about this house. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was trying to figure out how the structure of I-beams and glass that he had already developed for the high-rises can be applied to a suburban home. It is based on separate rectangular units that can be reconfigured in many ways. It reminded me of how pyrite crystals form in nature, in sequences of perfect squares connected together.
Christine Mehring: That is why the artist Robert Smithson was so interested in these crystals as well. It is a very simple, serial structure that expands in such a way that one can no longer perceive its simplicity.
AE: For this work, I photographed pyrite crystals in different positions. And each time, a new structure, or new potential structure, is created.
CM: I find it interesting to think about the translation from three-dimensional objects to collages. Often, when you move something from three dimensions to a two-dimensional work, there’s a way in which it becomes simpler. But this is actually becoming more complicated. I think it has a lot to do with the loss and condensation of information, and with the shifting scale and surface texture. You can’t figure out at all what this would be like in three dimensions.
AE: This is what photography does so well. It is descaling, alienating.
CM: That’s why I never understood all these arguments about photography as a “realistic” medium. I find nothing more alienating, estranging, and defamiliarizing than shifting something from three dimensions into two. It’s a profound change.
AE: I feel similarly. That’s why I think photography can be so reflexive. It can propose the visual possibility that then becomes an invitation for critical thinking about the things that are familiar to us.
CM: How does abstraction, which is also so important in your work, fit into this?
AE: There’s a tension between abstraction and representation. It’s an interplay, or negotiation, or dialectic that always plays out in my work, but also in Mies’s collages.
CM: So, are those pyrite images photographs or a digital print?
AE: It is a photograph printed on paper that I cut out and pasted on a blank paper so that I could have a figure-ground relationship. When Mies worked on his collages in the US, they were a very unique visual language. They were not necessarily representational, but also not completely abstract. They were a conceptual exercise. They do not represent architecture as much as they represent a thought process. In the pyrite collages, I followed this idea where the paper serves as a speculative space to reflect on an object that is not necessarily grounded in a direct, physical reality.
CM: Is this perceptual process something you see in Mies’s architecture or is it a kind of rebellion against the image of Mies? An attempt to take what has so often been understood as a concern with clean lines and simple minimalist architecture and spin it out of control.
AE: I think that’s the way that people like to look at Mies, but it’s much more complicated than that, and rooted in a complex history. Neil Levine in his essay about Mies’s collages brings up the term “a will of an era,” the idea that every historical period has its own modes of representation and production. It’s an interesting perspective on the collages, which are traditionally associated with Dada, but also with Mies’s architecture. Especially in his U.S. buildings this hyper rationality for the top down creator, but you can also think that he was actually working with what was available, with the opportunities the time and place provided. It’s very pragmatic. But it can also be understood as vernacular architecture. What do we have here? I-beams and glass. Let’s make a building out of that.
CM: Both you and Mies and I came to Chicago and experienced the city as foreigners, immigrants, whatever you want to call us. When you live in a place that’s totally foreign to you, and you start trying to make a life there, inhabit it and make it your own, there’s a way in which all of the small details that are strange and slightly different manifest. The way the baseboards are made differently, the way the concrete looks different, how different the asphalt looks. It’s possible that Mies’s use of materials is motivated by a similar experience.
AE: Yes, you can actually see things when you’re foreign, you see the evident. But the fact that something is evident to everyone also makes it transparent. As a local/foreigner you have a strange view of the place and you see all those things. For me, Home Depot is an amazing experience. Looking at all those stairs stringers, for example, inspires my work Athens and Oraibi. Those stringers are a super vernacular, they are so specific to here. An object I never saw before. Everything is unique and different from other places. Everything is standardized to code. It was almost as if they figured it out and there is only one-way to build. This is what Home Depot is all about: you walk into a store and you can buy materials to build a house from scratch including all the appliances and furniture.
CM: Was there something about Mies, when you first came to Chicago, that was quintessential American or Chicago to you, or did it feel like a mix? Was he this mixed figure that transcended the continents for you?
AE: I think Mies’s collages are an interesting case study, especially the one of the Resor House in Wyoming from 1937–38, and reflect this complexity. Those are the first collages he made in the US and the first time he made the kind of collages that negotiated the relationship between an architectural interior, materials, structure, landscape, and artworks.
CM: There’s a way in which the world in this photograph feels just as collaged as these pieces. I mean, they’re becoming much more alike.
AE: Yes, and that was the motivation for this collage project.
CM: So you were looking at the McCormick House?
AE: I was looking at the collages from Mies’s American period and I was interested in the materiality of the collages and specially in the fact that Mies was using landscape photographs, cut and pasted into the window modules. And I thought; wait, what happens if I use that myself? What happens if I actually take landscape photographs and mount them on the window modules of his actual buildings?
CM: It’s almost like you’re realizing the collages, or the collage principle, in reality. I want to talk about something, but I don’t mean for it to seem like I’m asking what it means to do this kind of work in Chicago with relationship to Mies. Rather, it’s something about the way that I experience Chicago: as very a place where nature is always somehow mediated, especially when you think about Lake Michigan. We so often experience the lake as something that is just there. I don’t pay much attention to it. But I pay a lot of attention to it when I drive down Lake Shore Drive when it’s totally mediated through the car window, or when I visit friends who live in high rises and see it out the window. That’s when you really become aware of this majestic nature that we have in Chicago. But it’s very rare. Even when I walk down by the lake, I feel like it’s there but I can’t relate to it because it’s so big.
AE: And for Mies the window is of course an optical apparatus that mediates the exterior to the interior, a way of seeing nature, yet removed from nature. But I am not sure how I feel about this statement.
CM: Because it is so separate?
AE: Yes, I would like to go beyond the culture-nature division. I would like to think that culture is part of nature.
CM: That’s what I meant I guess, that nature is grasped here in Chicago only as mediated by and intertwined with culture. And that’s what I think is so important about your McCormick project. Because from inside, viewers can still see out through the photographs. So they begin to blend in a way that is certainly more aware of this blending. The window may be a spatial separation, but because of the visual blending, things come together through the photographs. Especially when you’ve seen it from the outside. You suddenly have nature (in representation) and nature (through the window) and you begin to think of these together.
AE: Yes, and the photographic installation on the exterior of the McCormick House follows that idea. The photograph of the rock formation from the Dead Sea, for example, solidifies the one-story building, almost turning it to one geological cut.
On the interior of the house I installed roller curtains. But instead of an abstracted geological view I printed on them iconic German landscape. It’s also about the relationship between the interior and exterior. On the exterior, the building turned into this geological object. And the image on the interior anchors the installation in a historical context.
CM: There’s an interesting tension between the mountains being generic, like quintessential clichés, but there’s a reason why this image is more of a cliché than the Dead Sea. I can’t help but think of us sitting here, a German and an Israeli both living in Chicago and the source imagery we’re discussing comes from Germany and Israel. Your work has strongly political and historical connotations.
AE: A lot of the ideas of modernism were generated in Germany in the first half of the 20th century and the war was this unperceivable explosion. And the ideas of modernism migrated in both directions, to the Middle East and the US.
CM: The relation between pre- and postwar modernist architecture is interesting in Europe also, after the war modernism gets revived and scaled up in all of these contexts. Different materials get introduced. During the war many of the large German cities, especially in the west, were heavily bombed. And then there was immediate postwar reconstruction, which many Germans hate and I particularly love. I think there are some similarities between Israeli modernism and German-European modernism in this second wave.
AE: I actually grew up in those projects. It was called a “train project.” It was only three floors tall, but a whole street long. I knew nothing about modernism, but I grew up in a modernist environment.
CM: I suppose that was what was considered neutral, normal, across much of the world.
AE: Yes. Everybody grew up in this kind of architecture. It was great, I loved it.
But there was also a dystopian aspect to those projects. In Israel, they were an ad-hoc architectural solution for inhabiting underprivileged immigrants who came from North Africa and the other Middle Eastern countries, with no consideration or regard to their actual needs.
CM: It’s somewhat similar to what happened to the more generic postwar architecture from the 1950s and ’60s in German cities. Because following the wave of immigration from Italy, Greece, Spain, and Turkey, many immigrants settled in those projects and the Germans were able to afford row houses, you know, small, independent two-story-tall townhomes.
AE: And on this side of the world we have Pruitt-Igoe, the moment when social housing ostensibly failed. And it’s a moment that I’m very interested in because it was instrumentalized by postmodern thinkers as the death of modernism and the birth of postmodernism. Looking at that moment now it becomes clear this was actually a failure of regulation and social services, not of the architecture itself.
CM: Going back to buildings and your “tinting” the window panes, I think about Chicago and all those glass high-rise buildings that make you think of glass as neutral, generic, always the same. But glass is tinted, it has colors, you can see it when they replace the windows and don’t do it right. This installation, to me reads like the borderline of reflections—you try and figure out what is reflected there. And that makes it very uncanny. So your intervention reads a bit like these glass planes that have been replaced that don’t quite fit.
AE: Mies was very interested in the color of the glass. In the Barcelona Pavilion he used several colors of glass. For the McCormick House, since it was meant to be a prototype for prefabricated modular architecture, the developers proposed that the house owners could choose the color of the glass. It is interesting how the early aesthetic ideas of Mies circulate later in the consumer economy of American suburbia.
CM: You were talking earlier about how you collect these landscape photographs even though you don’t know how you might use them. How important is it to you to have it be known where these photographs are from? Does it matter? One of the things I was thinking about in relation to this is some of your earlier work, like the 54 Basel Street project in Israel, which made me think of the artist Ellsworth Kelly. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, he took a lot of photographs in Europe—he was an American in Paris. He took all these photographs and that really inspired his abstract paintings; he would take fragments and motifs from the photographs and paint them. But he never wanted to have those photographs be viewed with the paintings. They were inspiration but it didn’t supposedly matter where the motifs came from. I never bought it.
AE: Me either. But, I think he used the sources for the titles.
CM: Yes, the paintings are titled this and that street, sidewalk, door, window, Awnings, Avenue Matignon (1950), Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris (1949).
AE: I’m very interested in the relationship of abstraction as presentation, also as a form of index. It’s like indexicality that is very much embedded in the photographic but can also be applied and activated in abstract painting. There is a source—especially with photography, there’s always something in front of the camera. And in the photograph you can alienate it but I am interested in the point in which you take this alienation as far as you can, but still keep the source resonating. Which is a delicate balance or dialectic that every work negotiates slightly differently.
CM: At various moments of his life, Kelly actually made site-specific projects and paintings for architecture. Which raises the question of perception: how one experiences these, how Kelly tried to make these paintings part of the building, the paintings thus both draw attention and compete with the architecture. It also brings up the question of the meeting of design and art that seems so important in your work too.
What I love about this project with the McCormick House too, is that you can look from afar and maybe not even quite realize what’s going on. It blends into the architecture. And there’s a way in which your nature blends into the surrounding nature. So it is pressing into and against the normal.