The Barcelona Pavilion

I didn’t like Barcelona, so I left. I think it was all of the jorts and selfie sticks and generally asinine behavior of the tourists. But I did see Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion and it was cool. I guess it's called the Barcelona Pavilion now, though.


Mies van der Rohe is arguably the father of modern architecture. A lot of people look at modern architecture and think it's about cold, uninviting buildings with straight lines. It can be. But for me, modernism is about materials. It's about a handful of people who stood around in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and said: 

"You know what, we've got reinforced concrete and plate glass and steel and the factories to make all of it cheaply, so why don't we try building stuff differently? Let's use pre-fabricated materials, but let's bring natural light into people's homes. Let's skip the ornamentation but let's give people the best apartments and libraries and train stations that industry and ingenuity will allow. More importantly, let's try to do it for everyone, rather than just the rich."

You see, at its heart, modernism was (and I hope is) about building the best structures for the most people. If the buildings end up looking a little bland, that's just because they're cutting out the bullshit and the pretense when they answer the question of "what do people really need from me?" 

Of course, modernism wasn't the spectacular success that the modernists expected. There was a backlash. Modernism sought to neatly organize cities into residential and commercial areas--thereby keeping the noise and the chaos of industry away from the home--and to connect it all with the magic of the automobile.

But as it turned out, people wanted a bit of chaos in their cities. They wanted brick, not concrete, even if it was more expensive.

The modernists had cooked up an elegant solution to all the problems of urban life in the 1800s--the overcrowding and the misery and the disease. They tried to give everyone parks and balconies and kitchens with modern appliances. Unfortunately, it never occurred to them that the people living inside might not like the way it felt.

Anyway, if you’ve been to Chicago, you’ve seen Mies's buildings--simple, slightly raw, and now dwarfed by Trump Tower (as much as it pains me to say it, Trump Tower in Chicago is a good building). If you haven’t been to Chicago, you’ve probably heard “less is more.” That’s Mies.

Anyway, the German/Barcelona Pavilion is considered a watershed moment in the history of architecture. It’s all flat surfaces and right angles. It’s a tiny, flat-roofed cathedral of marble and glass and travertine. It’s unbelievably simple--so simple that you end up walking in circles, looking for the door that takes you to the main event. There isn’t one. To the uninitiated, it probably seems like a waste of five euros to wander through it.

But if you know that it was built in 1929, it’s different.

Imagine what the world looked like in 1929: horses were everywhere, but street lamps weren’t. Hemingway had just finished A Farewell to Arms and men wore top hats unironically. I can almost see them now, throwing their hats in the dirt and yelling “what is this shit?!” as they stand beside it.

Barcelona 1929.jpg

For some reason, I just know that the vast majority of people who attended the 1929 International Exposition--for which the Pavilion was built--were confused and repulsed by it. You can see the same reaction in contemporary art museums today--flustered people, consumed by comparing what they’re looking with what they’ve been told art is supposed to look like.

It’s not really their fault. Art, like architecture, is overrun with a bunch of pedantic, rich fucks who are more concerned with establishing the preeminence of their taste through gibberish and limp-wristed* motions rather than answering the essential question of “how does this make me feel?” In other words, I can’t really blame most people for being hesitant to endorse new and (initially) uncomfortable ideas because they often have to run a gauntlet of snide pricks first.

*meant in the most literal, least offensive sense


But the Pavilion--the Pavilion made me feel open. It made me feel uncluttered and calm and turquoise and introspective. I genuinely enjoyed the clotheslines, too. They prodded me to relax a bit, to stop clasping my hands behind my back.

After all, it’s just somebody’s house, right?


By the way, here's a link to some of great sketches and paintings of the building.