Mies was born March 27, 1886 in Aachen, Germany. He worked in his father's stone carving shop and at several local design firms before he moved to Berlin, where he joined the office of interior designer Bruno Paul. He began his architectural career as an apprentice at the studio of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912, where he was exposed to the current design theories and to progressive German culture, working alongside Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, who was later also involved in the development of the Bauhaus. Mies served as construction manager of the Embassy of the German Empire in Saint Petersburg under Behrens.
In 1913, Mies married Adele Auguste (Ada) Bruhn (1885-1951), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. The couple separated in 1918, after having three daughters: Dorothea (1914-2008), an Actress and Dancer who was known as Georgia, Marianne (1915-2003), and Waltraut (1917-1959), who was a research scholar and curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. During his military Service in 1917, Mies fathered a son out of wedlock. In 1925 Mies began a relationship with designer Lilly Reich that ended when he moved to the United States; from 1940 until his death, Artist Lora Marx (1900-1989) was his primary companion. Mies carried on a romantic relationship with Sculptor and art collector Mary Callery for whom he designed an artist's studio in Huntington, Long Island, New York. He also was rumored to have a brief relationship with Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned his work for the Farnsworth House. Marianne's son Dirk Lohan (b. 1938) studied under, and later worked for, Mies.
An innovative Architect in 1920's and 1930's Germany, Mies was the last Director of the Bauhaus, a seminal school in modern architecture. After Nazism's rise to power, and with its strong opposition to modernism (leading to the closing of the Bauhaus itself), Mies fled to the United States. He accepted the position to head the architectural school at the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago.
While continuing his traditional neoclassical design practice Mies began to develop visionary projects that, though mostly unbuilt, rocketed him to fame as an Architect capable of giving form that was in harmony with the spirit of the emerging modern society. Boldly abandoning ornament altogether, Mies made a dramatic modernist debut with his stunning competition proposal for the faceted all-glass Friedrichstraße skyscraper in 1921, followed by a taller curved version in 1922 named the Glass Skyscraper.
He joined the German avant-garde, working with the progressive design magazine G which started in July 1923. He developed prominence as architectural Director of the Werkbund, organizing the influential Weissenhof Estate prototype modernist housing exhibition. He was also one of the founders of the architectural association Der Ring. He joined the avant-garde Bauhaus design school as their Director of architecture, adopting and developing their functionalist application of simple geometric forms in the design of useful objects. He served as its last Director.
Archival materials are also held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Collection, 1929–1969 (bulk 1948–1960) includes correspondence, articles, and materials related to his association with the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Metropolitan Structures Collection, 1961–1969, includes scrapbooks and photographs documenting Chicago projects.
Frustrated and unhappy, he left his homeland reluctantly in 1937 as he saw his opportunity for any Future building commissions vanish, accepting a residential commission in Wyoming and then an offer to head the department of architecture of the newly established Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. There he introduced a new kind of education and attitude later known as Second Chicago School, which became very influential in the following decades in North America and Europe.
In 1944, he became an American citizen, completing his severance from his native Germany. His thirty years as an American Architect reflect a more structural, pure approach toward achieving his goal of a new architecture for the twentieth century. He focused his efforts on enclosing open and adaptable "universal" spaces with clearly arranged structural frameworks, featuring prefabricated steel shapes filled in with large sheets of glass.
Between 1946 and 1951, Mies van der Rohe designed and built the Farnsworth House, a weekend retreat outside Chicago for an independent professional woman, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Here, Mies explored the relationship between people, shelter, and nature. The glass pavilion is raised six feet above a floodplain next to the Fox River, surrounded by forest and rural prairies.
During 1951–1952, Mies' designed the steel, glass, and brick McCormick House, located in Elmhurst, Illinois (15 miles west of the Chicago Loop), for real-estate developer Robert Hall McCormick, Jr. A one-story adaptation of the exterior curtain wall of his famous 860–880 Lake Shore Drive towers, it served as a prototype for an unbuilt series of speculative houses to be constructed in Mel Rose Park, Illinois. The house has been moved and reconfigured as a part of the public Elmhurst Art Museum. He also built a residence for John M. van Beuren on a family estate near Morristown, New Jersey.
Mies designed two buildings for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) as additions to the Caroline Wiess Law Building. In 1953, the MFAH commissioned Mies van der Rohe to create a master plan for the institution. He designed two additions to the building—Cullinan Hall, completed in 1958, and the Brown Pavilion, completed in 1974. A renowned Example of the International Style, these portions of the Caroline Wiess Law Building comprise one of only two Mies-designed museums in the world.
The Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Archive, an administratively independent section of the Museum of Modern Art's department of architecture and design, was established in 1968 by the museum's trustees. It was founded in response to the architect's Desire to bequeath his entire work to the museum. The archive consists of about nineteen thousand drawings and prints, one thousand of which are by the designer and Architect Lilly Reich (1885–1947), Mies van der Rohe's close collaborator from 1927 to 1937; of written documents (primarily, the Business correspondence) covering nearly the entire career of the architect; of photographs of buildings, Models, and furniture; and of audiotapes, books, and periodicals.
Mies van der Rohe died on August 17, 1969. After cremation, his ashes were buried near Chicago's other famous Architects in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery. His grave is marked by a simple black slab of granite and a large honey locust tree.
But while Mies' work had enormous influence and critical recognition, his approach failed to sustain a creative force as a style after his death and was eclipsed by the new wave of Post Modernism by the 1980s. Proponents of the Post Modern style attacked the Modernism with clever statements such as "less is a bore" and with captivating images such as Crown Hall sinking in Lake Michigan. Mies had hoped his architecture would serve as a universal model that could be easily imitated, but the aesthetic power of his best buildings proved impossible to match, instead resulting mostly in drab and uninspired structures rejected by the general public. The failure of his followers to meet his high standard may have contributed to demise of Modernism and the rise of new competing design theories following his death.
Mies's last work was the Neue Nationalgalerie art museum, the New National Gallery for the Berlin National Gallery. Considered one of the most perfect statements of his architectural approach, the upper pavilion is a precise composition of monumental steel columns and a cantilevered (overhanging) roof plane with a glass enclosure. The simple square glass pavilion is a powerful expression of his ideas about flexible interior space, defined by transparent walls and supported by an external structural frame. Art installations by Ulrich Rückriem (1998) or Jenny Holzer, as much as exhibitions on the work of Renzo Piano or Rem Koolhaas have demonstrated the exceptional possibilities of this space.
The Farnsworth House and its 60-acre (240,000 m) wooded site was purchased at auction for US$7.5 million by preservation groups in 2004 and is now owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a public museum. The building influenced the creation of hundreds of modernist glass houses, most notably the Glass House by Philip Johnson, located near New York City and also now owned by the National Trust.
Mies designed a series of four middle-income high-rise apartment buildings for developer Herbert Greenwald: the 860–880 (which was built between 1949 and 1951) and 900–910 Lake Shore Drive towers on Chicago's Lakefront. These towers, with façades of steel and glass, were radical departures from the typical residential brick apartment buildings of the time. Mies found their unit sizes too small for him, choosing instead to continue living in a spacious traditional luxury apartment a few blocks away. The towers were simple rectangular boxes with a non-hierarchical wall enclosure, raised on stilts above a glass-enclosed lobby.
Chicago Federal Center Plaza, also known as Chicago Federal Plaza, unified three buildings of varying scales: the mid-rise Everett McKinley Dirksen Building, the high-rise John C. Kluczynski Building, and the single-story Post Office building. The complex’s plot area extends over two blocks; a one-block site, bounded by Jackson, Clark, Adams, and Dearborn streets, contains the Kluczynski Federal Building and U.S. Post Office Loop Station, while a parcel on an adjacent block to the east contains the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. The structural framing of the buildings is formed of high-tensile bolted steel and concrete. The exterior curtain walls are defined by projecting steel I-beam mullions covered with flat black graphite paint, characteristic of Mies's designs. The balance of the curtain walls are of bronze-tinted glass panes, framed in shiny aluminum, and separated by steel spandrels, also covered with flat black graphite paint. The entire complex is organized on a 28-foot grid pattern subdivided into six 4-foot, 8-inch modules. This pattern extends from the granite-paved plaza into the ground-floor lobbies of the two tower buildings with the grid lines continuing vertically up the buildings and integrating each component of the complex. Associated Architects that have played a role in the complex’s long history from 1959 to 1974 include Schmidt, Garden & Erickson; C.F. Murphy Associates; and A. Epstein & Sons.