Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 70
Late in 1928, Mies van der Rohe began to design the pavilion that would represent Germany at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, the first such event in which the country had participated since its defeat in World War I. The democratically elected postwar government had made its aspirations for the pavilion clear: the building was to represent "our desire to be absolutely truthful, giving voice to the spirit of a new era." The state made few other demands, leaving Mies free to pursue his most radical architectural expression of free-flowing space, bounded only by rich but abstract surfaces of Tinian marble, mirror chrome, plate glass, and onyx.
Since the pavilion was demolished when the fair was over, relatively few later audiences and architectural critics had ever seen the building except through the filter of period black-and-white photographs, and its significance became largely a matter of thirdhand debate rather than actual experience. In time it came to be interpreted in terms of Mies's later, more rational work of the 1940s and later, often derided as simple "glass boxes". This unfinished and little-published rendering of the interior, however, reveals another attitude, more sensual than objective. To the right of the column whose outlines are sketched in the center of the drawing, Mies carefully renders the view from the main space through a glass wall into the courtyard, with its reflecting pool and a sculpture of a reclining figure. Rather than making the glass look fully transparent, he gives the dark green Tinian marble different shadings behind the wall and to the left and right of it, approximating the visual effect of the screen of gray glass. Even the reflection of the sculpture in the pool is studiously considered.
Mies in Berlin, June 21–May 11, 2001
Curator, Barry Bergdoll: Though it consisted of only one room, this small building revolutionized the concept of space in the twentieth century, establishing Mies as a premier innovator of modern architecture. Here, space was no longer defined by conventional boundaries, but set into motion. Using asymmetrical, freestanding walls of stone and glass, Mies created an abstraction of rhythmic planes.
The purpose of the pavilion was to represent Germany at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. Its spaces served as a reception hall where the German ambassador would greet and entertain King Alfonso XIII and Queen Eugenia Victoria of Spain. More important, the building was a powerful symbol of Germany's modernity and internationalism under the Weimar government.
To enhance the pavilion's prominence at the fair, Mies selected a site at the end of a ceremonial pathway perpendicular to the main plaza, marked by fountains and a row of classical columns. To the south stood the massive walls of a large exhibition hall and, behind the pavilion, a path led up a hill to a re-created Spanish village, one of the fair's most popular attractions.
Compared to these traditional structures, Mies's pavilion looked radical indeed. But the architect didn't entirely ignore the setting. He treated his pavilion as a gateway to the surrounding activities through a continuous sequence of flowing spaces.
To underscore this movement, Mies designed freestanding walls of luxurious marbles, onyx, and glass that appear to slide past each other out from under the flat roof, visible in the photographs along the wall to the right. The roof was supported by narrow, cruciform-shaped columns, so that it appears to be another floating plane, free of the walls. Two reflecting pools placed at opposite ends of the site enhance the dynamic composition. Mies even created special furniture for the interiors, including his famous leather and chrome-plated steel Barcelona Chair, a modernist icon that is still being produced today.
With its fluid spaces, spare planes, and understated luxury, the pavilion fulfilled the Weimar government's wish to project an open, progressive image of Germany. In a speech at the opening of the German Pavilion, Georg von Schnitzler, general commissioner of the project, stated:
Curator, Terence Riley: We wished here to show what we can do, what we are, how we feel and see today. We do not want anything but clarity, simplicity and honesty.
Barry Bergdoll: But Mies's design was hardly clear and simple. Inside the building, the polished stone and glass walls, shiny columns, and light-dappled pool created a kaleidoscope of colors and reflections. This effect has only come to be appreciated recently, however, since the building, destroyed in 1930, was documented only in black and white photographs. In 1986, it was re-created on its original site in Barcelona, and these color photographs allow us to fully appreciate the splendor and mysteriously shifting spaces of Mies's design.