Robin Evans: Mies van der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries

Translations-from-Drawing-to-Building-and-Other-Essays-Evans-Robin-9780262550277Paradoxical Symmetries is not an essay that I come back to often. I’ve only read it, perhaps, three times. But it has something that has stuck with me, more as a model of writing and thinking about architecture and its history, than about the specific arguments or anything to do with Mies van der Rohe. Yes, it takes the Barcelona Pavilion as its object of study, but it puts more effort into challenging the various myths surrounding the building as well as reminding us that we can be rather sloppy in our thinking about concepts. To start with the first, Evans shows us how the building, praised for its asymmetry has a fair amount of symmetry in its architecture. Secondly, before doing this we are reminded (or chastised) that our architectural use of the term symmetry is rather limited and basic (reflective or mirror symmetry). This unraveling of complex concepts continues with the way Evans reads the relationship between the truth of structure and expressing the truth of structure. More, we are given an interesting reading of what is structural and what is not (is it the walls or the columns or both and if the latter, which is primary?). But Evans isn’t interested in any idea of an ultimate truth about the building but more in how it communicates various different things often at the same time. The critiques suggesting the walls should not have touched the underside of the roof or that the columns should have been left out miss the point. Yes, it might have made things clearer but that wasn’t what Mies was interested in. There is something wonderful about the way Evans suggests that various readings can make sense but don’t quite. This isn’t a flaw in the architecture and neither is it a flaw in wanting to read it a particular way. Just like my take on Peter Collins’ history of concrete – it is not entirely logical but it makes you think – the value is in the way the architecture (or a way of looking at it) makes you think, imagine or invent alternative concepts or explanations.

The deep message in this essay is about the assumptions we make when thinking about architecture – and how nonsensical they actually are, when you stop to think about them.

“I recognize plant life when I see it, and I recognize rationality in architecture when I see it, because I begin to understand, after much practice, what the word is applied to. I am then tempted to think that all things bearing the same name, whether or not they are architecture, must share an essential property, but this is not necessary, nor, in this instance, is it likely. We may choose to believe that squarish, simple things are tokens of rationality in some wider sense, and that curvaceous, complicated things are tokens of irrationality, but our highly developed powers of visual recognition are exercising no more than a prejudice when we go out hunting for items to pin these terms to.”

This is, for me, one of the most beautiful and important passages ever written about architecture. Everyone thinks Mies is a rationalist because of this misconception and everyone thinks Gehry is an artist for the same reason. And in the case of someone like Le Corbusier or Rem Koolhaas you get either fans or detractors neither of which ever look at the work closely enough.

The essay continues to discuss issues of ‘appearance’ which is not to say ‘image’ and the role this plays in Mies’ architecture. And there is even a little phenomenological moment invoked by an understanding of how formerly blind people perceive space. It finally moves into a consideration of its materials and reflectivity. Along the way more conceptual traps and simplifications are exposed and exploded.

The final point I’d like to make about this essay is that it is somewhat academic in tone but not slavishly so. We have lost the ability to write this way. It is observant in an extremely precise way but it is not concerned with presenting itself as a piece of academic writing. That is, it is more interested in scholarship than expressing (the rules and tropes of) scholarship. This allows Evans to be very honest about the fact that a lot of what he is saying is simply about what he sees; yet it is all there, it is verifiable, it is subjective and factual at the same time. It is, come to think about it, very much like Mies’ architecture.

In fact, I wonder now why I don’t come back to this essay more often.

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