Barcellona Pavilion (1929)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the pavilion on behalf of the German Government for the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona. It was designed in collaboration with Lilly Reich, who was the creative director of the German building section.

Barcellona Pavilion, Mies Van Der Rohe, 1927

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Free Floor Plan

On a specially selected parcel of land, Mies fulfilled an only vaguely formulated architectural assignment by constructing a flat-roofed representational building with a “free floor plan”, that is, flexible spaces with flowing transitions from one room to the next. The use of the finest materials such as onyx doré, green marble and travertine, combined with large glass façades that “floated” in a steel skeleton construction, gave the pavilion its transparency and spaciousness.

The absence of traditional national emotive themes contributed substantially to the pavilion’s positive impact and increased the building’s acceptance among the visitors and hosts of the World Exhibition. Even decades after it was torn down, the significance of the ephemeral structure was undisputable.

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Project Commission

Mies was offered the commission of this building in 1928 after his successful administration of the 1927 Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart. The German Republic entrusted Mies with the artistic management and erection of not only the Barcelona Pavilion, but for the buildings for all the German sections at the 1929 International Exhibition. However, Mies had severe time constraints, he had to design the Barcelona Pavilion in less than a year, and was also dealing with uncertain economic conditions.

1929 International Exposition, Barcelona Pavilion

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In the years following World War I, Germany started to turn around. The economy started to recover after the 1924 Dawes Plan. The pavilion for the International Exhibition was supposed to represent the new Weimar Germany: democratic, culturally progressive, prospering, and thoroughly pacifist; a self-portrait through architecture. The Commissioner, Georg von Schnitzler said it should give “voice to the spirit of a new era”. This concept was carried out with the realization of the “Free plan” and the “Floating roof”.

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Building description

The pavilion’s design is based on a formulaic grid system developed by Mies that not only serves as the patterning of the travertine pavers, but it also serves as an underlying framework that the wall systems work within.  By raising the pavilion on a plinth in conjunction with the narrow profile of the site, the Barcelona Pavilion has a low horizontal orientation that is accentuated by the low flat roof that appears to float over both the interior as well as the exterior.

Interior view with the iconic Barcellona Chair designed for the pavilion

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The low stature of the building narrows the visitor’s line of vision forcing one to adjust to the views framed by Mies.  The interior of the pavilion consists of offset wall places that work with the low roof plane to encourage movement, as well as activate Mies’ architectural promenade where framed views would induce movement through the narrow passage that would open into a larger volume. This cyclical process of moving throughout the pavilion sets in motion a process of discovery and rediscovery during ones experience; always offering up new perspectives and details that were previously unseen.

The Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe’s iconic work of modern architecture, is a unique perceptual experience shaped using techniques such as symmetry, staging, and reflectivity.

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One of the most important aspects of the pavilion is the roof.  The low profile of the roof appears in elevation as a floating plane above the interior volume.  The appearance of floating gives the volume a sense of weightlessness that fluctuates between enclosure and canopy. The roof structure is supported by eight slender cruciform columns that allow the roof to as effortlessly floating above the volume while freeing up the interior to allow for an open plan.  With the low roof projecting out over the exterior and the openness of the pavilion, there is a blurred spatial demarcation where ht interior becomes and exterior and exterior becomes interior.

Barcellona pavilion, view of the front pod

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The pavilion is designed as a proportional composition where the interior of the pavilion is juxtaposed to two reflecting pools. The smaller reflecting pool is located directly behind the interior space which allows for light to filter through the interior volume as well illuminate the marble and travertine pavers.

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A modernist classic

For more than half a century, the ‘Barcelona Pavilion’ haunted the imagination of modern architects worldwide. Here was one of the most enticing, beautiful and refined buildings of all time, and yet it had stood for no more than a few months before it was pulled down.

Even then, these were enough to inspire imperfect lookalike designs over several decades in the guise of new houses and art galleries. The reason this beautiful pavilion with its geometric arrangement of shimmering glass and marble planes  had been so short lived was that it had been nothing more, if nothing less, than a temporary exhibition space.

Georg Kolbe statue in the Barcellona Pavilion

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As we already said, it was commissioned by the Weimar Republic; and its job was to advertise a new, progressive, democratic and modern Germany and this vision of the future was no starkly functional ‘machine for living’. No: the German Pavilion, was realised in rich and stunning materials: four shades of tinted glass, along with marble, onyx, chromed steel and travertine. Walking through the pavilion, with reflections of sun-dappled water playing on the underside of the roof, and breezes wafting through open walls, it was hard to tell interior from exterior. It was built quickly, as you expect of an exhibition stand, and yet the quality of the materials Mies chose meant that the German Pavilion looked as if it would last for decades rather than months.

Barcelona Pavilion Study Drawings

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This dreamlike sensation was reinforced by the fact that there was nothing to see inside beyond the architecture itself, save for a single sculpture of a female nude – Alba, or Dawn, by the German artist George Kolbe – and the architect’s new leather and chrome steel Barcelona chairs. While other nations worked hard to show what they were made of through rich and eclectic displays of art and design, Weimar Germany chose to represent itself through this minimalist and ethereal pavilion alone.

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Pavilion’s reconstruction

The Barcelona Pavilion, an emblematic work of the Modern Movement, has been exhaustively studied and interpreted as well as having inspired the oeuvre of several generations of architects. After the closure of the Exhibition, the Pavilion was disassembled in 1930. As time went by, it became a key point of reference not only in Mies van der Rohe’s own career but also in twentieth-century architecture as a whole.

Barcelona Pavilion Plan

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In 1980 Oriol Bohigas, as head of the Urban Planning Department at the Barcelona City Council, set the project in motion, designating architects Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Cristian Cirici and Fernando Ramos to research, design and supervise the reconstruction of the Pavilion. Work began in 1983 and the new building was opened on its original site in 1986.

Glass, steel and four different kinds of stone (Roman travertine, green Alpine marble, ancient green marble from Greece and golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains) were used for the reconstruction, all of the same characteristics and provenance as the ones originally employed by Mies in 1929.

This picture is a perfect example of symmetry and reflectivity, that makes this buildings unique.

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Since the Pavilion’s reconstruction in the 1980s, the Mies van der Rohe Foundation has invited leading artists and architects to temporarily alter the Pavilion. These installations and alterations, called “interventions”, have kept the pavilion as a node of debate on architectural ideas and practices.

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