Date of Visit: April 2013
The German Pavilion for the Barcelona World Exposition, 1929
Web Link: www.miesbcn.com
In sharp contrast to Barcelona’s curvaceous and ornamental buildings of the Modernisma movement (1888-1910) is a minimalist icon of the International Style, Mies Van der Rohe’s German Pavilion. The building is actually a 1986 recreation of the original that was built in 1929 but the famous Barcelona Chair found inside is authentic. The chair, frequently attributed to the well-known Mies, was designed in collaboration with another German designer, Lilly Reich, who teamed with the architect on furniture and interior projects between 1925 and 1938. This time span is the only period in which Mies designed furniture, later noting, “ A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” It was certainly easier with Riech, who was trained in industrial textiles, at his side. The chair, named after the city in which it premiered, was their greatest joint project, made when the duo served as the artistic directors for the German Pavilion in Barcelona’s World Exposition in 1929.
We started our day nearby, taking in the mural paintings in the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya on the little mountain of Montjuic high above the city. The neo-Baroque style which building served as the Spanish pavilion was more in line with what people considered as architecture in that day. We descended many levels of stairs alongside the cascading Magic Fountain to street level and starting searching for the Mies building. It was tucked away, not immediately visible, off to the left. It must have been a shocking site in 1929 because it is still a novel edifice in Barcelona today.
My traveling companion chose not to join in the visit. He has read the TripAdvisor comments including one that advised “just look at it from the outside, There is nothing to the inside … Literally, one of the worst cost/benefit ratios in my entire traveling career. We scooted through in under a minute…” It’s hard to imagine why someone would visit this out-of-the-way building with such a lack of understanding but travel compels some people to blindly trudge through any and all attractions.
The 4 euro charge did seem a bit steep but there were plenty of takers streaming in and out at the entrance steps. The guard, a grouchy young woman, barked at us as I was handed the camera across the stair threshold, “This is the entrance, don’t cross if you haven’t paid!” Indeed it would be fairly easy to click off a few decent pictures and a quick peek if you weren’t up for the entrance fee.
We, like you, have seen this chair (authentic and knock-offs) ad infinitum in fancy corporate lobbies, spas and private homes. We admired it in Johnson’s Glass House a few years before, but this is where it truly belonged, echoing the building’s cantilevered structure and commanding center stage against the marble and onyx background.
The chair was originally designed as a throne for the King of Spain (with matching stools for royal attendants) during the pavilion’s opening ceremonies. Made from white pigskin, they were barely showing their 84 years. (Imagine your own white furniture after only 10!) There are conflicting counts on the number of pieces needed to produce the leather upholstery, but let’s go with the version that claims that 148 individual panels of leather were cut, hand welted and hand tufted. Although only these few were produced for the pavilion, many tens of thousands were mass produced after Mies sold the design rights to Knoll International (several years after Reich died).
The only other free standing object was a sculpture that animated the space with a slow dance. Several water features were calming, flat and quiet, matching the mood of the building.
We had seen the “Chair of the Century” and it was time to join the endless lines at Gaudi’s Familia Sagrada—a building that promised to hold the attention of any traveler, whether they knew what they were looking at or not.