To celebrate Mies’ arrival at IIT, the Board of Trustees and the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a dinner in his honor at the Palmer House Hilton on October 21, 1938. After an introduction by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies elucidated his views on the power of architecture to “create order out of unholy confusion” in the following address:
Any education must be directed, first of all, towards the practical side of life. But if one may speak of real education, then it must go farther and reach the personal sphere and lead to a molding of the human being.
The first aim should be to qualify the person to maintain himself in everyday life. It is to equip him with the necessary knowledge and ability for this purpose. The second aim is directed towards a formation of the personality. It should qualify him to make the right use of his knowledge and ability.
Genuine education is aimed not only towards specific ends but also towards an appreciation of values. Our aims are bound up with the special structure of our epoch. Values, on the contrary, are anchored in the spiritual destination of mankind. The ends, towards which we strive, determine the character of our civilization, while the values we set determine our cultural level.
Although aspirations and values are of different nature and of different origin, they are actually closely associated. For our standards of value are related to our aspirations, and our aspirations obtain their meaning from these values. Both of these concepts are necessary to establish full human existence. The one assures the person his vital existence, but it is only the other that makes his spiritual existence possible.
Just as these propositions have a validity for all human conduct, even for the slightest differentiation of value, so are they that much more binding in the realm of architecture. Architecture is rooted with its simplest forms entirely in the useful, but it extends over all the degrees of value into the highest sphere of spiritual existence, into the sphere of the significant: the realm of pure art.
Every architectural education must take account of this circumstance if it is to achieve its goal. It must take account of this organic relationship. It can, in reality, be nothing other than an active unfolding of all these relationships and interrelationships. It should make plain, step by step, what is possible, what is necessary, and what is significant.
If education has any sense whatever, then it is to form character and develop insight. It must lead us out of the irresponsibility of opinion, into the responsibility of insight, judgment, and understanding; it must lead us out of the realm of chance and arbitrariness into the clear light of intellectual order. Therefore we guide our students over the disciplinary road from material through function to form.
We are determined to lead them into the wholesome world of primal buildings, where every axe stroke meant something and where every chisel cut was a veritable statement. Where does the structural fabric of a building appear with greater clarity than in the wood buildings of our forefathers. Where else is there an equal unity of material, construction, and form. Here lies concealed the wisdom of the entire race. What a sense for the material, and what a power of expression these buildings proclaim. What warmth they radiate and how beautiful they are.
In stone buildings we find the same. What natural feeling is expressed by them. What clear understanding for material, what sureness in its use, what a sense for that which can and should be done in stone. Where else do we find such a richness of structure. Where do we find more healthy strength and greater natural beauty than here. With what self-evident clarity a beamed ceiling rests on these old stone walls, and with what feeling one cut a door in them.
Where else should young architects grow up than in the fresh air of this wholesome world, and where else should they learn to work simply and prudently than with these unknown masters.
Brick is another schoolmaster. How clever is this small, handy unit, useful as it is for every purpose. What logic its bonding shows; what liveliness its jointing. What richness the simplest wall surface possesses, yet what discipline this material imposes.
Thus each material possesses its special which one must know in order to be able to work with them. That is also true of steel and concrete. We expect absolutely nothing from the materials in themselves, but only through our right use of them. Then, too, the new materials do not insure superiority. Any material is only worth that which we make out of it.
Just as we are determined to know materials, so are we determined to know the nature of the purposes for which we build. We will analyze them clearly. We are determined to know what their content is; wherein a dwelling is really different from another kind of building. We want to know what it can be, what it must be, and what it should not be. Therefore, we must get at their essentials. Thus we will examine every function which appears and determine its character and make its character the basis for our conception and our form.
Just as we procure a knowledge of materials – just as we acquaint ourselves with the nature of the uses for which we build, so must we also learn to comprehend the spiritual and intellectual environment in which we find ourselves. That is a prerequisite for proper conduct in the cultural sphere. Here, too, we must know what exists, for we remain dependent upon our epoch.
Therefore we must learn to recognize the sustaining and compelling forces of our times. We must make an analysis of their structure; that is, of the material, the functional, and the intellectual forces of today. We must clarify wherein our epoch is similar to former epochs, and wherein it differs from them.
Here the problem of technology will come within the student’s compass. We will try to propound genuine questions: questions on the value and meaning of technology. We will demonstrate that it not only offers us power, and magnitude, but that it also embraces dangers, that it contains good and evil, and that here mankind must decide aright.
Yet every decision leads to a definite clarification of principles and values. Therefore we will elucidate the possible principles of order and clarify their bases.
We will mark the mechanical principle of order as an over emphasis of the materialistic and functional tendency. It does not satisfy our feeling that “the means” is a menial function, nor does it satisfy our interest in dignity and worth.
The idealistic principle of order, on the other hand, can, with its over emphasis on the ideal and the formal, neither satisfy our interest in truth and simplicity, nor the practical side of our intellect.
We will make the organic principle of order clear as a scale for establishing the significance and proportion of the parts and their relation to the whole.
We will adopt this last principle as the basis of our work.
The long road from the material through function to form has only one goal: to create order out of the unholy confusion of today. We want, however, an order which gives everything its proper place. We want to give to everything that which is its due, in accordance with its nature.
We are determined to do that in such a perfect way, that the world of our creation begins to flower from within. We want no more – nor can we do more.
Noting will express the aim and meaning of our work better than the profound words of Thomas Aquinas:
“BEAUTY IS THE RADIANCE OF THE TRUTH.”