Commencement Speech

Note: The following transcription contains small sections of missing text where the audio tape fails. Ellipses have been used to indicate the inaudible portions of the address.

Mies van der Rohe
Commencement Address
January 25, 1958

Some Thoughts On Civilization

I will talk on civilization. But after a while I thought that was a very ambiguous title. It could mean a lot, it could mean the whole history of civilization, or it could mean great civilization or the medieval civilization. But that was not what I wanted to talk about. I think many of these things you could find much better in books than I could tell you.

So I reduced the title even though I didn’t know yet what I would say to “some thoughts” I …to find something what I thought about civilization may be a value to you.

Now what is civilization? I think it is a state of social culture marked by advances in all the world of men. It sounds like a description out of the dictionary. I know that. But to talk about civilization in the world would take a long, long time. I would not give talks on civilization in a semester. You can imagine that I cannot talk much here about that.

I thought to review my life and if I could find there something that would be valuable enough to tell you. And by doing that, I remembered my first job as a draftsman. There was no light in the room, no artificial light. We was sent home when it was getting dark, and only in the case of emergency, they gave us candles. A little later we got oil lamps, and still a little later there came a plumber, fixed some pipes, and we got the first gas lamps. They were improved again with stoppings. Until there came somebody who called himself an electrician. And he put up wires around the place and gave us some bulbs, so that was in my opinion an advantage against this other kind of lights because it was flexible. At least we could have it when we needed it. But I can not say that this improvements of lights helped our work. If that was improved it was done by the single draftsman, by his efforts. I think this improvements of the lights may have helped us to make that a little easier, but it didn’t become better.

My definition about civilization was not a full one. There is no question that the advance in science, and I have seen it at least for more than 50 years, and I have seen it advance rapidly and in the opposite I got the impression that these things become so strong in itself that they go on forever, and that the main problem would be to be able to guide these things a little. And that is again the question of civilization. The question if we can educate ourselves enough and not to become able to regulate things because otherwise will go out of hand.

So I think it is important that we educated ourselves. It is important that wisdom advances too, not only science. I see the necessity that we need a lot of scientists and I really nothing against it. But I believe on the other hand that we would need a few good philosophers.

But I want to go on a little about my own life. When I was in a new job, I was then 17 years old, and a place was assigned to me to work, and I looked it over and looked in the drawer and there were a magazine that was called The Future and there was a print of the … . Since my education stopped at 14 and I worked as an apprentice for a year and we didn’t take books in our offices and that was a great surprise to me and I became interested in reading.

First the magazine was interesting to me because it had a lot of different articles and it was a weekly magazine and so I could read it. And it may have been that I didn’t understand the … . By reading this magazine I became interested in it, and I started to buy this magazine. This time I earned the salary of 15 marks which I gave to my father. And he, in turn, gave me one mark every week. It was on Monday morning I bought this magazine that cost half a mark. With the other half mark, I bought cigars.

But these two things were of great importance to me. These started my education. I read these articles, started to buy books these are mentioned. And certainly in my little library must have been confused as our time. Only maybe a little more because I bought these things just at random. And the first books had more character of a technical nature. They were not books about technology and they were not books about architecture. I must say I read very few books in my own field. But they had a technical nature. And much later I became more and more interested in problems of a general nature, of a philosophical nature. I wanted to understand the world I was living in. Certainly I learned through work, and at this time the architectural situation was not clear. Absolute confused like maybe everything else was and it always a great trouble to find out when we got a job what to do. We had to pound our buttonholes and this brought me to think about that. About what kind of architecture is possible and what not. On my way to work every day, I saw every day a very old house I liked particularly. I didn’t know then why and so on. But I liked it more and more. And then I asked myself, “What is the quality of this house? What is it?” It was not that it belonged to a certain style. It was just a plain, but to me a very fine house. By looking at it carefully, I found that the brickwork was done very well, and that the stone frames of the windows was done very well, and that the timber work was done very well. It takes no particularly elegant proportions, but it had very good proportions. And the workers of the house seemed equally … and reasonable. Everything was in harmony with the other parts, and I think that gave this house the beauty I saw. And that is what I think is civilization. When I got my first house, just to come back to my little library, I had to build a house for a philosopher, and he came one day to my studio to discuss some of these problems. Then he saw my books, and he was surprised about my little library. He said, “Who helped direct you to build up this library?” I said, “First, I don’t think it is a library. It’s just a heap of books. And I have chosen these books myself.” But he was, I think, interested in this confusion which were reflected in all these books, in all these fields. Later in his house, I heard the sentence form William de … : “Do not need hope in order to start. Indeed, do not need success in order to preserve.” That was a sentence I have never forgotten. When I came to America my assistant proposed that I should have a radio in order to get used to English pronunciation. So I ordered this radio, and when I turned it on somebody with a very deep voice was talking, and he brought William de … again in the picture. This sentence I knew so well and loved so well all of my live. The next speaker was … . He talked about international relation, and he closed his talk by saying, “Let us be nice to each other. It costs so little, and it means so much.” I was glad to hear the first sentence of William de … here again in Chicago. But …’s saying I didn’t know, but I must say that he was very right, and that it is a typical American attitude: To be nice to other people. I found that really an American virtue. I have seen in other countries that people were polite, but they were not always friendly.

When I bought books, when I was reading all my time and I had free time since I was never a Sunday painter. You could say I was a weekly reader. Something like that. I loved to read and to study, and I bought more and more books, and the character of the books I brought changed little by little. First I didn’t realize what it was until I felt that I was after, not knowledge, but after understanding. When I left Germany, I had about 3,000 books and I lived in a hotel here when I came to Chicago and when I rented an apartment, I thought I should get some of these books so I made a list of about 300 books and now I must say, I could send them 270 back, but there are very important books I would not like to miss. And these are mostly concerned with civilization and culture.

Now you could say who moves and advances in civilization? I think it is the effort of men and women in all fields. And it, it is you, you have to build up this civilization. You have to build up the world you want to live in. And nobody else can do it for you. I have one more thing to say: Don’t worry about success. I always tell my students, “Success is just the by-product of good, simple and honest work.” And this simple and honest work, I think, is the essence of civilization.