Of Mies and Mice

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, the apostle of modernism in architecture, towered above his contemporaries like a glass-and-steel skyscraper over a row of modest town houses, which explains why both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum honored him with exhibitions last year. The shows neatly divided Mies’ career into his European phase (pre-1937) and his subsequent American period (1938 to his death in 1969). But that division ignored an even more important, yet little-known, aspect of the architect’s work: namely, that from the late 1930s on, Mies designed his buildings not for human beings but for mice.

In 1933 the Nazis shut down the famous Bauhaus school of design, of which Mies was director. To cheer himself up, Mies spent his days and nights in the movie houses of Berlin, where he became obsessed with Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Soon he packed up his pencils and emigrated to the United States.

Upon arriving, Mies approached Disney with a weekend house he had designed for Mickey and Minnie. Disney was unimpressed. Disappointed, Mies settled in Chicago, where he was able to give free rein to his obsession.

He took as his ideal the humble shoebox, in which he had housed the beloved pet mice of his carefree boyhood days in the provincial city of Aachen. With its stark rectilinear silhouette and snug platform lid, this pristine form is often credited with having inspired the dictum Mies made famous, "less is more" (though what he actually said was "mouse’s lair").

Not surprisingly, he chose glass, concrete and steel as materials for his mouse houses, both out of an abiding commitment to the Bauhaus style and the practical consideration that it would be easier to clean mouse droppings off glass than cardboard. What’s more, Mies reasoned that mouse incisors would be no match against structural steel and reinforced concrete. His extensive use of glass also provided him with the prospect of endless hours of watching the little critters scurry around the mazelike interiors of his creations.

Mies turned on its head the conventional notion of a scale model. Rather than constructing tabletop versions of his projects and then blowing them up for human habitation, he created huge versions of his projects, which he then reduced to murine proportions. Thus, all of the famous Mies van der Rohe buildings we see today—the soaring Seagram Building in New York, the spare Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago, the serene Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois—are, in fact, the overscale models of his true creations, the Mies mouse houses. Only by constructing and walking through these "mega-models," Mies believed, could he come to understand what his buildings would look and feel like to their ultimate tenants, the rodents. People, for this master builder, had come to serve as "guinea pigs for mice."

But Mies was never able to realize his dream of the ultimate mouse house. Night after night, the great architect would open the doors of his elegant creations to the rodents, only to discover the next morning that they refused to go in. For reasons only they could understand, the mice preferred to continue living under the floorboards of Mies’ Chicago apartment, behind his refrigerator, or even, most disturbingly, in the real shoeboxes that cluttered his closets. Mies, who himself had never lived in one of his own buildings, was devastated. Until the end of his life, he worked desperately to find the magic formula that would keep the mice from decamping, frantically rearranging furniture, polishing facades, tweaking interior decor—all to no avail. "God is in the details," he is widely misquoted as having declared. His actual words were: "God is in the tails."


A fable by Richard Liebmann-Smith

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