Skin of Glass: The Transport Architecture and Influence of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

If you’ve ever marvelled at, or tutted at, a modern glass-walled cuboid of a building, its steel frame visible inside, you have Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) to thank for it. The German-born architect’s maxim “Less is More” drove his architectural vision of deceptively simple modern buildings which used “skin and bones” construction; glass exteriors reveal the steel skeleton of the building within. in the 1950s his glass-skinned skyscrapers like the Seagram Building in New York and the Lake Shore Drive apartments Chicago set a trend that would be taken up around the world.

Yet despite their post-war appearance, these buildings were based on a design concept that Mies van der Rohe had sketched out as early as the 1920s for a glass skyscraper. He was at the heart of modern architecture from early on in his career. One of his first jobs was at an architecture firm which had future famous architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius on its books at the same time. By the 1930, Mies van der Rohe was director of the Bauhaus, a German art school famous for its modern approach. He had already completed the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, and he would eventually become as famous for his low pavilion-style buildings as he would for his skyscrapers.

He migrated to America in 1937 as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Hitler’s architectural tastes running to Speer’s over-inflated monumental classicism rather than the stripped-back modern designs of Mies van der Rohe.

Mies van der Rohe’s designs for the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago built on his pavilion-style architecture, with low buildings featuring glass exteriors, exposed steel frames and yellow brick. They appear simple, and blend into their environment; but I suspect the more simple a building like this looks, the more difficult it is to design. Mies van der Rohe’s handful of domestic houses and the New National Gallery in Berlin are later examples of his low, pavilion-like buildings.

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois (USA). Photo by marco 2000 [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Mies van der Rohe was also responsible for notable transport architecture (of course he was, you’re reading about him here). In fact, as far as I can tell, he designed just the one transport building; a filling station in Nuns’ Island, Montreal, Canada. Built for Standard Oil (latter ESSO), it was completed in 1966 as part of a larger project including several apartment buildings.

Like Mies van der Rohe’s domestic pavilion-type buildings, the filling station was superbly proportioned. Underneath a flat roof, two glass-walled rooms were inserted. One was a car servicing facility, while the other was a car sales room. Between them were the petrol pumps. Here it is:

Mies van der Rohe filling station, Nuns’ Island, in 2007 while still in operation. Photo by Kate McDonnell [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

It’s uncompromisingly modern, but look how well it sits amongst the trees. You can also see the use of yellow brick, a favourite of Mies van der Rohe’s. It was designed as a prototype for Standard Oil to use for subsequent filling stations, but regrettably remained a one-off.

The filling station closed in 2008, but the underlying quality of the building can be seen on the conversion job that was undertaken by architecture practice FABG, which remodelled the gas station as a community centre called La Station. The larger room is now a seniors’ community room while the smaller one is for young people. The petrol pumps have been cleverly replaced by vents for the air conditioning system which has been installed. As a result, the beautiful proportions of Mies van der Rohe’s original design have been retained.

The reimagined “La Station” at night. Photo by Niroyb [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

Mies van der Rohe is arguably one of the 20th Century’s most influential architects. “He is the only modern architect who formulated a genuinely contemporary and universally applicable architectural canon, and office buildings all over the world echo his concepts,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica.

His write-up there also notes the criticism of his design idiom by some as being cold and anonymous. However I suspect that this is partly caused by others emulating his idiom without his instinctive sympathy for it, and its widespread deployment in the hands of lesser architects; familiarity breeding a degree of contempt.

The “International Style” of which Mies van der Rohe was the leading proponent, had significant influence on transport architecture too, as you would expect from a style which became globally popular. You can see its influence in W R Headley’s rebuild of Coventry station of 1962 and (somewhat less successfully) in the standardised glass box ticket offices constructed at railway stations including Camberley and Liss.

But for one of the best transport buildings in Mies van der Rohe’s International Style, it is to the ever interesting Tyne and Wear Metro that we turn. Jesmond station might not be a large station, and it might not be on the mainline railway network, but it made it into Simon Jenkins’ recent book Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations nonetheless. He only gave it one star though (rude).

Jesmond station, exterior. Photo © Andrew Garnett [via this tweet]

Jesmond opened in 1980, designed by Faulkner-Brown Hendy Watkinson Stonor and L.J. Couves and Partners. Its platforms are below ground level (there’s a lovely mural down there too). The surface building is a super little pavilion, with dark glass walls. It is set in a garden and could quite happily stand alongside Mies van der Rohe’s domestic works. During the day, its walls reflect the vegetation around the building, while at night, as van der Rohe’s buildings typically do, the light-filled interior is revealed.

Jesmond station, on the inside, looking out. Photo © Andrew Garnett [via this tweet]

Jenkins describes this “miniature homage to…Mies van der Rohe” as “faintly surreal”, but if you’re a fan of Mies van der Rohe you won’t be surprised at all, simply delighted.

How to find the buildings

They’re both included on The Beauty of Transport‘s map:

Nuns’ Island filling station / La Station community centre, here

and

Jesmond Metro station, here

Bibliography and Further Reading

Jenkins, Simon (2017): Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. Penguin: London

Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Mies van der Rohe (source of much of the biographical detail above), here

Nuns’ Island filling station citation on Canadian Register of Historic Places, here

Archdaily write up of La Station conversion, here

Les Architectes FABG project page for conversion of the filling station, here

Mies van der Rohe Society page on his projects, here

Metro owner Nexus press release on Jesmond station, here

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