“The Museum for a Small City should not emulate its metropolitan counterparts. The value of such a museum depends upon the quality of its works of art and the manner in which they are exhibited.” – Mies van der Rohe

Essay by Kersten Geers

Architecture and measurement converge in Mies van der Rohe’s unrealized  ‘Museum for a Small City’ project. Dating back to the early 1940s, the project is seemingly a next-to-nothing project, the much-touted finishing point in a string of simplifications specific to van der Rohe’s early American work.

Each simplification during this period is invariably a fresh attempt to measure more and build less. An expression of an all-out form of architectural asceticism where the demarcated space invariably takes precedence over the built component. In the Museum for a Small City the space is exposed, contrasted with the world to be measured. The walls, too, are removed inside the perimeter, leaving simply a linear grid and a few columns. Van der Rohe stresses that: “in this project the barrier between the art work and the living community is erased by a garden approach for the display of sculpture.” In an attempt to clarify the barrier between the inner and the outer, the focus is on a specific spatial model: the measured garden. The garden is represented here as “one large area, [it] allows every flexibility in use.” Van der Rohe’s museum as garden is an abstract space, averse to any sentiment and therefore not comparable to similar (European) grid spaces from the same epoch, as these invariably seek to challenge their immediate (old and existing) environment. European museum spaces from the same period (by Albini, Scarpa and BBPR, for example) also perform measurements but do so by way of a monumental challenge to what is encountered. They also show but more from the perspective of romantic and harmonising concerns. There is no sense of ‘romanticism’ in the ‘Museum for a Small City ‘ as the context here is more Idea than an authentic place and as such affects only the ‘selection’.

The garden as an abstract space is shown as keeping a healthy distance from the world. From the point of view of all its simplicity and Cartesian rigours, it quite intentionally seems to herald the space which, over the coming decades, would set the example for incorporating art into metropolitan office architecture. The Sculpture Garden, the office complex’s pre-eminent civic moment. The Sculpture Garden operates as a semi-public exhibition space deployed as a coded display model thanks to its manifest intangible quality – a wall-less space demarcated by the surrounding windows of the architecture and the Cartesian grid of the natural stone tiling on the floor. A field of measurements on which art objects and the urban layout are measured, quantified and publicly ‘shared’. The ultimate figure-ground of the market, a civic focal point in a commercial/corporate context.

The office tower (and its patio garden) had its heyday several years ago. In a world where everything appears to be construed as art – and even buildings, unfortunately – nothing has its place any more and everything seems to have lost its place, while hierarchies have disappeared. In the proces, the sculpture garden has also been lost.

Richard Venlet’s ‘Museum for a Small City’ is made out of neutral grey carpet tiles, a symbolic floor covering material from the office epoch. Its wall and ‘wall-less’ museum is established in a special open space in the S.M.A.K. Its grid-shaped area is one step higher than the existing museum floor. The surface area of the installed ‘Museum’ is low and wide, offering a broad view, and referring to the van der Rohe garden in many respects. Venlet’s museum-cum-garden involves a precisely demarcated space with a clear division between inner and outer. A display floor minus any immediate physical borders. Conflicts with the surrounding space are spurned. This monumental initiative intentionally keeps its distance from the walls of the existing museum, which continues to be present only as the idea of context.

The tiled carpet reintroduces a spatial focal point in the S.M.A.K., an exhibition space where it was long ago decided to follow the global delusion and throw the hierarchies overboard. That should have been done and/or was done. The art that was collected may even have heralded this.

Venlet’s initiative, however,  shows the difference between representation and commitment. The Museum for a Small City in the museum of the ‘small’ city operates likes a hierarchical and ideological counterpart. A focal point, display case and stage, in the midst of itself. A museum in a museum. The works of art, artefacts and the archive material showcased within this context are measured and thrown back into the world. This self-referential Cartesian space represents Venlet’s open space, both its own structure and falsification. A falsification where the grey carpet may represent the natural stone of the patio/square but also refer to the carpeted floors in the black and white photographs featured in the Museum archive. The lucid wideness represents infinity while making us attentive to the limitations of our overall view.

Venlet’s installation makes it increasingly clear that there is no reason to make any serious distinction between the corporate Sculpture Garden and Superstudio’s Continuous Monument. Both spaces are wall-less and may be interpreted as disparate attempts to reintroduce a hierarchy into a desperately confused society. Both models rely on measurements to try to project a value system onto objects and their situations. Both concepts are from another epoch. Richard Venlet’s Tapisom carpet surface reconstitutes them all, on the (correct) assumption that the cases and commodified heroes of art can only attain a recovered truth if they are caught in a space with the same intentions.

1 Back in 1942, when Mies van der Rohe stepped forward with his ‘Museum for a Small City’ project, in the curated context of ‘194X’, he had already been the head of the IIT in Chicago (called the Armour Institute at the time) for a few years and was extremely busy working on the various modernistic and classical components of architecture that he had developed in Europe to convert into regular systems, a transformation process that is obvious in the different versions he drew for the IIT master plan. The second version (in 1941) demonstrated a discipline that replaced the earlier restrained sculptural quality apparent in the first version of the plan (in 1938) and specific to his earlier ‘European’ work. Multiplicity and metrical simplicity gradually take precedence. The grid-like development of space, much apparent in the IIT drawings, appeared to have two aims in view at the same time. a) an apparent attempt to incorporate the industrial multiplication of his new homeland without any criticism: buildings are simpler, the same buildings are reproduced, differences are eliminated, while the master plan becomes ‘buildable’ in its American context. b) each reproduction of the building plans seems to be an attempt to measure more and build less. The courthouses/patio houses that came before his American period, measure the space already demarcated by the solid walls. The solid walls had to eliminate the angry world outside. The courthouses are intricate sculptures, where the inner, the outer and the in between are held forever in an unresolved relationship. Measuring does not imply a commitment to the outside world. The IIT campus buildings are measured perimeters whose simplicity establishes the measurement for their context. These principles are developed in the ‘Museum for a Small City’.