"Collage for Mies van der Rohe" is a series of large-scale photographic interventions within Mies van der Rohe’s buildings across the Chicago land. This series of interventions is based on speculative paper collages made by Mies van der Rohe in his American period from the late 1930’ and on (especially the Rasor house in Wyoming). In these Collages, Mies used landscape photographs to demonstrate the function of the windows and the way they frame nature. In this project, Assaf Evron uses Mies’ own strategy of collage and re-applies it onto his buildings, where the representation of architecture collapses into the actual architecture, where nature and architecture are welded into a surface and the fetishized transparency of Mies is transgressed. In this interview with Assaf we explore the evolution of the project through its three realised interventions and how each responds to a different aspect of the building exploring the connection between architecture and landscape in unique and diverse ways.
KOOZ What prompted your series of large-scale photographic interventions “Collage for Mies van der Rohe”?
AE It all started as I came across the “Mies Van der Rohe: Montage Collage” book published by Koening Books in 2017. It was a surprise to delve into his collages from the American period and especially the ones made for the Rasor House in 1937-38. I was intrigued by the material use of photography and especially the application of landscape photographs to illustrate the function of the windows. Mies' presence in Chicago is very strong, and this, of course, comes with a complexity of oedipal relationships that are still present in the city’s architecture. Being here with the presence of these built projects got me playing with the idea of making my own paper collages but reversing the relationships and applying landscape photographs to the actual windows of Mies' buildings. I started off with a collage, photographing a selection of buildings around town and pulling some landscape photographs from my archive in an attempt to match buildings and landscapes. I made a series of ten variations which I exhibited at the Goethe Institute in Chicago. The exhibition went down and then I got to think: what if those collages are actual proposals? So I began circulating this idea.
Mies’ McCormick House, owned by Elmhurst Museum of Art in Illinois, seemed like a good place to start. I thought that since it is an institution that is used to work with artists and frequently utilizes the house as an exhibition space, it could make sense to propose such an experimental intervention. It worked out, and the McCormick House became the first building in the series.
Instead of a window that defines the landscape, in my project I applied a landscape that redefines the building. The fetishization of glass and its transparency was almost an invitation for such an intervention.
KOOZ Architectural theorists as Rayner Banham, Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco dal Co described his architectures as, for instance, the Barcelona pavilion, as montages. How and to what extent do you agree with this assertion? How do your works, which use Mies’ own collage strategy as a means of collapsing the representation of architecture into the actual architecture, insert themselves within this discourse?
AE I think these stances tended to see the montage as a metaphor for the way modernist projects could be experienced. But these are inner architectural inquiries, while I pose artistic questions. The subject matter is architecture, but I approach my projects from an artistic standpoint: How to create a collage based on the modules of a building? Which landscape would work best? How to negotiate the flatness of the facade with the three-dimensionality of topography, and what narratives I want to engage with?
This project tries to test the capacity of art to intervene and to say something about the status of buildings and the status of myth in Chicago.
KOOZ Within these buildings the views, as per Leon Battista Alberti, are frames that elevate the surrounding nature to the status of art. How do your real-life collages explore and challenge the fetishized transparency of Mies? What informed the specific approaches taken to each individual architecture?
AE I think that Mies in his collages is negotiating the relationship and hierarchies between landscape, art, and different materials on his minimal architectural stage, and he is elevating each of them to the level of an artwork. There is also a good amount of writing about the way the Farnsworth house and the Barcelona pavilion were designed as artworks rather than functional architecture. Irene Sunwoo, for instance, claims that Farnsworth House follows the economy and market behavior of an artwork rather than architecture.
Thinking about Alberti and his theory of perspective, the window is a construct in his abstracted theory of vision. It operates as part of a viewing apparatus where the lines of vision intersect with its plane. The window for Mies is both a viewing device that is framing nature and the representation of this apparatus. Its suggested transparency is achieved by cutting and pasting landscape photographs into the window modules, which was the initial motivation for the work.
Instead of a window that defines the landscape, in my project I applied a landscape that redefines the building. The fetishization of glass and its transparency was almost an invitation for such an intervention. Installing photographs into the windows has definitely a transgressive aspect and a certain level of iconoclasm and I would like to also think humor.
I wanted to solidify the building and turn it into a solid geological stratum. This sandy landscape in the image also alludes to the materiality of the glass and its source material.
In the first project at the McCormick House the glass was the subject matter. I installed a geological landscape from the Dead Sea into the windows. I negated the transparency of the glass and proposed a material alternative to the so-called “dematerialization of the glass”. I wanted to solidify the building and turn it into a solid geological stratum. This sandy landscape in the image also alludes to the materiality of the glass and its source material. As Neil Levine and Martino Stierli write, the collage works also signify Mies’ immigration to the US. At the interior of the McCormick House I wanted to address that aspect through the question of Heimat, thinking where Mies was coming from and the role of iconic landscape in the construction of German national identity. Rather than a window treatment I printed on a set of 3 semi-transparent roll down curtains a black and white image of Zugspize, the tallest peak of German Alps which I sourced from a postcard from before 1937 the year Mies arrived in the US.
At the Esplanade Apartments, the connection between the landscape and the building was more conceptual. Since the Esplanade apartments is one of the very first residential high-rises I was thinking about vertical living and its history or, to be more accurate, its prehistory. So at the base of the high-rise I installed a photograph of Na’Hal Me’arot, which is a world heritage site of pre-homo sapiens vertical cave dwellings. At Crown Hall I installed an image of the vermillion cliffs in Arizona. I was looking for a mountain that will mimic the form and monumentality of the building. There is an interesting moment of transparency when the blue of the photographed sky is merging with the actual blue sky.
In the future project for the Farnsworth House I am thinking about another kind of transparency. I am planning to install on the windows photos of abstract paintings that turn into a camouflage pattern and make the house merge with its forest surroundings.
KOOZ Your works seem add-ons which distort the exterior perception of houses’ interiors whilst redefining the individuals view of the outside. How do these images seek to interact with the immediate surrounding?
AE In the general flatness of the Midwest, I would say architecture becomes a prostatic landscape. The skyline in the macro and buildings in the micro. In Chicago, the architectural setup often feels like a stage design where the buildings are kind of props. Treating the exterior of Mies’ buildings with the added landscape responds to this absence but also participates in setting up a stage.
In the way the installation appears, one can see the mountain as a superimposed analogous to the building but also, in the postmodern Jamesonian aesthetics of mirrored glass, this can look like a reflection of a ghost mountain right behind the observer.
Floating the means of representation to the surface with Mies helps shifting the way we experience the phenomenology of such iconic buildings. It also expands the context and perhaps opens up a conversation that I feel is fossilized.
KOOZ How do the works ultimately seek to question and challenge the relationship between interior and exterior, built and landscape?
AE There is a saying that “when I look at a building, I already know with which pencil the architect was working”. I find that statement inspiring and an invitation to explore the agency of the means of representation in the building itself. But more than that, floating the means of representation to the surface with Mies helps shifting the way we experience the phenomenology of such iconic buildings. It also expands the context and perhaps opens up a conversation that I feel is fossilized. For example, breaking down the anachronistic culture-nature schism mentioned before.
There is something else. Buildings, no matter who designed them, are not artworks but are part of an environment where people do not care much about Mies or art. As an artist, I find working with non-museums a very challenging process but also most rewarding. It intervenes with people’s everyday life and provides an opportunity for them to look at their environment with fresh eyes.
Since all my Mies installations are temporary, they become events that are added to the history of these buildings, and to the collective memory and lived experience of those who live and inhabit them, along with those who pass by in their cars or by foot. These projects live through their documentation and become part of the ever-growing pool of representations and are freed in some respect to get a life of their own.
Assaf Evron is an artist and a photographer based in Chicago. His work investigates the nature of vision and the ways in which it reflects in socially constructed structures, where he applies photographic thinking in various two and three-dimensional media. Looking at moments along the histories of modernism Evron questions the construction of individual and collective identities, immigration (of people, ideas, images), and the representations of democracy. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums internationally as The Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago, Crystal Bridges Museum for American Art, The Canadian Center for Architecture, and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem among others. Evron holds an MA from The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel-Aviv University as well as an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where he currently teaches.