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21 First Drafts: Mies Van Der Rohe's Riehl House

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Every day in August, we'll profile one architect's first finished building—often surprising, always insightful—as a solo practitioner. Within the vast field of great building design, we aim to uncover the significance of first acts.

Mies van der Rohe
Riehl House, Spitzweggasse 3, Potsdam, Germany
Date completed: 1907

Getting the Gig:
While looking to build a weekend retreat in Neubabelsberg, an area that would later become part of Potsdam, philosophy professor Alois Riehl and his wife Sophie decided to give a talented rookie a shot at a first commission rather than work with an established designer. The name of 20-year-old draftsman Mies van der Rohe, who was then working in the office of architect and designer Bruno Paul, was mentioned by Joseph Popp, a friend of Mies who had helped Sophie design a birdbath. According to Mies, the couple reached out and invited him to a stylish party at their Berlin apartment to discuss the job and see if he was the right fit. Lacking proper attire, the young architect went around the office asking to borrow money until he had gathered enough to afford a dinner jacket. While the professor initially balked, saying he didn't want to be a "guinea pig" for someone's first project, Mies charmed the couple enough to win the commission. He resisted all aid and advice from Paul, preferring to go out on his own. Supposedly, his then boss would later say of the project, "there's only one this wrong with this house—I didn't build it."

Description and Reception:
Decidedly quaint, the two-story cottage would seem like a clear outlier in an oeuvre defined by glass-and-steel temples. The rectangular home with a steep tiled roof and stucco walls featured two main alcoves along with built-ins in the kitchen and bookcase. The restrained interior, done in a style many have compared to traditional English design, also drew inspiration from Paul's previous work, especially a dining room for a 1906 Dresden Exhibition. Two separate gardens set upon the sloping yard, both a French-influenced, more manicured upper level and a more unkempt, natural green space below, helped frame views of Lake Griebnitz, just 500 feet away. The Riehls were thrilled with the finished design, nicknaming their new home the "Klösterli" (little cloister). The charming young architect was promptly invited into their social circle, where he would meet industrialists and philosophers, as well as a number of future clients (his home for another local family, the Urbigs, became known as the Churchill Villa after the British leader stayed there during conferences at the conclusion of WWII). They even paid for him to take a six-week trip to Munich and Italy, and stayed so close with the up-and-coming architect over the proceeding years that he would later be commissioned to design Alois's headstone when he passed away in 1928.

Impact on His Career:
While he had fond memories of his first clients, Mies didn't always look favorably upon his first building. When a major retrospective of his work in the United States was being organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947, Mies asked them to leave out the Riehl House, wanting to keep the narrative of an uncompromising modernist unsullied by a quaint old cottage. But a closer look at the structure reveals that it's not as much of an oddity as he may have presumed. The home rests on a long flat podium, which predates the temple-like forms he would utilize for masterpieces such as Crown Hall. More importantly to his later works, the home earned plaudits from the press, which called the work "irreproachable," and a favorable look from Paul Thiersch, head of the Bruno Paul office. He would put in a good word for Mies with Peter Behrens, who would later become an important mentor to Mies van der Rohe's modernist vision.

Famous Future Works:
Crown Hall (Chicago: 1956); Seagram Building (New York: 1958); Farnsworth House (Plano, IL: 1951); Lafayette Park (Detroit: 1965)

Current Status: Only a handful of owners lived inside the house at number three, Spitzweg Lane. It was abandoned for a long stretch in the middle of the 20th century; during the Cold War, an East German film school took advantage of the building and used it as a set. But over the last 20 years, it's been properly restored. A couple purchased the home for 1.7 million marks in 1997, and in 2001, architect Heiko Folkerts, a German pioneer of green construction, led an extensive renovation project.

Mapping Mies Most Important Works [Curbed]
How Mies van der Rohe's Design for a Bacardi HQ in Cuba Became Berlin's Iconic Neue Nationalgalerie [Curbed]
The Challenges of Restoring Mies, Or the Search for the Right Shade of Black [Curbed]