Bush and the Legacy of Mies van der Rohe

In the absence of serious journalism — here, there, everywhere — the recent flow of gilded imagery from Russia, ever since Air Force One set down at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on Thursday, May 23, has been nothing less than spectacular. From the opening shots of Bush reviewing the “imperial” honor guard, upon arrival, to the glamorous staged scenes at the Grand Kremlin Palace (St. Andrew Hall), to the imperial city of St. Petersburg (with Bush-Putin visits to the Mariinsky Theater and Hermitage Museum), Bush and Putin have spared no opportunity to illustrate what the press failed to analyze: Neo-Imperial Russia and Neo-Imperial America are now best friends, and, ipso facto demento, will join cloven hooves to stamp out upstart and established miscreants (naysayers) worldwide, but primarily in Central Asia.

The lavish imagery documents the generic addage “A picture is worth a thousand words”, but it also underscores the more subtle notion of cultural ambience, the aura surrounding an event or object. Ambience is the barely legible complex that supports an image — in Walter Benjamin’s well-known interpretation of this epi-phenomenon, aura is also the imagined effect of the object looking (gazing) back at the subject through space and time. As critic Paul Werner has recently written regarding the work of painter Ellsworth Kelly (now on display at the Drawing Center in New York City), Kelly’s apparent abstract paintings are in fact a form of Realism. The planar color surfaces act as a metonym for an implied “fugitive” structure — “a patch of green” connotes a patch of grass, “a patch of blue” connotes a very real patch of blue, the sky, but more importantly quite often the sky at a particular moment. (Or as Paul Werner writes: “This is no less an affirmation than Andre Breton’s when he wrote that the color of Courbet’s skies is the color of the blue sky of Paris the day the Vendome Column fell.”) Given this indelible (anamorphic) stain haunting all imagery and perception, what is to be made of George W. Bush’s sky-blue tie, worn during his tour of the Hermitage?

Presidential ties have been the source of a great deal of speculative ekphrasis since perhaps Kennedy. (Don’t forget that Clinton supposedly used his tie to send secret messages to Monica Lewinsky.) Ekphrasis is the relatively old practice of describing the exact moment a painting or work of sculpture embodies. Sigmund Freud wrote (anonymously) a rather fabulous account of the meaning of Bernini’s Moses based on this traditional form of art interpretation. The idea of ambience is a related method of getting down to business — the subliminal message of the power tie (or the piano-key tie!) is of the same order of things. In architectural criticism, one can tell more about a building or landscape by analyzing the environmental elements it engages or disengages rather than by judging the mere facade or structural form. This surplus is a means of getting a purchase on the significance of the entire apparatus that supports and underwrites architecture. Included in this apparatus is the political-economic machinery. The recent twin re-representations of the work of arch-modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in New York at MoMA and the Whitney, in 2000, accidentally revealed the power of ambient factors in architecture in ways that are admittedly somewhat obscure but also subliminally at play in the very act of artistic and curatorial representation.

Architecture & Ideology

The Mies legend — that he was the exemplar of ideology-free, open space planning (i.e., free-flowing space and majestic clear span) — is/was both an elective fiction perpetrated by the self-anointed keepers of architectural modernism and a means of obscuring promiscuous political trace elements buried in Mies’ work. This political aura was brilliantly reconstituted in photographs by Thomas Ruff, at MoMA’s “Mies in Berlin”, through artistically doctored photographs of key buildings intended to restore the missing links, or the supplemental ambient forces that produce/support a work of architecture. These included ideological as well as architectural presumptions. At the Whitney (“Mies in America”), the recovery of aura was more overtly realized by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s design of the installation, especially the culminating gesture — a room with an eerily spot-lit model of Mies’ New National Gallery (Berlin) amid darkness, and a video loop documenting a day in the life of Mies’ last monumental effort to produce “an architecture of almost nothing”. Manglano-Ovalle’s timelapse cinematography not merely restored the environmental and existential conditions of the vast empty box set on a gargantuan podium but enhanced these effects and proved conclusively that Mies’ game of architectural reductionism came with a very high price attached — i.e., extreme alienation. The New National Gallery was presented as a monument to the supposed autonomy of art and architecture, standing aloof within its Berlin mise en scene, a park, with visitors flitting ghostlike through its empty, pure space.

This picture of alienation reclaims for Mies the sublime system of reduction at play in his buildings without erasing the principle adjuncts to his theatrical sense of form and space — the sky, the horizon, the play of light and shadow, and the ever-present symbolic tissue of object-subject relations. The hyper-optical nature of Mies’ buildings (he always drew his projects in one-point perspective) underscores the architectonic premise of Mies and Miesian architecture. Signed Tout a vous, “here” is the condition of Modernity Itself.

Springtime & the New Gilded Age

In the news media, today, one has to similarly read the images (as one has to read between the lines of any article or op-editorial, in say The New York Times) to find the presence of the symbolic — the complex of authorized things, ideas, operations that condition our day-to-day consciousness. In the case of the images of Bush and Putin, gamboling about St. Petersburg (after having dispensed with the “historic” Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty in Moscow), one needs to remember that St. Petersburg is Putin’s “hometown” and only recently George W. Bush serenaded Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah in Crawford, Texas (Bush’s imaginary hometown), driving him around the 1600-acre ranch and pointing out the Texas blue bonnets. Ah! the blue tie. Does the blue tie connect back to springtime Texas and sunny appeasement? Does that tie signal the optimism of George Bush in the new Russia-America entente? In the spirit of free association, please connect the dots: Blue tie, blue blood, blue skies, blue bonnets. Blue is also the natural complement to gold (which is why both blue and gold were part of the cosmic symbolism of Russian symbolist poets).

If so, or even if not, what does all that gold leaf signify? Is it not a means of conveying the grand intentions of this alliance? Does it not hearken back to Imperial Russia and suggest that Russia, today, understands the importance of window dressing? The honor guard at the airport reception certainly confounded our usual picture of poorly equipped Russian soldiers slugging it out with Chechen rebels in the North Caucasus (a land crisscrossed by pipelines from Caspian Sea oil and natural gas fields).

Anyway, speaking of the architecture of politics, the broken steppes of Central Asia beckon. Major media’s colorful coverage of the Bush-Putin summit resembled nothing less than a National Geographic spread on the perquisites of privilege, wealth and power. While Bush and his ilk are fast securing the domestic and international ramparts of the New Gilded Age, off-stage, or just beyond the ornate picture frame, there are seething hell-holes eating at the edges. In the analysis of architectural and political form, essentially the art of eye-wash, what is omitted is as important as what is admitted. Reading images is one thing, reading the future is another. Unfortunately, for everyone, the devastated and clotted landscape of Central Asia is the historic repressed aura haunting Imperial and Neo-Imperial Russia.

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect/critic in New York, New York. He attended both Mies exhibitions in New York last year and spent several weeks convalescing. He is the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture in the 1990s.

He can be reached at: ateliermp@netscape.net

Links to his reviews of these two blockbuster exhibitions are listed below.


Mies and Mies Not“–Mies in Berlin

Levitating Architecture“– Mies in America

Regarding the “historic” Moscow Treaty, signed with pomp and splendour at the Kremlin, see The Independent (05/25/02)–“Moscow was willing to destroy the warheads not deployed, knowing that because of its economic weakness its ability to deliver warheads is going down. America was not. Instead it will ‘deep freeze’ warheads. In 10 years it will still have 10,000 nuclear warheads that it could use.”

For bona-fide National Geographic photographs of the wrecked landscapes of the post-Soviet Caspian Sea basin, by Iranian-born photographer Reza Deghati, cliquez ici.

Geo-Linguistic Footnote

If the landlocked Caspian Sea can be redefined as “a lake”, all oil and natural gas reserves would belong equally to all countries bordering the waterbody, including Russia and Iran. The one bone of contention between Bush and Putin during the Moscow portion of the summit was Russia’s helping Iran to build a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran. Iran, fingered as part of the Axis of Evil, and Russia, new best friend of the U.S., would both like to see the Caspian Lake cleared of “arbitrary” claims by rival regional powers. Since the oil and gas is unevenly distributed throughout the sea- or lake-bed, Russia’s and Iran’s share of the action is considerably less than Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and, surprise, Chechnya. A Stalin-era complex known as the “Oily Rocks” — a 48-mile-long network of depleted wells, booms, platforms, storage tanks, and gangways — is currently rusting into the sea between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.