MIES’ HIDDEN BASEMENT
06.2019 SPECIAL EDITION
Following interventions by Antoni Muntadas, Jeff Wall, Dennis Adams, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA), Ai Wei Wei, and Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT), the Madrid based practice, Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation carried out a project of their own in 2012/2013, at the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, in Barcelona, resulting from two years of research, entitled Phantom. Mies as Rendered Society.
The studio’s sensibility towards understanding architecture as a social construction, as demonstrated in previous projects including; 12 Actions to make Peter Eisenman transparent (2004), Fray Foam Home (at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010), and Mauride Home Urbanism (Case Study in 2012), draws inspiration from one of the world’s leading social theorists, Bruno Latour and the network of STS (Science and Technology Studies), which he developed alongside fellow scholar Michel Callon. Using Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) as a tool for contemporary architecture practice, where objects, both human and non-human, are treated as part of social networks, Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation discovered a hidden basement, located underneath the entire footprint of Mies’ German Pavilion in Barcelona.
This space is purposely concealed and kept inaccessible to the public, as it stores and preserves everything that is necessary for the functioning and running of the pavilion on a daily basis, just as Mies himself intended. In 2015, William Mondejar wrote an academic thesis entitled ‘Making Mies Visible’, exploring the stories behind the objects and networks that are hidden in the basement of the Barcelona Pavilion, which led up to the intervention by Andrés Jaque, and opens the ‘back of the house’ discussion, which has gone unnoticed for such a richly published and well photographed building, regarded as one of the most important pieces of art/architecture of the modern movement in the 20th Century. Here is an extract from William’s thesis about the hidden basement.
The pavilion is a material construction in parallel to a social one where it is the association of these materials that construct society. In his essay, The Berlin Key or How to do Words with Things, Bruno Latour states, “no one has ever observed a human society that has not been built with things”. In this case, Latour writes about a symmetrically designed key, which only exists in Berlin and its suburbs, with the aim of closing doors at night and opening them in the morning, by pushing the whole key through a specifically designed keyhole that limits the key’s rotation to a maximum of 270 degrees. The idea of ensembles between human and non-human actors is reinforced through specially appointed people such as caretakers and night watchmen who possess the power to open and close all doors regardless of the keys used by their owners, through the use of an asymmetrical master key. The way Latour uses the point of view of an archaeologist to explore how the key works, draws on the way they look at items from the past in order to work out their roles in society. At first, the archaeologist is confused by the design of the key and its corresponding lock, as they don’t seem to make any sense, but once the idea is fully explained, its simplicity and purpose becomes evident…
The intervention, Phantom. Mies as Rendered Society, by Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation, brings to the surface, and carefully displays, on timber stands, the objects from the basement across the pavilion, breaking its aesthetic perfection. The idea of the ‘Phantom’ refers to the unique experience of the ‘unknown’ in the pavilion, where things are happening out of the viewer’s site. Understanding the architecture as a ‘Rendered Society’ is achieved through the collaboration of these human and non-human actors that transform the Barcelona Pavilion into an arena where this ‘pantomime’ between the two floors can be acted out on a daily basis.
The dusty, rolled up red curtains, collection of flags, broken pieces of original glass, slabs of travertine and bags of salt for water filtering, are not just historical memories of the original pavilion but also become the key props hidden backstage for the running of the building as a theatre of activity on a daily basis where the public and the private are disputed. Furthermore, the Latourian way of thinking and the intervention by Jaque open the ‘back of the house’ discussion in one of the most influential pieces of modern architecture. An observation that was picked up on by Beatrice Galilee in her essay; A colour for the blind, where she compares the basement of the Barcelona Pavilion to the house in the film ‘Koolhaas Houselife’, by OMA. Andrés Jaque found a number of assorted props and gear (spotlights, pedestals, microphones, etc) stored in the central room of the basement which are brought up to the top floor for events including the shooting of commercials.
In addition to a workshop area filled with tools, cleaning devices and cleaning products, there is a sink where the staff wash the dishes they use when they dine together around a plastic table. The area designated for the maintenance staff starts to develop a domestic feeling through the arrangement of photographs and newspaper cut-outs on the concrete wall. There is even a special area for the pavilion’s cat, Niebla, now also a star in Andrés Jaque’s bestselling book ‘Mies y la gata Niebla: ensayos sobre arquitectura y cosmopolítica’, who is taken up to the upper floor every night, for a few hours, to scare away mice and rats.
This construction of objects, technologies and people moving from the upper floor to the lower basement is completely unnoticed by the public and is only experienced by the people in charge of the maintenance of the building, like the cleaner, Guadalupe Acedo, in Koolhaas’ film. It is in fact the maintenance staff who truly experience the full architecture of the pavilion, as they engage in the confrontation and association between two notions of thinking architecture; the ideal, well documented upper floor, with its impeccable minimalist aesthetic, interplay of transparency and opacity, light and dark, material textures, water reflections, visible and non-visible; and the necessary concealed basement which is filled with dust, a collection of old junk decaying from its original state, and the services needed for the maintenance and running of the pavilion on a daily basis.
It may not be clear at first glance, in the images of the pavilion’s basement, the importance of the; cleaning products, vacuum cleaners, power washers, buckets, trolleys, ladders, window cleaners, and instruments necessary for cleaning the water in the pools, but they play a large role in transforming the architecture of the pavilion into a social construction. These non-human actors, alongside the human ones including; staff, ticket salesmen, surveillance and security guards, cleaners, and people in charge of the building’s maintenance and management, are the things that are necessary to make the building function as a machine for representing what the ideal might be.
In a similar fashion to the caretakers and night watchmen in Bruno Latour’s essay, The Berlin Key or How to do Words with Things, there is a hierarchy of experience created, where the people in charge of the pavilion’s maintenance are the only ones who get to understand the architecture as a whole ecosystem rather than just a part which is accessible to the pavilion’s visitors. The uncomfortable trap-door access, tight spiral staircase and the ‘no people allowed beyond this point’ sign only adds to the separation of these experiences, something that the architects in charge of the building’s reconstruction in 1986 were very keen on maintaining…
Completed in 2013, the intervention makes the Barcelona Pavilion transparent, revealing it as an arena where the political dispute between the two floors is confronted. In Jaque’s words; ‘the intervention is based on the suspicion that the recognition and the re-articulation of these two spheres can contribute to new possibilities in which architecture finds answers to contemporary challenges’. The idea of mapping relations between different actors including architectural devices helps to spatially explore the studio’s aim of ‘understanding how things get discussed and how we, as societies get engaged and activated through daily parliaments’, where architecture brings the social into politics.
Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory now starts to become evident as a tool for contemporary architecture practice as the act of tracing lines of connectivity and collaborations between objects, including architectural devices, becomes part of a spatial discussion. This alternative way of thinking about the social, and society, as in Phantom. Mies as Rendered Society, brings to the surface the ‘back of the house’ discussion between two notions of architectural thought; firstly, an image of perfection where the pure materiality of the pavilion’s top floor portrays what the ideal could be, and secondly, the contingent, referring to the concealed basement which contains everything that is necessary, both human and non-human, for the functioning of the pavilion on a daily basis.
The confrontation between the two floors creates a division between the spectacle and use of the pavilion, as it is the maintenance staff that get to experience the full architecture, rather than the large numbers of visitors that come every day to view one of the most influential buildings in architectural history…