Re-enactment is a material response to the pervasive invisibility of Lilly Reich’s work. It arises with a clear motivation: to reveal the architecture designed by Lilly Reich for the German sections of the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition inside eight Noucentista Palaces, an area that is fifty times greater in magnitude than the Pavilion itself. That work had a critical influence on the architecture of the German Pavilion, the original one that precedes the reconstruction that opened in 1986 and that we can experience today.
The material trace of the relationship between the two architectures—that of the Pavilion and that of the Palace interiors—vanished forever when, in January 1930, hundreds of linear meters of glass fencings and display cases, designed by Lilly Reich, were dismantled. Fortunately, forty-one architectural plans of that work have withstood the passage of time. They are plans, sections, elevations, and construction details at different scales, all of them kept at the Lilly Reich Collection in the Mies van der Rohe Archive at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. They are also an important part of the immaterial heritage of the project and of the documentary re-construction developed by the author over the last several years, to uncover the design work that Lilly Reich did with Mies, which established the foundations for the development of the architectural elements that shaped the German Pavilion.
An image of the interior of the Pavilion with multiple reflections, on permanent loan at the Bauhaus Museum Weimar–Klassik Stiftung Weimar, unveils part of a blurred photograph originally published in the Diario Oficial de la Exposición de Barcelona (Official Diary of the International Exposition of Barcelona) in 1929. The image opens a view towards the Palaces and shows three people in conversation outside the Pavilion, one of them probably being Lilly Reich herself. It is one of the pieces of evidence—some of them were unknown, others were dispersed—that have been now connected and that make up the documentary contents of the exhibition.
Re-enactment occupies the heart of the Pavilion with the reconstruction of two display cases that Lilly Reich originally designed and built for the Palaces. This reconstruction was possible thanks to the blueprints that Lilly Reich saved, moving them to Mühlhausen (Thuringia) during World War II and that are today at the MoMA in New York. It was also possible thanks to the extensive and varied photographic documentation that has been found since then in Germany, the United States, and Spain.
The interpretation of both images and blueprints allowed for the development of new plans for the re-construction of two display cases. The proportions and composition of the steel profiles are the same as the original ones designed by Lilly Reich for the Palaces. Their size is specific to the new site, and responds now to the measurements of the Pavilion, as Lilly Reich did in each Palace.
The intervention transforms a vertical element of light—the milky-colored, double-glazed screen—into a lengthy horizontal display case and adds a vertical display case to the visitor’s path toward the inner reflecting pool. An unprecedented documentary sequence is presented in the horizontal display case with new archival items (letters, photographs, patents, trademarks, and plans) that link the Pavilion with the architecture of the Palaces. Two film sequences from the exhibition opening in 1929 are reproduced in the vertical display case. Together, the two reconstructed elements now contribute to re-enacting a work that the history of architecture has unfairly set aside.
The intervention re-appropriates a space in the Pavilion that the history of architecture has denied Lilly Reich: to fully acknowledge her work and involvement. To make a clear statement, the goal is to claim a space for her in a place that is invisible to the understanding of most of the Pavilion’s visitors: the skylight.
The skylight is the main screen that, due to its translucent materiality, contributes to blocking the space. In 1929, this architectural element created a distinction between a representative interior area reserved for the authorities and an exterior area, where ordinary visitors could either sit on the low bench along the travertine wall or pass through on their way from the Spanish Village to the industrial exhibitions. Now, those hierarchical differences have been erased, not only by creating visual continuity, but also thanks to the exhibition function granted to the display-case.
The intervention opened the skylight following a four-step process. First, the layer of paint darkening the glass at the module of the screen coinciding with the width of the skylight was eliminated, rendering it transparent. Then, the four pieces of glass composing the double-glazed screens of the skylight were removed one by one. At that moment, besides the expected longitudinal visual continuity, an additional transparency towards the side garden was established.
Next, the intermediate mullion as well as the perimeter metalwork located on the floor and two sides was dismantled to allow for the visual continuity of the floor as well as the glass screen and the marble wall. The upper mullion was left intact to be able to fix to it a new ceiling. For the final step, a longitudinal piece of white fabric covered the entire span, as was done in 1929 in several of the industrial sections in the Palaces, now creating a horizontal screen of light.
The original width of the skylight (which is usually invisible to the visitors) was made explicit by means of this new horizontal screen, while the threshold between the interior and the exterior was emphasized. The horizontal display case was positioned underneath the light projection, acquiring the same width of one screen module.
Given that ample width, four linear narratives have been organized. They are seen from the interior of the Pavilion to encourage the visitors coming from the Spanish Village (the original main entrance in 1929) to enter the Pavilion.
The documentary sequence starts with a letter that Lilly Reich sent in 1944 to Eduard Ludwig, a former Bauhaus student and collaborator at Mies’s office in Berlin, with whom she maintained a close friendship. In this letter, a copy of which is kept at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation today, Lilly Reich regretted how, after a bombing, and among many other objects of personal value, “the big photos of Barcelona” had burned. Although it is thought that no copies of these big photos have ever been found again, this letter opens an opportunity for reassessment. It works as an index, forging continuity with other photographs and postcards of the Barcelona exhibits that have been traced over time.
…In the first night the neighboring
houses were burning near the shore and the whole Lützowstrasse.
My apartment was so damaged that I had to empty it as
soon as possible, but first the fire
next-door had to be extinguished to rescue our house.
When this was in order and I had
prepared everything to leave, a phosphorus
bomb fell through my kitchen in the apartment
below and, as there was no buffer, everything burnt at once.
I could not go back into my apartment
because the smoke was so heavy I could
not rescue anything. Unfortunately, many things burnt,
many of them very valuable and personal:
memories that I had partly prepared to
take with me the following day. The big photos of
Barcelona, the letters by Mies of the past years, and
also many books. And all furniture, including
my very nice kitchen-equipment, pictures, and linen.
The fourteen images preserved in the MoMA Archive have been exhibited in the upper narrative of the display case. They are all-encompassing photographs revealing the elements that Lilly Reich designed in order to bestow consistency throughout the different interiors: built-in display case walls, vertical and horizontal free-standing display cases, circular tube railings, false ceilings, and continuous white-linoleum floors, as well as M.R. chairs, armchairs, stools, and tables. All show how Lilly Reich transformed the classical spaces into modern, unadorned, and consistent environments, able to reveal a German identity across different industrial sections, either in the Palace of Graphic Arts or in the Palaces of Metallurgy, Electricity and Motive Force (with their Chemical and the Machines sections), Communications and Transport, Textiles, Projections, Industrial Arts, Agriculture, and Southern.
The photograph of the interior of the Palace of Graphic Arts reveals a sequence of five units of horizontal and vertical display cases completing 14-meter-long document sequences. The horizontal display case re-constructed for this artistic intervention is made out of two units, completing a span of 6.6-meters, to coincide with the length of the Pavilion’s skylight.
In the lower narrative of the display case, twenty-three photographs from eight archives in Barcelona, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Madrid, and Weimar are shown. Two uncharted photos stand out: one is from a private collection in Frankfurt and another from the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin. Similarly, several other lesser known photographs are also included, such as one of the M.R. chairs occupying the Pavilion before the opening. This photograph, the only one not corresponding to the interior of the Palaces, completes the narrative. It includes a note on the back written by Eduard Ludwig: “Mies or. G (von) Kettler vor der Eröffnung” (Mies and [von] Kettler before the opening).
Three weeks after the opening of the exhibition in 1929, Mies registered a patent of invention in Spain for “an improvement of curved chairs and armchairs” to commercially exploit his M.R. furniture. A month later, he also registered the trademark M.R. to “distinguish all kind of furniture with specialty in armchairs, chairs, stools, and tables (class 55).” Lilly Reich and Mies had introduced, in almost every stand, pieces of their tubular-steel furniture, whether they be M.R.10 or M.R.20 chairs, M.R.1 stools or M.R.30 tables.
Mies’s interest in settling in Spain was clear, as it was for many other German industries that were present in Barcelona. That is why the patents and trademarks of those products, besides being present at the exhibition, were also registered in Spain during the project development period. In Re-enactment, these patents are laid in an intermediate narrative between the two sequences of photographs. It is not a coincidence that the same industries which patented their products in Spain during this time also commissioned images of their stands to local photographers.
There are some clear examples, such as that of P. Beiersdorf & Co. A.G., a chemical company from Hamburg that in August 1929 registered the International trademark no. 64.506 to produce “Medicines, chemical products for medicine and hygiene, drugs and pharmacy preparations, plaster, cloths for bandages, products for the destruction of animals and vegetables, disinfectants, products for the conservation of aliments, chemical products for the industry and the sciences, medical and hygienic instruments and bandaging,” in Spain. The Barcelona-based photographer Josep María Sagarra i Plana took photos of their stand, which was located in one of the sides of the Chemical section at the Palace of Metallurgy, Electricity and Motive Force.
These narratives of photographs and patents are preceded by the plan of the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, where the German Pavilion can be seen in context with the areas occupied by the German industrial sections dispersed in the different Palaces. The plan is included in the catalog Exposición Internacional de Barcelona 1929: Catálogo Oficial de la Sección Alemana (International Exposition of Barcelona 1929: Official Catalog of the German Section), which was edited and designed by Lilly Reich. However, this credit is not explicitly granted to her in the book. It wasn’t until the 1970s that this was mentioned during interviews conducted by the MoMA curator Ludwig Glaeser with different people involved in the Barcelona project.
The narrative of the display case continues with the plans of the Palaces. The first one in the sequence is the plan of the Chemical section, which reveals the distribution of all the industries that were represented, including Beiersdorf & Co. A. G. All of these plans —the Machines section in the Palace of Metallurgy, Electricity and Motive Force, as well as the Palaces of Communications and Transport, Textiles, Projections, Industrial Arts, Agriculture, Graphic Arts and Southern—are fragments of other larger plans from the Arxiu General de Fira de Barcelona, which include all the other national sections beside the German ones.
These plans are at the origin of the invisibility of Lilly Reich’s work. At that time, the distribution of the stands was considered to be enough “to start putting things into place,” as the cultural attaché of the Spanish Embassy in Berlin stated. The hundreds of linear meters of display cases of different kinds that Lilly Reich designed—and that she customized for most of the stands—in order to negotiate the scalar transition from the industrial products to the immensity of the Palaces was not considered “architecture.” Today, the selection of photographs exhibited together with the plans reveal how the distribution of the industries in the Palaces was only the beginning of an architectural development of a much broader richness and complexity performed by Lilly Reich.
The width of the horizontal display case coincides with its corresponding module in the lateral screen of the garden, which was made transparent as a first step of the Pavilion’s transformation. The vertical display case is also placed face to face on the right side of the screen of the small reflecting pool, equally acquiring the width of a module. Some of the positions in the moving images from the opening of 1929 are matched now with view points that can be experienced in the Pavilion.
The two films reveal how, during the opening of the exhibition in 1929, visitors started their walking sequence in the Pavilion, continuing through the industrial exhibits in the Palaces. Now, they demonstrate that there was an experiential and also a formal continuity between the Pavilion and the Palaces.
Together, the horizontal and the vertical display cases re-enact the work for which Lilly Reich was artistic director: the display elements located in the 16,000 m2 industrial exhibitions that have a clear formal resemblance with the architectural elements of the Pavilion.
The Pavilion will be occupied by the work of Lilly Reich for just two weeks once the coronavirus-quarantine is lifted. It is a short time given the spatial transformation performed. The Pavilion has never been seen before without its milky color double-glazed screen, and it is very unlikely that such a spatial experience will be granted again.
A book, originally envisioned by the Fundació Mies van der Rohe and following the recommendations of grant jury members Wolf Tegetthof and Christiane Lange, (who also participated in the presentation and opening of Re-enactment), will capture this unique condition of the Pavilion. It will reproduce the documentary sequences presented in the two re-constructed display cases as well as the spatial transformation performed in the Pavilion.
On top of the book effort, the two reconstructed display cases will travel to different cities, before ideally becoming part of a permanent collection of a museum in Barcelona. The itinerary will start in cities that were originally connected with the project. Some of these locations being considered are: Krefeld, due to the insistence of the silk manufacturers of the city for the participation of Germany in the Barcelona Exhibition, given their ambition to extend their trade internationally after the success of the “Velvet and Silk Café” (1927); Stuttgart, since the starting point of all the projects in Barcelona was the exhibition in 1927. Its success was the reason why Mies got the Barcelona commission, and it was Mies who insisted that Lilly Reich be his partner in all the endeavor; Dessau, due to the presence of the Bauhaus workshop products in the Barcelona Exposition, even before Mies took over the directorship of the school, where he later invited Lilly Reich to become an instructor; and Brno, for the obvious formal relationship between the German Pavilion and the Tugendhat House due to the parallel development of the two projects.
Whether in photographs and plans in the book, or in person when they become part of a museum’s collection, the two display cases will bear witness to the homage that the first edition of the eponymous grant has paid to Lilly Reich’s work. They will also serve as material record of the effort that is still needed in order to acknowledge silenced authorships in collaborative practices.
Below is a video of the opening of Re-enactment featuring presentations by Laura Martínez de Guereñu, Wolf Tegethoff, Christiane Lange, Isabel Bachs, and Cristian Cirici.