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  • Writer's pictureAnna Dorothea Ker, MA

A Brief History of Mies van der Rohe Haus in Berlin

What is Mies van der Rohe Haus?

Mies van der Rohe Haus, also known as The Lemke House, is a modest icon of lakeside modernism, today housing contemporary art, that was Mies van der Rohe’s last German work before he emigrated to the United States.

The Lemke House

Manfred Brückels, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mies van der Rohe Haus History

When it comes to Berlin’s heritage-listed monuments, a low-slung brick house situated on an unassuming residential street might not be the kind of building that springs to mind. Yet it’s precisely the quiet understatement of the Lemke House that has earned this emblem of Bauhaus architecture its place on the modernist map. Completed in 1933, ‘Villa Lemke’ – as it was originally called – was commissioned by a couple, Karl and Martha Lemke, who owned a manufacturing business. On the recommendation of a friend, the pair enlisted the architectural services of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design them a ‘small and modest home’ on their plot of lakeside land.

One year and 16,000 Reichmarks later – or around €75,000 in today’s money – the couple moved into their understated red-brick Bauhaus masterpiece. Designed as a simple, one-storey L-shape, the residence features expansive gridded windows that cast splendid views out across the garden and onto the Obersee lake, allowing the house to make the most of its privileged position in a city dominated by medium-density builds. With its distinctive flat roof and stark, geometric form, the Lemke House recalls the architectural language of a pavilion, perhaps bringing to mind the Pavelló Alemany (or German Pavilion) that Mies and his partner, Lilly Reich, had completed four years prior for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition.

Sadly, the Lemkes were only able to enjoy their residence, complete with custom furnishings designed by Mies and Reich, for a few years. Following the occupation of their district by the Soviet Army in 1945, the couple were forced to evacuate, and Villa Lemke was converted into a garage. Eventually, the East German Secret Police – the Stasi – officially took over the house in the 1960s, using it as a kitchen and a laundry facility, among other purposes, after which time it fell into disrepair.

Over a decade later, in 1977, the house’s trajectory took a brighter turn when it was declared a protected landmark, although tentative renovations in the early ‘80s were abandoned due to insufficient funds. It wasn’t until after German reunification, in 1990, that the building’s architectural value was officially recognised, and it was renamed the Mies van der Rohe House by its new owner, the local council. With extensive renovations completed in 2002, the residence has been restored to its original restrained splendour, and now houses a programme of rotating contemporary art exhibitions, complemented by an ever-changing series of sculptures in the garden. In summer, van der Rohe chairs are placed around the lawn, inviting visitors to settle in the shade of a tree to read about the house’s history, take in the gentle lake views, and contemplate the legacy of this unobtrusive architectural icon.

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