Grey Room

German Pavilion/German Exhibits: An Almost Forgotten Episode in the History of Modern Architecture

Laura Martínez de Guereñu

The site of the German Pavilion during construction, International Exposition, Barcelona, 1929. Mies van der Rohe Archive, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.


When Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich selected a site on one side of the large esplanade of the Plaza de las Bellas Artes in Barcelona in September 1928 as the place to build the German Pavilion for the International Exposition, it was a vast and sheltered spot that afforded views of a large part of the exposition grounds. This site has become well known, mostly through photography, thanks to the characterization of the pavilion as the epitome of autonomous architecture, isolated physically and conceptually in the history of modernism. Yet, the site was not as empty as this history would have us believe.

In images taken at the time the plot was formally ceded from Spain to Germany, in February 1929, as well as in many photographs taken during the construction, one can see a screen of eight Ionic columns. These freestanding columns, running across the entire width of the plaza, were a replacement for the four massive “Catalan” monoliths originally erected in 1919 and demolished in December 1928. By the time the second set of columns framed the site, Mies and Reich had already been working on the pavilion project for several months.

This article offers a different interpretation of the pavilion by recontextualizing it in two ways: as a building in dialogue with this Ionic colonnade and as part of a much larger architectural commission for which Mies and Reich had been hired. The erasure of the classical columns cannot be understood without looking at another erasure, one that took place in the vast interiors designed for the industrial exhibits of the German section (die deutsche Abteilung) of the International Exposition.