This large city on the left bank of the Rhine was long the centre of European velvet and silk weaving, which was a stroke of good luck for its architecture. In no other German city besides Berlin are there so many works by the avant-garde architect Mies van der Rohe. We begin our two-part series on Krefeld, "Pearls of the Province", with Haus Lange and Haus Esters. The second part will cover the resurrection of the former VerSeidAG (United Silk Weavers') property as the Mies van der Rohe Business Park.
The silk weaving mill has a long tradition in Krefeld. By the 18th century, "Old Fritz" (Frederick the Great) was already supporting local craftsmanship by creating a monopoly. The city blossomed into one of the most significant locations of the German textile industry. Velvet, silk and silk brocade brought considerable prosperity to the city. Emperors, kings and the Catholic clergy all purchased their treasures in Krefeld. At first, all the operations took place in homes. Some of the typical weaving houses have endured through time and are now protected as historical monuments. Krefeld’s decline began in the 19th century, and especially the larger family businesses merged together. On 8 June 1920, VerSeidAG (United Silk Weavers) came into being, combining the businesses of the Esters, Lange, Kniffler and Oetker families; the company still exists today. Their products range from woven architectural materials, to functional textiles for safety- and protective clothing, to advertising displays and truck tarpaulins.
In the 1920s, the economy of the area briefly regained momentum. Silk products were in demand again. The art-minded director of VerSeidAG, Hermann Lange, was a member of the German Association of Craftsmen and enthusiastic about the “Neues Bauen” (“New Objectivity or "New Sobriety movement”). In 1927, he and his partner Josef Esters engaged the future Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to build their residences. In the 1930s, further company buildings for VerSeidAG were built. They had Mies design even their trade show exhibitions. In the context of a fashion show, Mies designed the café "Samt und Seide" ("Velvet and Silk") together with his then-partner, the exceptional designer Lilly Reich. Sadly, his pioneering design for the Krefeld Golf Club (1931) was never executed. The free layout was strongly reminiscent of the German exhibition pavilion for the 1929 World’s Fair, the world-renowned Barcelona Pavilion. In the context of the art event Mies 1:1 in 2013, the club house was installed according to the original plans at the originally intended site at the edge of Krefeld, under the leadership of the Belgian architecture office Robbrecht en Daem, as a walk-in architecture model on a scale of 1:1.
"Less is more."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect
Both neighbouring directors' villas, in Krefeld’s Wilhelmshofallee, create one of the central ensembles "Neues Bauen". They constitute a middle ground between Mies’s rational, geometric residences of the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart and the fluid room arrangement of the Barcelona Pavilion. Gently set back, they seem closed off from the street, practically inconspicuous. He constructed the two-story houses with masonry and steel supports; the facades were clad with dark red brick.
Conversely, the stepped cubes open up onto the garden with large glass windows, in a grandiose gesture towards the south and west. The artful fusion of architecture and nature was especially important for Mies. The extent to which he also co-designed the park-like garden (with wide areas of lawn, straight paths and old tree stands) is not clearly documented, but it is very probable that he had a hand in their creation. Just like the buildings, the villa gardens follow geometric principles and a calm design vocabulary. Whether supporting walls, raised beds or different kinds of ground levels, everything is clear and angular here, even the precise views from the windows into the garden, the sight lines from the terrace, the perspective onto the zoned site. The spatial flow between interior and exterior is strengthened by the undivided glass panels and subtle window frames. A real sensation! In Haus Lange, panes equipped with steel frames, which are hung on chains, can be lowered into the cellar to create a low sill height.
In the interior, too, Mies designed a fluid room sequence at first. However, the clients Lange and Esters wanted closed-off rooms with doors, at least for the private areas. Mies developed the interior design together with Lilly Reich. They infused it with quality, down to the smallest details. They clad floors and window embrasures in walnut and oak, and so as not to disturb the harmonious development of space, the furniture is wholly or partially integrated into the walls. In Haus Lange, a flexible wooden wall enables a division between the dining area and the hall. Most details have happily survived in their original form. Here everything still sits, from light switches to cupboard knobs to ceiling lamps.
"Create form from the essence of function, using the means of our time. That is our mission."