Since 2012, Berlin-based photographer Arina Dähnick has been documenting buildings designed by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with her Leica M Rangefinder camera. Initially struck by the spatial qualities of the Neue Nationalgalerie, that on one hand, calmed her down, and on the other hand gave her a creative restlessness. She felt a special sense of place, a spirit of boundless space while at the same time feeling a supporting warm presence of being held, paradoxical and magnificent at the same time.
She maintained her creative enthusiasm for Mies van der Rohe all through the years that followed and continued her exploration with Mies buildings located in other European and North American cities. This fall, the project was published as a book titled Arina Dähnick: Architectural Portraits. The MIES Project (Edition Cantz, 2019), featuring essays by IIT Professor Michelangelo Sabatino and architect Dirk Lohan, principal at Wight & Company and Mies’ grandson. The book has just been awarded the silver medal at Deutscher FotobuchPreis.
From September 18 through November 1, 2019, Arina’s The MIES Project was exhibited in the historic S.R. Crown Hall at IIT in Chicago, designed by Mies and completed in 1956, coinciding with the inaugural Bauhaus Shapeshift design festival as well as the third edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. In early October, architectural historian Michelangelo Sabatino talked to Arina Dähnick about the project and her relationship with Mies while sitting in S. R. Crown Hall.
Michelangelo Sabatino: Since you are here in Chicago to take part in your exhibition opening and catalogue launch I thought it would be ideal to talk about your work face-to-face. Coinciding with the publication of The MIES Project, I would like to hear about your experience working on the project and your relationship to Mies van der Rohe. Mies continues to generate interest among artists and photographers like yourself. Why do you think this is the case?
Arina Dähnick: I think that his approach to architecture is timeless, and it connects to the surroundings in a spiritual way. It is interesting to learn about other artists based in Chicago whose work also relates to Mies, as is the case with Luftwerk and their work at the Farnsworth House, McCormick House, Carr Chapel, and the German Pavilion in Barcelona. And, of course, artist Assaf Evron, who has also presented his work this year in Chicago at the McCormick House in Elmhurst and at the Esplanade Apartments, located at 900 and 910 N Lake Shore Drive. We, as artists, are not changing anything that Mies did, we are depicting and interpreting his work.
MS: What were the most exciting qualities of Mies’ architecture that you discovered while photographing it?
AD: The project didn’t really start as The MIES Project. Initially, the project was to photograph the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. It focused on one building and I worked on it for three years. I wanted to get a special sense of the space and what it felt to be there. For me, it was a combination of peace of mind and a creative restlessness. At the beginning of 2015, when the Neue Nationalgalerie closed for renovation, I wondered whether that experience also happened in other buildings by Mies, located in other cities, with different functions, and different floor plans. In 2015, I worked carefully on the photos I had already taken during the previous three years. In 2016, I went to the German Pavilion in Barcelona and I still felt the same creative force as in Berlin. Later, I noticed that it happened again and again in Europe and in North America.
MS: What differences, if any, did you discover between Mies in Europe and North America?
AD: If I think about it in the way I just discussed his work, there aren’t many differences. The work in both places is timeless and has those spiritual qualities. Of course, you have the skyscrapers in North America, and that is a big difference. To be honest, I was very scared to find out if the spatial qualities I admired in other buildings would also be present in a skyscraper. The first skyscraper I visited was the Seagram Building in New York and I was relieved to see that they were present there too. A security man there said one of my favorite sentences about being in a building designed by Mies: “To work here elevates my mind every day.”
MS: You did not photograph all of Mies’s buildings in Chicago. Is there a conceptual or practical reason?
AD: The first reason is not very spectacular. There are so many different buildings by Mies in Chicago that I was not able to photograph all of them. But that wasn’t really the goal. I was searching for buildings with different functions and different floor plans. That was one reason why I was very interested in photographing the Federal Center, for example, which was not easy to get permission to photograph, by the way.
MS: That is not surprising given that it is a government building.
AD: For example, I was not looking to document all the apartment buildings. But I wanted to photograph office buildings like the former IBM building and the Federal Center as I mentioned earlier, as well as S.R. Crown Hall and the Farnsworth House.
MS: In addition to your exhibition at S.R. Crown Hall, this fall you also showed your work at the Goethe-Institut Chicago and the Farnsworth House’s Barnsworth Gallery. What are your future plans regarding this and new projects as well as exhibitions of your work?
AD: In a conceptual way, Mies invited me to the open field of architecture and I decided to stay there. I really like to photograph inspiring architecture, sometimes focused just on one building and not necessarily part of a larger project. That was the case with the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, designed by John Ronan, that I photographed between 2018 and 2019. The next project will also be concerned with architecture and Mies. It is not about projects by Mies but of living with Mies. I was invited to several places where residents deal with the space Mies built. It is interesting how they engage with it and how they design it.
MS: It is about discovering how the legacy of Mies extends itself to everyday life?
AD: Right. He is not here anymore but his buildings are here, and people have to deal with them every day. That is really exciting.
MS: I have the pleasure to live with Mies daily here in S. R. Crown Hall.
AD: S. R. Crown Hall will also be part of this new project as well. It won’t be like it is right now but at the end of the spring semester when all the furniture is removed for the summer and then reinstalled for the fall semester. I love that moment.
MS: How do architects and students respond to seeing your photographs?
AD: The project has been exhibited in several venues and now the book has also been published. I have received feedback on the project and people mention that I bring the buildings to life. I am very, very touched and happy when that happens.
MS: To conclude this interview, what has been the most fulfilling aspect of your work on The MIES Project, which has been going on for several years?
AD: What makes me happy is really the inner fulfillment. When I take my photographs, I am all by myself with my idea. I don’t want to go with anyone else, and I don’t want to be disturbed. Afterwards, the photographs and my inner voice is shared with the world and it is very exciting to see how people respond to it.
MS: That is a beautiful thought with which to end this interview. Thank you Arina and come back soon to visit us here in Chicago.
AD: I will! And thank you for your essay, Michelangelo. It was such a big part of the book and it includes all these historic, wonderful, and beautiful photos. It was how Mies was photographed then. It is nice to see the contrast with my work. Thank you for your time and careful consideration on the piece.
MS: Thank you!
Arina Dähnick is a Berlin-based photo artist working in the fields of fine arts and architecture. Having grown up in a creative family, she came into contact with art and photography at an early age. She had her first professional photo exhibition when only 17. The presentation of her work at the Leica Camera Blog 2014 was followed by several exhibitions as well as publications. She gained a firm place in the international photography scene with her series Perfect Life, Contemporary Architecture Barcelona, and The MIES-Project.
Michelangelo Sabatino trained as an architect, preservationist, and historian. Between 2017–19 Professor Sabatino served as interim dean for the College of Architecture of IIT and held the Rowe Family Endowed Dean Chair. He currently directs the PhD program in architecture and is the inaugural John Vinci Distinguished Research Fellow. He is the author of several books, including Canada: Modern Architectures in History (with Rhodri Windsor Liscombe, 2016) and Avant-Garde in the Cornfields: Architecture, Landscape, and Preservation in New Harmony (with Ben Nicholson, 2019).