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Mies van der Rohe commencement speech, 1958

Identifier: 006.06.06

Audio recording of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe delivering a commencement address to the January 25, 1958 graduates of Illinois Institute of Technology. Title of the address: Some Thoughts On Civilization. 28 minutes long. Available for listening as an audio CD or cassette tape. See below for transcription.


  • Creation: 1958


Language of Materials

Records are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Available for Research

Collection Size

1 reel : audio tape


Recording also includes a talk (unrelated to the Mies address) given by Dr. Paul of the University of Chicago Medical School on heart health; ca. 30 minutes long. Talk was possibly delivered at the Museum of Science and Industry, date unknown. The program was part of a "Sunday afternoon lecture series," perhaps sponsored by Illinois Institute of Technology. Transcription of audio tape, Acc. No. 1998.159 Unknown speaker: "Illinois Institute of Technology Graduation Saturday night, Jan. 25, 1958." Pres. John T. Rettaliata: "Dr. Mies van der Rohe who will speak to us on the subject Some Thoughts About Civilization. Mies." Mies: "Dr. Rettaliata, members of the faculty, and ladies and gentlemen. When I first [illeg.] Dr. Rettaliata make known to you I wondered [illeg.] I was asked to speak to you, and before I knew what I would say, I had to give a title because the program had to be printed. So I thought maybe I will talk on civilization. But after while I thought that was a very ambiguous title. It could mean a lot, it could mean the whole history of civilization, or it could mean great civilization or the medieval civilization. But that was not what I wanted to talk about. I think many of these things you could find much better in books than I could tell you. "So I reduced the title even though I didn't know yet what I would say to "some thoughts" I [illeg.] to find something what I thought about civilization may be a value to you. "Now, what is civilization? I think it is a state of social culture marked by advances in all the world of men. It sounds like a description out of the dictionary. I know that. But to talk about civilization in the world would take a long, long time. I would not give talks on civilization in a semester. You can imagine that I cannot talk much here about that. "I thought to review my life and if I could find there something that would be valuable enough to tell you. And by doing that, I remembered my first job as a draftsman. There was no light in the room, no artificial light. We was sent home when it was getting dark, and only in the case of emergency, they gave us candles. A little later we got oil lamps, and still a little later there came a plumber, fixed some pipes, and we got the first gas lamps. They were improved again with stoppings. Until there came somebody who called himself an electrician. And he put wires around the place and gave us some bulbs, so that was in my opinion an advantage against this other kind of lights because it was flexible. At least we could have it when we needed it. But I can not say that this improvements of lights helped our work. If that was improved it was done by the single draftsman, by his efforts. I think this improvements of the lights may have helped us to make that a little easier, but it didn't become better. "My definition about civilization was not a full one. There is no question that the advance in science, and I have seen it at least for more than 50 years, and I have seen it advance rapidly and my impression is that be able to worry about the advancement of science and technology. And so in the opposite I got the impression that these things become so strong in itself that they go on forever, and that the main problem would be to be able to guide these things a little. And that is again the question of civilization. The question if we can educate ourselves enough and not to become able to regulate things because otherwise will go out of hand. "So I think it is important that we educate ourselves. It is important that wisdom advances too, not only science. I see the necessity that we need a lot of scientists and I really nothing against it. But I believe on the other hand that we would need a few good philosophers. "But I want to go on a little about my own life. When I was in a new job, I was then 17 years old, and a place was assigned to me to work, and I looked it over and looked in the drawer and there were a magazine that was called The Future and there was a print of the ____________. Since my education stopped at 14 and I worked as an apprentice for a year and we didn't take books in our offices and that was a great surprise to me and I became interested in reading. "First the magazine was interesting to me because it had a lot of different articles and it was a weekly magazine and so I could read it. And it may have been that I didn't understand the _________. By reading this magazine I became interested in it, and I started to buy this magazine. This time I earned the salary of 15 marks which I gave to my father. And he, in turn, gave me one mark every week. It was on Monday morning I bought this magazine that cost half a mark. With the other half a mark, I bought cigars. "But these two things were of great importance to me. These started really my education. I read these articles, started to buy books these are mentioned. And certainly in my little library must have been confused as our time. Only maybe a little more because I bought these things just at random. And the first books had more the character of a technical nature. They were not books about technology and they were not books about architecture. I must say I read very few books in my own field. But they had a technical nature. And much later I became more and more interested in problems of a general nature, of a philosophical nature. I wanted to understand the world I was living in. Certainly I learned through work, and at this time the architectural situation was not clear. Absolute confused like maybe everything else was and it always a great trouble to find out when we got a job what to do. We had to pound our buttonholes and this brought me to think about that. About what kind of architecture is possible and what not. On my way to work everyday, I saw every day a very old house I liked particularly. I didn't know then why and so on. But I liked it more and more. And then I asked myself, "What is the quality of this house? What is it?" It was not that it belonged to a certain style. It was just a plain, but to me a very fine house. By looking at it carefully, I found that the brickwork was done very well, and that the stone frames of the windows was done very well, and that the timber work was done very well. It takes no particularly elegant proportions, but it had very good proportions. And the workers of the house seemed equally [illeg.] and reasonable. Everything was in harmony with the other parts, and I think that gave this house the beauty I saw. And that is what I think is civilization. When I got my first house, just to come back to my little library, I had to build a house for a philosopher, and he came one day to my studio to discuss some of these problems. Then he saw my books, and he was surprised about my little library. He said, "Who helped direct you to build up this library?" I said, "First, I don't think it is a library. It's just a heap of books. And I have chosen these books myself, but he was, I think, interested in this confusion which were reflected in all these books, in all these fields. Later in his house, I heard the sentence from William de_____: "Do not need hope in order to start. Indeed, do not need success in order to persevere." That was a sentence I have never forgotten. When I came to America my assistant proposed that I should have a radio in order to get used to English pronunciation. So I ordered this radio, and when I turned it on somebody with very deep voice was talking, and he brought William de _________ again in the picture. This sentence I knew so well and loved so well all of my life. The next speaker was ________. He talked about international relation, and he closed his talk by saying "Let us be nice to each other. It costs so little, and it means so much." I was glad to hear the first sentence of William de _______ here again in Chicago. But _________'s saying I didn't know, but I must say that he was very right, and that it is a typical American attitude: To be nice to other people. I found that really an American virtue. I have seen in other countries that people were polite, but they were not always friendly. "When I bought books, when I was reading all my time and I had free time since I was never a Sunday painter. You could say I was a weekly reader. Something like that. I loved to read and to study, and I bought more and more books, and the character of the books I bought changed little be little. First I didn't realize what it was until I felt that I was after, not knowledge, but after understanding. When I left Germany, I had about 3000 books and I lived in a hotel here when I came to Chicago and when I rented an apartment, I thought I should get some of these books so I made a list of about 300 books and now I must say, I could send them 270 back, but there are very important books I would not like to miss. And they are these books that mostly are concerned with civilization and culture. "Now you could say who moves advances in civilization? I think it is the effort of men and women in all fields. And it, it is you, you have to build up this civilization. You have to build up the world you want to live in. And nobody else can do it for you. I have one more thing to say: Don't worry about success. I always tell my students, 'Success is just the by-product of good, simple and honest work.' And this simple and honest work, I think, is the essence of civilization." END OF SPEECH

Biographical Note

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) was recruited to the Armour Institute of Technology, Chicago in 1938. Mies was given the title Professor of Architecture and Director of the Architectural Curriculum. Following the merger of Armour with Lewis Institute (another Chicago technical college) to create Illinois Institute of Technology in 1940, Mies held the same position and titles at IIT. He became Professor of Architecture and Director of the Architecture Department in 1949 after a reorganization of the curriculum. Upon a further reorganization of the Architecture Department in 1951, his title was changed to Professor of Architecture and Director of the Department of Architecture and City Planning. After his retirement in Sept. 1958, Mies continued as Emeritus Professor of Architecture until his death. Mies received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from John F. Kennedy in July 1963, the Gold Medal from the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in June 1966, and the Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from IIT, also in June 1966. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1968. Mies developed the IIT campus master plan in 1941 and designed ca. 20 buildings on university's campus, including the first classroom building on the campus, Alumni Memorial Hall. Other Mies buildings on campus include Perlstein Hall, the Commons, Carr Memorial Chapel, and the world-renowned S. R. Crown Hall. Mies also had a private architectural practice in Chicago during his tenure at IIT. After his retirement from IIT in 195, he moved his private practice to New York City.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Formerly 1998.159


Highly important item; only known copy of a Mies audio recording exclusive to Illinois Institute of Technology.

Existence and Location of Copies

Digital surrogates of the CD in this collection have been created for for access and preservation purposes, and are stored on Google Drive.


Catherine Bruck, University Archivist

Part of the Paul V. Galvin Library. University Archives and Special Collections Repository

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Paul V. Galvin Library

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