Over the past two decades, the term “context” has lost theoretical currency in architectural culture, despite the persistence of its ideas in regulation, teaching and practice. Today, alternatives such as situation, circumstances, contingencies, the setting, surroundings and environment are more popular, and serve to distinguish those who employ them from the outmoded “context” or “contextualism”.
In thinking of examples of prominent contextualist architecture from the twentieth century, works by Frank Lloyd Wright or Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's buildings are not widely regarded as part of the canon. Despite some obvious resistance, beginning in the 1980s, Mies' buildings were increasingly associated with “context”, a term which became essential to the description of Mies' particular brand of urbanism. This article returns to the post-war period, the eclipse of modernism and Mies' evolving reception. On the one hand, this return provides an overview of the various interpretations of Mies' architecture and the patterns which have emerged in the revisionary thought concerning Mies. On the other hand, it provides an opportunity to examine the margins of context discourse, promising to reveal more about the value and logic of context than the study of those architects whose work has previously been held as the mainstream of contextualist debate.
In discussing Mies and the concept of context, the major question asked by this article is not whether Mies was a contextualist, but rather, how did Mies' work come to be interpreted in these terms, and more importantly, why?