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How Mies invented modern architecture

Early Friedrichstrasse and glass Skyscraper projects were way ahead of their time - even for Mies van der Rohe


Mies van der Rohe’s….. early with the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper. It was incredibly ahead of it’s time.

More here inc lead up to where he was at this point. . . 

Mies’s entry for the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper competition of 1921–22 became his first major post-war design and his first opportunity to respond to the changes taking place. He used the competition to break with the past and boldly begin again at the beginning, for him personally and for his architecture. It was his first chance to explore a building type other than the country house and to develop his own ideas about modernization and metropolitan architecture. It was his first engagement with a metropolitan program (the high-rise office building) and a metropolitan building site (which adjoined a major train station), as well as new materials and technologies of construction. 


The program for the competition was itself unprecedented: a high-rise office building on Berlin’s major commercial street. The jury awarded prizes to a range of approaches represented in the 144 submissions. Whereas many entries attempted to assimilate the new scale and program to familiar organizational types and old styles (Gothic, classical or both), others sought to devise a new style. 


Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project; honeycomb version - Mies van der Rohe
Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project; honeycomb version - Mies van der Rohe


The first-prize scheme by Alfons Baecker, Julius Brahm and Rudolf Kastelleiner of Kassel was only fifteen storeys high, a simple block with chamfered corners, a central courtyard and lower wings along the train station side. It was rendered in an expressionist brickwork that alluded to medieval German traditions and would soon be used by Fritz Höger for his celebrated Chilehaus in Hamburg. Although the jury admired the overall effect, Behne called it academic, a ‘dead body’.


Hans Luckhardt, Wassili Luckhardt and Franz Hoffmann received second prize for a more modern and stylish slab, terraced and horizontally banded, which they placed parallel to the edge of the Spree, leaving the remaining corner free for a glass and iron café pavilion. Other prize-winning schemes offered variations on the first- and second-prize themes: slabs with pavilions or towers, with or without light courts; and strong forms (cylinders, prisms and crystalline aggregates), rendered with minimal ornament. Amongst the unselected projects, the Y-shaped monolith Central by Hans Poelzig is noteworthy for its resolution and elegant monumentality, compellingly rendered in a charcoal perspective. Functional Form, submitted by Hugo Häring Inside and Outside, by Hans Scharoun; Spree Star, by Hans Soeder; and Honeycomb, by Mies: all stand out as pioneering new forms as well as new approaches to form.


Glass Skyscraper Project; elevation study - Mies van der Rohe
Glass Skyscraper Project; elevation study - Mies van der Rohe

Initially overlooked, Mies’s entry slowly came to be recognized as the most innovative and historically significant of the competition. It was certainly the most abstract and extreme, filling the site and standing out dramatically from the historic city. Wanting the interior to be as open as possible to the outside, Mies shed the tradition of stone entirely and proposed a skeletal structure with large sheets of plate glass hung like a curtain off the edges of the floor slabs. These continuous planes of glass accentuated the building’s verticality and scale along a street characterized by horizontal continuity. It was the first time anywhere that a skyscraper was envisioned as a monumental yet hollow crystal, an open frame wrapped in glass. In an interview from the 1960s, Mies recounted how his first impulse had been to propose an open framework, more like the Berlin Funkturm or the Eiffel Tower than an office building. ‘That would have been wonderful’, he declared, ‘open to the air. But … if one had to enclose it, all I could think of was to wrap it in glass’. Mies described this as an architecture of ‘skin and bones’. The artist Theo van Doesburg called him an ‘anatomical architect’.


Mies’s drawings and collages depict the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper as a geological eruption from within the fabric of the city, its sharp angular forms rising unexpectedly from the ground. Yet the site was not a mountainside but rather the heart of the industrial metropolis, experienced by many as chaotic, anonymous and alienating. All around the tower, Mies depicted a foreboding darkness; dreary facades concealing their interiors, encrusted with overbearing ornament and overladen with advertising and signage. In contrast, the tower was a luminous, shimmering beacon of renewal, its mass dematerialising into light and air, reflection and refraction. 


Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project; transparent version of Mies's photomontage - Mies van der Rohe
Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project; transparent version of Mies's photomontage - Mies van der Rohe

Although his large and extraordinary charcoal drawings and photomontages were made only after the competition had ended, for exhibition purposes, the smaller drawings Mies prepared for his entry experimented with similar techniques and aims. They explored a radically different kind of building, metropolitan in scale and program but also abstract, non-representational, seemingly natural and archaic in form yet constructed of the most sophisticated technology then imaginable. The synthetic crystal deftly reconciled the antimony between technology and nature in what was to be a second nature, humanized yet in harmony with the cosmos. The crystal had already become a figure of vitalism in philosophy and the arts during the nineteenth century, precisely as an example of inorganic matter that grew like a plant or organism. 


Larger than life and opening towards the sky, Mies’s building would have mesmerized observers through the play of light and reflection on its faceted surfaces. It would have stopped viewers in their tracks in wonderment at this new, strange and ambiguous beauty – an almost ugly beauty, as Phyllis Lambert would call Mies’s first realized high-rise, Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, many years later. Seeing Mies’s charcoal drawing of the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art certainly stopped John Hedjuk, even in 1986. ‘It had the quality of transfixing one’, Hejduk exclaimed. ‘Everything else just dropped away’. So enamoured was Mies himself by this potential that he quickly embarked on a second, taller tower with an amoeboid plan, known as the Glass Skyscraper.


In time Mies’s Friedrichstrasse and Glass skyscrapers would come to be considered his first projects – the degree zero of his career and of a certain strain of modern architecture, just as Black Square (1915) would occlude the earlier work of Kazimir Malevich and mark the beginning of Suprematism. Mies embraced the opportunity to reconstruct his identity in this way when, in the mid-1920s, he asked his assistant, Sergius Reugenberg to throw away many of the drawings of his earlier, neoclassical projects. He even went so far as to change his name, prompted perhaps by changes in his artistic and personal life as well as the experience of the war and the spirit of new beginnings. But we’ll save that story for later in the week.