How Mies invented modern architecture

Early Friedrichstrasse and glass Skyscraper projects were way ahead of their time - even for Mies van der Rohe
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Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project 1921, opaque 
version of Mies's photomontage - Mies van der Rohe
Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project 1921, opaque
version of Mies's photomontage - Mies van der Rohe

Perhaps inspired by photographs of the "high-reaching steel skeletons" of American skyscrapers under construction Mies van der Rohe's vision of a tower more transparent than solid first became apparent with his entry for the Berlin Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper competition of 1921–22. As Detlef Mertins' new book Mies reveals, the visionary project (although unbuilt) became the architect's first major post-war design.

Mies used the competition to break with the past and boldly begin again at the beginning, for him personally and for his architecture. It was the architect's first chance to explore a building type other than the country house and to develop his own ideas about modernization and metropolitan architecture. As Mertins points out, 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 1921 ; honeycomb version - Mies van der Rohe
Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project 1921 ; honeycomb version - 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".

 

Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project 1921; transparent version of Mies's photomontage - Mies van der Rohe
Freidrichstrasse Skyscraper Project 1921; transparent version of Mies's photomontage - Mies van der Rohe

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. 

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. 

 

Glass Skyscraper Project 1922; elevation study - Mies van der Rohe
Glass Skyscraper Project 1922; elevation study - Mies van der Rohe

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.

If this short piece has piqued your interest and you'd like to learn a lot more about Mies van der Rohe, the best place to do so is in our online store  where you'll find our new book Mies by Detlef Mertins. It's pretty much the only book you'll ever need on him. Check it out now.  


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