Like the millipedes of this modernist invasion, the iron construction of the elevated railway marched into the heart of the city, introducing a new rhythm to its peaceful setting and creating the unexpected encounter. In Berlin, the train would cut right through a museum complex and run next to a wall covered on the other side with Greek and Egyptian sculptures. The Berlin Elevated offers a rich example of the potent visual effect of the iron girders. Like knives they fragmented the classical architectural composition by isolating forms and disassembling the hierarchical canon with its progressive horizontal layers of rustica, piano mobile, etc. This interruption of the classical logic of load and support caused portions of the structure to appear suspended, hanging in the air, their girders blocked from view. Floating pediments, disconnected from their bases, underscored the fact that modern construction work was cutting architecture's legs off: in the urban realm, it not only spoiled frontal views but also ruptured the traditional concept, centrality. Furthermore, trains running on the level of the bel-étage violated the privacy of residential occupants. For a split second, passengers could peer into a stranger's apartment, suddenly exposing him to the surprise of having a train pass in front of the window. Not only could the train pass by close to one's window: it could even drive right through it, as one example of a train penetrating a Berlin apartment building and disappearing into the bel-étage shows.
Other, equally strange images resulting from new urban constellations that belonged to a modern 20th-century urban reality are to be found in painting and photography of this period. The eye of the artist seemed to be trained on the effect these new elements had on the imagery and identity of the traditional city. The urban realism of the Impressionists took early account of this change. In these paintings, modern bridges transformed into arcades or urban roofs that transformed streets and squares into steel-covered spaces, platforms of modern life, challenged the notion of inside and outside, adding excitement to the space of the flâneur. Some decades later, in the 20th-century city, the situation would look quite different: as Andre Kertész's photo Meudon (1928) seems to suggest, when trains fly through the sky, the familiar imagery can only belong to the past. It survives only as a picture for the living-room wall, to be wrapped up. carried under one's arm, and taken home.
Modern reality produced a city that could not be understood as a tableau.
Around 1900, crisscrossed by iron trajectories, the once-static body of the city began to move in a kind of mechanical ballet. Like Oskar Schlemmer's human figure with mechanical extensions, the modern metropolis, equipped with new iron extensions, all at once began to dance. In Berlin, the elevated railway ran straight into the walls of buildings or collided with a museum of ancient sculpture as if in a Dadaist collage, or trains would mysteriously disappear into the bel-étage of an apartment building through an opening in the facade. It would not be long before another moment of initiation would take place, when bridges would climb on top of one another like copulating animals, intermingling in their excitement to form clusters of steel webs, which, as multilevel viewing platforms, promised the pleasures of ever-greater visual experience of - and insight into- urban space. In the joints of this mechanical system, where underground train and tram, ships on the canal, interurban railway and long-distance trains intersected and met for a split second on their independent routes, the model for the city of the future was born. The image of a metropolis was laid bare in the multilayered movement and omnipresent bridges that were a response to the need for connections between the isolated objects of the cut-open city. Modern reality, already further advanced than traditional modes of perception, was only waiting to be kissed awake by a futurist imagination so that it could come to life in the icon of the modern city.
The modern city manifested itself as a new urban type: a city of fragmented space and isolated objects that assembled themselves to form an urbanized corridor, one that would be experienced from multiple points de vuerather than with traditional Perspektivitát, or single point perspective. The space of this city would no longer be determined by the continuity of walls and facades, but would instead consist of a vast array of isolated objects gathered as a society of autonomous volumes. In opposition to the homogenizing and perspectival effects of the Serlian conception of the city-scape, the modern urban space would have no dominant centrality. It would instead engender a panoramic conception and perception as building came to be understood as object and fabric at once. This intrusion of modern technology into the city of monuments conjured up unfamiliar notions of space and urbanity. Railway trajectories, slicing through the homogeneous block system of the city, left behind the incoherence of fragments and voids. Modern construction work had deconstructed classical hierarchies and discounted monumental perspectivity, but furthermore, it confronted the eye with the previously unseen view of the 'backyard' of the city.
Writing on the subject of urbanism in 1890, Josef Stübben throws light on this peculiar late 19th-century urban condition from the point of view of an academic architect:
In most cases, in older parts of the city, the urban railway cannot assume a place in the middle of the street, but must instead cut right across the perimeter block system, and therefore has to bridge streets and intersections. Unfortunately, this type of construction has the disadvantage of causing great unpleasantness both for the pedestrian walking in the street, to whom the unadorned sidewalls due to the opened thoroughfare become visible in their bare crudity, and for the passenger on the train, who, on his journey through the city, already has tasted a sequence of disgusting images composed of backyards and rear views of buildings, and has thus gained obnoxious insights into the miseries of metropolitan life before ever having set foot on the magnificent boulevards. In these terms, the Berlin urban railway offers us an exemplary deterrent.
('Der Städtebau', in the Handbuch der Architektur, Darmstadt 1890, p. 217)
Cutting through the 19th-century city, the train paved the way for yet another urban phenomenon: the modern 'drive-through city'. As Stübben's observations make clear, with the train cutting through the urban block system, the disorderly character of the periphery is brought into the centre, whose interior is all the while becoming exteriorized. Once the eye was directed away from articulated spaces and facades, this other' city exposed the unpleasant, dark side of the well-built urban world, of the 'ugliness' of its interior, of things once shielded from view. Instead of a world governed by classical order, one would encounter a hitherto invisible urban desert of backyards and voids and fire-walls. This other, or 'second' city, crowded with absence, became apparent only as a collection of leftovers and fragments, of unadorned, impoverished buildings, masses of brick and win-dowless walls.
Lined up in unfamiliar spatial and rhythmical sequences, the urban corridors of the post-architectural landscape, with its zero-degree-architecture zone stretching out alongside traffic lanes, no longer had anything in common with the classical notion of the 'city as house' handed down to us from Plato and Alberti. Modern reality at work had left behind a violated urban context that no longer corresponded to the terms of classical urban topology. Perception of this city no longer depended upon the distinction between front and back; nor was it anchored by monuments or places for art. The modern urban reality of the drive-through city, with its cut-open and fragmented space and continuous boulevards, demanded a new urban optimism and new aesthetic terms to replace the classical ones.
With the cut-open space of this second-city-within-the-city, the margins invaded the urban centre, and the very structure and character of the buildings there caused its peripheraliza-tion. For this second city, the urban metaphor of the 'theatre' - the perspectival box of classical Serlian space - was no longer adequate. Neither was the traditional metaphor of the city as house', of the city as a sequence of indoor spaces, able to express this type of urban structure. Instead, it demanded an outdoor model as its new metaphor, one that would help us to understand the laws of a transformed visual world, because the clear distinction between actor and spectator, between inside and outside, was effaced as these spheres overlapped in the unpredictable movements of the city's mechanical ballet.
Like an embryo, this second city existed first as a drive-through city-within-the-city of the 19th century. Only in our century did this second-hand city begin to assume its autonomous urban life. Its fabric is characterized by the metropolitan fever of circulation, which causes the fragmentation of space and the isolation of objects and transforms the city into a composite of heterogeneous elements. Cross-programmed, juxtaposed and in permanent flux, this vibrant metropolitan plankton demands a dynamic perception instead of a static point of view in order to connect its piecemeal of parts into a sequence. The eye, moving through this modern landscape, is asked to construe an essentially new visual order, based on time, matter, space, and light in flux - driven by the perpetual activity of the modern city that forces us to reconsider our assumptions about what is urban.
Together with the necessity for another type of perception, that of the moving eye, goes a new notion of the urban object and its relation to architecture, even of its very identity as 'architecture' and as something 'urban'. The modern building does not belong to a precisely defined wall system anymore - for example, Hausmann Boulevard in Berlin - but has asserted its autonomy as one element in a rhythmic succession of space and matter, voids and solids. As 'lone' objects in the urban landscape, these solids 'without architecture' are not governed by the principle of frontality nor by the terms of the classical facade. The primacy of the facade is cancelled as one drives by, around or through these objects. Caught in an involuntary rotation, they now play a role in a larger kinetic composition that is the urban landscape.
The organization of space also depends upon a different sense of perspective. In the traditional city, the point de vue has been the perspectival organizer, but in the city-without-
Sebastiano Serlio, 'Seena Tragedia* from Tutte Vopere d'architettura e perspettiva (Venice, 1584)
Sebastiano Serlio, 'Seena Tragedia* from Tutte Vopere d'architettura e perspettiva (Venice, 1584)
centre, there is no fixed point of view. The absence of a focus in perspectival space allows - even demands - panoramic vision because no vanishing point arrests the movement of the eye. In the modern city, a new mode of establishing relations and connections is required to connect the kaleidoscopic impressions of independent objects and surfaces. There is a shift in the visual order that displaces the object from a now centreless space, and situates the subject at the centre of spatial as well as social experience. The fixed object, which demands to be looked at and visually determined from a single point of view, surrenders to the moving eye zooming through the urban plankton. The connecting view becomes the organizer of perception, replacing a built homogeneity imposed from above.
It seems to me that the train and the moving eye, or better a cinematic perception, obviously share a common tradition. Describing the train as a 'steam-camera on train tracks', the Japanese film director Ozu suggested this very relationship. There is also evidence of the mutual relationship between the train and the modern city, on the one hand, and the technology of film on the other hand which underlines the symbiotic nature of both faculties. In the process of shooting movies, the camera is mounted on a track of rails. The perception of the fragmented space of the modern city requires a mental construction that differs from traditional ones. The city caused by motion can virtually only be understood in motion, in terms of a sequence of singular images that, when connected in the mind of the viewer, reveals its sense and meaning.
Herman Sorgel, an early 20th-century German architectural theorist, sensed the fundamental change in perception that the modern city required by its very nature. In a short but notable text concerning New York written in 1926, Sorgel, contradicting fellow critics and architects who sharply attacked the appearance of neo-Gothic or other historical forms in Manhattan skyscrapers, developed a generosity of argument that indicated a deeper understanding. In the face of the grand rhythm of the metropolis, Sorgel argued, the question of the vocabulary of styles and forms has become totally irrelevant and obsolete. The grand rhythm of the metropolis is altogether indifferent to whether a building is Gothic or Renaissance or any other style.
The individual form disappears in the large scale; building-mass, continuity of change, life are what count. In terms of architecture, New York can no longer be perceived in terms of isolated individual images, but only in terms of a continuously running film.
When we consider the impact that modern technology had on the changing identity - and visual perception - of the city, the consequences (implications) for modern urban architecture immediately beg discussion. The demise of the Serlian section view in favour of directionless, continuous space, of panoramic vision devoid of aim and hierarchy, has liberated the architectural object and its surfaces from traditional restrictions to a substantial degree, allowing the body and its planes to be independent of one another. It is only when forms are distinguished from their parts that the skin of the building can be partially peeled away. This is not only true with respect to ornament stripped from the traditional facade, but also, in a more general way, for the dissolution of the wall itself. It transmutes - or deconstructs - into a system of rhetorical layers wrapped around the architectural object that tend to live their individual lives - a fashion of treating the wall highly favoured in today's architecture!
Historically, we may sense the beginning of this process at that moment when the clash between functional and symbolic eroded the consistency of architectural form; when modern technology first appeared in the public and aesthetic sphere of the city. This process results in architecture coming under attack by the sign, and losing its predominance as a constituent visual component of the cityscape. The fragmentation into systems of layers permits the billboard - not unlike the severed pediment of a classical building whose facade has been sliced through by elevated railway tracks - to gain an existence independent of the rest of the building. In this sense, the billboard indeed becomes a new type of urban architecture. It is this process that turns the cityscape into the 'ocean of signs' that make up the 'post-architectural urban landscape of the modern metropolis' (Roland Barthes). Its chaotic quality, demanding a different sense of urbanity and a sensitivity for difference rather than order, had already been captured by Bauhaus student Paul Citroen in his famous photocollage entitled Metropolis of 1923, an image that elevates the urban 'piecemeal' into the icon of the city of fragmentation.
Challenging the modern condition of urban fragmentation, the architect was confronted with the question of how to structure and make visible in built form the order of the modern urban world. At the turn of the century, Otto Wagner and Karl Scheffler - to mention only two important protagonists for a modern urban architecture, or Groszstadt Architektur -demanded a 'New Objectivity', a Nutzstil, taking account of both modern aesthetics and functional purposes at once. With the particular urban language of a 'functional prose' (Scheffler), the structuring of the architectural organism would be consciously connected to modern technology and the modern metropolis, both of which as totalities demanded form and character. The 19th-century Berlin architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel appears as a prominent precurser of this peculiar notion of modern urban architecture. His 'urbanism of the individual architectural object' emphasized isolation as well as departure from Baroque concatenation with its spatial uniformity and monotony of endless walls. And, with a building like his Bauakademie, Schinkel produced a prototype that assimilated modern technology at the same time as transforming it into urban architecture.
The Bauakademie appears as a massive cube of red bricks virtually plunged into the midst of the old city. In both its materials and construction techniques, the cube embodies Schinkel's encounter with the advanced industrial reality of the anonymous functional building he had the opportunity to see on his travels through England in 1826. Schinkel had remarked with surprise on the industrial landscape of Manchester, with its 'thousand smoking obelisks' and its 'enormous masses of red brick . . . erected without any thought of architecture.' This dark side of the industrial urban reality announced a future architecture not based on the laws of art, but rather intended to serve as a point of departure in the face of the challenge to arrive at new aesthetic virtues. Schinkel's functional classicism, embodied in the Bauakademie, assimilated this modern reality by utilizing the fireproof building construction of industrial mills and the soberness of purely functional building, and further, by bringing together art and commerce, as it provided shops for rent on the ground floor. It is not difficult to imagine the complaints of Schinkel's contemporaries about this building. It was criticized for its cubical shape, for the flatness of its facades, which lacked any plastic value, and for the uniformity of its appearance, with neither centre of gravity nor central axis. In a contemporary slogan, the Bauakademie was ridiculed as Kasten dieser Stadt, Ringsum glatt und platt ('Box of the town, flat and smooth all around'). Few were able - or willing — to appreciate Schinkel's building as a 'cornerstone of the urban space' (Friedrich Adler, 1869). A painting by Friedrich Klose from 1836 captures the essentially confrontational nature of this installation of a free-standing cube of red bricks in a district crowded with traditional stucco buildings. Like a horizontal divider, the 'mast of the ship' bisects both Klose's picture and the city. Two different types of cities are juxtaposed on the banks of the River Spree. On the left is the traditional city with its space enclosed by the old wall' whose failure would be ridiculed almost a century later; on the right bank of the river, we look into the modern cubical city composed as an association of free-standing cubes - typified by the Bauakademie as the modern solid 'without architecture' - in the opened-up, panoramic urban space.
It is not surprising that we find Schinkel's architecture of urban intervention and his vision of a cubical city echoed almost a century later in the urban projects of Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer. Hilberseimer's sketch for the Alexander Platz competition of 1928 seems to propose the completion of Schinkel's view from the Schloßbrücke. Standing on this bridge, the viewer would be surrounded by regular cubical buildings in a full panoramic scope of more than 180 degrees. It was not a traditional concatenation of buildings, but instead a disposition of rather peculiarly dislocated structures that would become the guiding principle of modern architects who followed Schinkel. The view into the depth of urban space was no longer directed by the guiding lines of the wall, but - as Schinkel illustrates - by the corners of public buildings stepping forth in cubic relief. Hilberseimer's remark, 'better from Schinkel to Schinkel', found in an unpublished manuscript on the Architektur der Großstadt' of 1914, is illuminated from this point of view. If we recollect the unpleasant facts of the modernist invasion of the city - as exemplified in phenomena like windowless, unadorned walls, isolated objects without architecture, an almost aggressive presence of modern building materials and technology, the exteriorization of the interior space, cut-open block structures, and their patterns of dislocation allowing panoramic vision - there is, in particular, one project in the history of modern urban architecture that like a parasite absorbs all these 'negative' aspects in order to transform them into a completely new architectural language, one that would survive the 20th century. Of course, I am thinking of the Miesian design for a glass skyscraper on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin of 1922, one of the most radical projects for urban architecture the modern movement offered, and one which left its imprint on the architectural mind of this century.
This prismatic design exposing modern technology - represented in the modern building material of glass as well as in the image of the steel skeleton - in an almost exhibitionistic manner towered over the city on a piece of land that, as the site plan shows, had been bisected by the railway some decades before and had been left a useless empty lot. Mies's tower summed up the windowless solid object without architecture, as it abolished all architectural decoration of the facade in order to transform the window into a wall. The window onto the city became the essential element of the wall, and the equilibrium of its former material and rhetorical qualities were now expressed in sheer transparency. The layers of
Karl Friedrich Schinkel, sketch of Manchester (1826)
Ludwig Hilberseimer, sketch for the Alexander Platz competition (1928)
Ludwig Hilberseimer, sketch for the Alexander Platz competition (1928)
architectural argumentation with which the old wall was composed were stripped away and replaced with new perceptual effects - including the reflection of light - to establish a new quality for the dialogue between the building and its surroundings. Elevated on a floating plane, one was lifted above ground and invited to enjoy a broader vista. Like twenty-two viewing platforms stacked one on top of another to provide the spectator with new panoramic sensations, the building became a viewing machine that stretched its corners out into three directions to embrace the urban spectacle. The transparency of the curtain wall allowed the passerby, struck by the visual punch of this dramatic object, to catch a glimpse of what existed behind the surface. In the same way that Schinkel's painting View onto the Flowering of Greece elevated the observer onto the level of the scaffolding in order to let him celebrate the sensation of being suspended above ground and participate as viewer in the making of civilization, the view out into the landscape of the modern city was made real. As the light reflected in the glass surface and the viewing angle suddenly made the building's skin transparent, private and public realms touched one another. Even if only for a moment, the division between inside and outside, surface and depth, was overcome: the auditorium and the stage of the urban theatre became one, and viewer and actor met on the same set.
Mies's vision of a skyscraper gave an edge to Schinkel's architecture of urban intervention. Schinkel's self-conscious urban architecture was raised to the level of dramatic key object, indeed acting as urban cornerstone, distancing modern civilization from the past. Towering over the cityscape, commanding the power to transform both space and context, the glass prism cut like a razorblade into the old Wilhelminian city, which was only waiting to be violated. But even if Mies let the urban surroundings sink into obscurity to become a kind of anonymous podium for his free-standing object, which appeared as a mere fragment of the future, it nevertheless complemented the composition of the city by echoing its fragmented urban condition.
Rem Koolhaas of OMA has taught us to relate the triangular shape of the urban site to a sequencing of spaces, which, like a string of pearls, adorned the city of Berlin: the roundel of the Baroque Friedrichstadt to the south, followed by the octagon of Leipziger Platz and the square of the Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Other contextual references in the Miesian glass skyscraper - a project that has become notorious for its reputed disregard for its urban surroundings -can be found even in the choice of materials. The glass curtain wall of the tower picked up a theme introduced by its next-door neighbour, the Friedrichstrasse Station, built in the late 19th century. Mies's curtain wall takes up a certain part of the station building, which, in Schinkel's terms, could also qualify as building 'without any thought of architecture', since it was the product of the engineer. It was the backside of the station that inspired those glass dreams of an architecture consisting of nothing more than the freely suspended glass curtain. Mies certainly had good reasons for not including the glass wall of the station building in any of his drawings or photomontages for the Friedrichstrasse project. Had he done so, the aura of originality of the avant-garde artist might have been compromised.
Mies's towerwas the manifesto for a modern urban architecture that took into account both technological progress in building methods and the impact modern technology had already had on the identity of the city. The glass tower in a sense tested the traditional city as a backdrop for the insertions of modern presence, in the way that the gasometer and other functional and technological installations had already established themselves as new points of view within the fragmented urban tissue. In the 1920s, the cubical city took over the voids and remnants left behind by the urban desert of the 19th century. The voided corners of the grid structure, when cut open, provided ideal backdrops for striking implants. Like parasites on this context, modern urban architecture conquered these strategic urban positions by employing a 'cornerstone' strategy of its own: either dramatic new structures would be added, or already existing corner buildings would be remodelled in such a way that as individual objects they would express their disagreement and disgust at the notion of integration or harmony with the given context.
The modernist decontextualization, dehis-toricization and intentional fragmentation made the process of urban transformation begun with the intrusion of modern technology into the cityscape a conscious one. Like Brunel-leschi's autonomous and absolute architectural objects, modern urban architecture was bound to penetrate the structure of the traditional city, upsetting and altering its significance. The symbolic and constructive self-sufficiency of the new three-dimensional spa-tiality of the modern architectural object radiated into the urban space a rational order as the absolute emblem of a strict ethical will of transformation. Just as Brunelleschi's humanism suggested a new conception of the pre-existing town as a dying entity for transformation - ready to change its significance as soon as the introduction of compact architectural objects altered the balance of the Romanesque-Gothic 'continuous narrative' - modern urban architecture claimed to display visually the reverberation between rationality and the stratified urban texture.
Erich Mendelsohn's extension of the Mosse Building of 1922, stepping forth in bold relief, gave effective expression to the 'heroic caesura' of historical time by transmitting to architecture the velocity of modern machinery. Mendelsohn's staff jokingly declared that the addition represented 'the docking of the Maur-etania in Berlin'. Their reference to one of the most famous oceanliners of the day captured both the building's intrusiveness and the flavour of machine-age speed it imparted. Indeed, Mendelsohn's almost Dadaist insertion of new fabric made the old building look as if it had been run over by an oceanliner steaming downtown, crashing into the block from behind, its prow raised up, and parts of its decks floating atop the facade of the street. The transformation of space and context, captured thirty years earlier in images like the train speeding down the middle of the street or the elevated railway system crashing into the bel-étage of an apartment building, found its proper architectural counterpart. In this kind of modern design, the violent intrusion of modernity was aesthetically balanced and smoothed into elegantly emphatic curves that would become the trademark for much continental modern architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. The cubical city, without distinguishable front and back, was shaped by machine-age aesthetics into a dynamics of movement, described by the architect as the effect he had sought:
An attempt had been made here to express the fact that the house is not an indifferent spectator of the careening motorcars and the tides of traffic in the streets, but that... it strives to be a living, cooperating factor of the movement. Just as it visibly expresses the swift tempo of the street, and takes up the accelerated tendency toward speed at the comers, so at the same time it subdues the nervousness of the street and of the passerby by the balance of its power. ( Berliner Tageblatt, 1924)
The engineered beauty found in modern machinery and objects like locomotives, bicycles, cars, aeroplanes and steamships became typical for the modern age, as van de Velde, Scheffler, J.A. Lux and others had observed at the turn of the century. The 'engineered' construction had been raised to the status of art. The modern architect, attempting to transform the urban space and the architectural object into a 'cooperating factor' of the modern movement, finally turned the city into a gigantic machine. Modern machinery became the symbol for both the aesthetic and functional concepts of the architecture of the metropolis in the era of Fordism. The dreams of a new architectural and urban order were inspired by the much admired form and efficiency of modern machinery.
Hilberseimer's project for a Highrise City provided a frightening stereotypical vision of the metropolis of Fordism in the way it was inserted into the historic centre of the city, a crude urban brain transplant which transformed Berlin into a metropolitan Frankenstein. With this implantation of a scheme for 'operational units', each about the size of a small town, the exhausted metropolis could be given a new, economically and socially effective centre in order to resuscitate the old city with light, air and commerce.
As a second city, a city-within-a-city, the modernist downtown could be equated with a giant oceanliner anchored at Friedrichstrasse, adjacent to Schinkel's Theatre. This superimposition of an island of modernity brought the contemporary Zeilenbau to the heart of the city, and, to a large extent, utilized artistic techniques typical of the polemic collages of Dadaist artists. Deprived of all individuality, Hilberseimer's elementary design, with its stripped-naked walls, strongly resembled the urban architecture in George Grosz's paintings from the same period.
The essentially sober rhythm, emphasizing the definition of regularly articulated space, underscored the factory-like organization of these operational units that were lined up in a uniform scheme derived from industrial organization. With this grim and rather horrifying vision of the modern urban scenario-which, in the words of the late Hilberseimer, constituted 'a Necropolis rather than a Metropolis' - the threatening nocturnal machine that had been introduced by Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis in 1926 found its urban realization in the same year.
Avant-garde projects, like Hilberseimer's Highrise City, proposing an alternative order to the chaotic metropolitan condition as experienced in the American metropolis, were reductive instruments of Utopian propaganda. With a crudity similar to the invasion by modern technology of the city's centre, these polemic islands of modernism emphasized the radical will to transform the urban environment with contemporary structures, thereby implying that 'modern life' would finally take place. The strategy of the polemic island-conceived of as a city-within-the-city - has its own history and tradition, reaching back in time to the Aérodômes of Henri-Jules Borie from 1867, and anticipating the projects of Rem Koolhaas, with his Office for Metropolitan Architecture and the Exodus project, dating from 1972, which transferred the Berlin Wall to the City of London in order to transform it into an island of maximum urban desirability.
Among the islands of order offered by the history of modern urban architecture, only a few projects embody both the 'metallic culture
of the modern metropolis' (Malewitch) with its split-open space and also the sense for a clearly defined space endowed with a classical dignity. In this regard, Mies van der Rohe's late urban projects, like those for New York and Chicago, Toronto and Montreal, represent not polemic, but rather Platonic islands of modernity, where modern technology is adapted and balanced with a critical mind as a unique urban composition. Contrary to the modernist attempt to turn urban architecture into a 'living, cooperating factor of the movement' (Mendelsohn), the modern classical city of Mies establishes itself as an autonomous island of order and calmness, as a stable point of reference within the turbulent ocean of signs. Here, technology and art are married to allow a moment for stepping aside and for reflection within the frantic dynamics of metropolitan life.
As in the Federal Center in Chicago, Mies's silent black cubes mediated the facts of modern construction into the laconic splendour of the metal frame, and the disposition of these elegantly proportioned slabs that were well-attuned to one another formed a careful composition of dislocation, which referred at once to the modern opened-up and the classical closed form. From a certain vantage point, the silent dark slabs fuse and become a massive block that stands in the cityscape as an almost monumental urban cornerstone; but, when one begins to move around it, the composition gradually opens up and the mass separates into two solids of unequal sizes. The process of cutting open the urban space has lost all its violence and become an artful act of gradual unfolding-almost cinematic-motion. But the moving and the resting eye are given what they desire. As rotating objects, the buildings can be enjoyed on the level of modern cinematic perception; as stable objects in space, they can be appreciated on the level of the classical perspectival view governed by the laws of proportion.
The deliberate rhythm of voids and masses, volumes of bodies and atmospheric volumes, the empty spaces and full spaces, this almost Schinkelesque notion of a cubical city gave Mies's urban islands of reflection their distinctive character. His metropolitan architecture launched a dialogue between modernity and memory which made the stepping back of the Seagram Building from the front of Park Avenue a gesture symbolic of the necessity of distance and space within a highly congested urban world. At their cores, Mies's Platonic islands were at once modern and traditional. The lofty urban foyers on the plaza level of his highrises were reminiscent of the well-articulated, well-balanced space of the classical city as imagined in the famous prospects of the ideal city painted by Piero della Francesca in the 15th century.
With the return to classical typology and its traditionally constructed space in today's postmodernist urbanism, these 'prospects of the ideal city' have become the popular icons for a neat, nonviolent and polite urban architecture that supposedly refers to human scale and pedestrian needs. However, it seems to me that today, after the loss of utopia as a horizon for action, and with the disillusionment of postmodernist nostalgia, the necessity for an architecture of programmatic richness, of functional and formal complexity - with solutions not trapped by the oversimplifications of propaganda and narrow ideology-would be a more promising contribution to the architecture of the city. The city as a densely populated artificial landscape of modern civilization has become our second nature.
As an artifact, the city is a technological garden that promises neither redemption in paradise nor condemnation to darkness and despair. As long as the processes of making architecture and building civilization are related to one another, there will be a reason for some modest urban optimism, even for those of us who are architects.
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