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Ludwig Hllberseimer, sketch for the Alexander Plate competition (1928)

Ludwig Hllberseimer, sketch for the Alexander Plate competition (1928)

Mies van der Rohe, glass skyscraper at Friedrichstrasse Station (1921-22)
Rom Koolhaas, spaces In Berlin

Glass curtain wall of the Frlodrichstrasso

Station (1889)

Glass curtain wall of the Frlodrichstrasso

Station (1889)

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 Wilhelmmian 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 Lclpzlgcr 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 tower was 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 Brunei-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-ctania In Berlin'. Their reference to one of the most famous oceanllners 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 beldtage 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 superim position 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 Amencan 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

Erich Mendelsohn, Mosse Building (1922)
Henri-Jules Borie, Aérodômes, Paris (1867)
OMA, Exodus project (1972)
Mío» van dor Roho, model of tho Fodoral Centor, Chicago (1959)
Mío» van dor Roho. view from the lobby of the Seagram Building to tho New York Racquet Club opposlto

Ploro dolía Francosca, Prospoct of an Idoal

Cltyic. 1490)

Ploro dolía Francosca, Prospoct of an Idoal

Cltyic. 1490)

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 cltyscape 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 pcrspectival 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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