The competition design for the Chicago Tribune tower by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer
Bauhaus: A Model
New York, 2009
The design by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer for an office and administration building for the Chicago Tribune was conceived in 1922. The context was an international competition announced by the Tribune on the occasion of the sixty-fifth jubilee. For decades already, European architects had drawn inspiration from developments in the United States, and the competition represented an initial opportunity to come to terms with the specifically American task of designing a skyscraper. Many Europeans submitted designs, although the names of such well-known figures as Erich Mendelsohn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier — whom one might have expected to participate — were absent. Among the two hundred and sixty-five submissions from twenty-six different countries were thirty-seven from Germany, where debates about skyscrapers had been particularly intense, especially around the time of the 1921 competition for a high-rise building on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. In Chicago, the winners were the Americans John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, whose Neo-Gothic building was erected in 1925. The decision sparked passionate debate, instigated by critics who had preferred the modernist design of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen.
The competition came to symbolize the heroic struggle of the modernist movement. As late as the 1949 film The Fountainhead, viewers saw Gary Cooper in the role of Howard Roark, his face filled with bitterness, viewing plans which strongly resemble those by Max Taut, Walter Gropius, and Adolf Meyer. They bear the handwritten inscription “NOT BUILT.” Roark’s rival, Peter Keating, prefers an eclectic style. Many years later, in 1950, Gropius explained in retrospect: “In 1922, when I designed the Chicago Tribune high-rise, I wanted to erect a building that avoided using any historical style, but which instead expressed the modern age with modern means; in this case with a reinforced concrete frame which would clearly express the building’s function.” The accuracy of this statement must however be called into question, as it seems to have been influenced by the design’s subsequent reception. In the 1950s, moreover, Gropius could no longer recall that in 1925, he had still presented the building in Internationale Architektur as being planned in “iron, glass, and terracotta.”
The debate concerning the legitimacy of the modernist style in relation to eclecticism will not be enumerated again here. Today, the question is instead why this particular design 113 by Gropius and Meyer came increasingly to serve as a prototype for other architects. And to such a degree that it has come to belong to the core canon of modernist architecture — even though Saarinen’s design has not. Today, the design by Gropius and Meyer for the Chicago Tribune Tower appears almost as an anonymous instance of that which came at some point (in the 1950s or 1960s?) to be regarded as the typical modern high-rise. By which I mean: as though it had no author. It could be a building for a model railway by the Faller firm. Today, the photographs of the model would be associated more specifically with the “special models” of the Viennese insurance executive Peter Fritz, which were discovered by artist Oliver Croy in a trash bag in a junk shop in 1992, after Fritz’s death. In Melbourne and New York, I recently passed by posters advertising similarly low, elegantly composed skyscrapers. Today, nearly ninety years after the original design, this architectural idiom, with its freely positioned balconies, remains an icon of “modern living.” That the design suggests apartments rather than offices is primarily due to the balconies, which (as nearly every publication on the Chicago Tribune Tower emphasizes) lack any function. Winfried Nerdinger makes reference to the fact that, in the wake of Max Berg, the high-rise debate in Germany was mainly concerned with “alleviating housing shortages.” A number of publications mention that the design by Gropius and Meyer dates from a decisive phase in the development of the Bauhaus, specifically the period when Walter Gropius and Johannes Itten were becoming progressively estranged. As director of the school, Gropius steered things increasingly in the direction of industry, leaving the school’s origins in Expressionism behind. It is tempting to interpret the combination of the objective core of the Chicago Tribune design with its intuitively positioned balconies as symptomatic of Gropius’s inner struggle. We lack solid documentation for this interpretation — such as statements by Gropius himself or others who were directly involved. Nonetheless, it is apparent that at this point, Gropius and Meyer were still unable to opt unreservedly for a radically objective and functionalist conception. Does it not seem disrespectful or at least superficial to speak this way about one of the most celebrated architectural designs of the past century? Perhaps. But it may instead be that this approach permits us to identify the special quality which allowed it to become one of the canonical projects of the twentieth century. And it is precisely superficiality that plays an important role here, for the design itself is little more than an empty shell, one for which floor plans were never published. To be sure, we see an interesting asymmetrical volumetric conception, but it is far from clear what it actually means in functional terms. The drawings make an impression of flatness. As can be seen in the photograph, the model was even pasted over with paper.
Certainly, mention is continually made of the projecting platforms of the balconies, so reminiscent of the architecture of De Stijl, although they could also be regarded as a direct homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose buildings were presented quite graphically in the Wasmuth edition of 1911. We do not know how Gropius arrived at these balconies. Winfried Nerdinger refers to them as a “decorative auxiliary” that endow the monotonous architectural mass with a pleasing rhythm. Remaining purely speculative is the view that the influence of Theo van Doesburg (who began offering his own courses in the vicinity of the Bauhaus around this time) was decisive. Both Van Doesburg’s pioneering designs for the exhibition in the Galerie de l’effort moderne in Paris as well as Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House date from 1923. Similar projecting forms, albeit involving roof overhangs, can be found elsewhere in Gropius’s oeuvre only in the designs for the redesign of the
Stadttheater in Jena, for the Rauth House in Berlin, with its clearly evident dependence on Wright, as well as for exhibition and storage buildings for the agricultural machinery manufacturer Gebr. Kappe & Co. in Alfeld an der Leine, all realized between 1922 and 1924. We also find overhanging roofs presented without comment as appendices to the “individual rooms” of the “life-size building blocks” at the Bauhaus exhibition of 1923. In this period, there were even more architects whose designs involved horizontally cantilevered elements. A number of designs with projecting balconies were submitted for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition as well, those for instance by Dutch architects Bernard Bijvoet and Johannes Duiker, as well as by D.F. Slothouwer. Clearly, it is in particular the balconies which distinguish these projects from the more objective contributions, for example the extremely reductive designs of Max Taut und Ludwig Hilberseimer. Another element that endows Gropius’s Chicago Tribune Tower with minimal depth is its recessed entryway, which although positioned asymmetrically nonetheless possesses a certain incidental, subtle monumentality — to the extent that monumentality can ever be either subtle or incidental. But this entry area indicates that Gropius and Meyer had not yet attained full clarity concerning their path toward modernism.
From a contemporary perspective, however, namely one that postdates Postmodernism, these equivocal references appear differently. One searches desperately for the historical sources of inspiration for this design, and one even seems to have found them — or then again, perhaps not. But it is only as a consequence of such a search for origins, of such an analytical disassembly, that the design comes to assume the appearance of a collage of contradictions. And is it not conceivable that precisely these equivocal references, these as yet logically unresolved functionalist details, are responsible — in all of their superficiality — for the inspiring force that emanates from this design? And hence the inspiration for that which Americans refer to today as “decent architecture”? The very inspiring force, moreover, which made possible this prototype’s global diffusion?