The skyscraper in the Old World

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the


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Perhaps no better way exists of grasping what the American skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has attempted to assimilate and translate into its own terms, especially in the years immediately following the First World War, that paradox of the Metropolitan Age. The skyscraper as a “typology of the exception”: the first elevator buildings in Manhattan — from the Equitable Life Insurance Building of Gilman & Kendall and George B. Post (1868-70) to Post’s mature works [1] — are real live “bombs” with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market. The systematic introduction of the mechanical elevator, equalizing the price of rents at various floors of commercial buildings, levels in a single blow the existing economic values and creates new and exceptional forms of revenue. Immediately, the “control” of such an explosive object presents itself as an urgent problem — even if there ensues, just as immediately, a clear renunciation of any regulation of the economic effects. The entire typological elaboration that, first in New York and then in Chicago, lies at the heart of the structural inventions of architects like Post, Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Holabird & Roche explicitly tends toward a visual control of all that which now appears as “anarchic individuality,” a mirror of the “heroic” phase of the entrepreneurship of the Age of Laissez-Faire.[2]

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Winston Weisman has quite correctly emphasized the central role played by Post in the formation of the typology of the nineteenth-century skyscraper.[3] In many ways the work of Post takes an opposite path from that of Sullivan; nevertheless, Sullivan owes a great deal to the until now undervalued New York architect. In Post’s U-, “tree-,” and tower-shaped structures, there already emerges quite clearly that aspect of the skyscraper phenomenon that the European interpretations tend to overlook: namely, that it is exactly by embodying the laws of the concurrent economy and, afterwards, of the corporate system, that the skyscraper becomes an instrument — and no longer an “expression” — of economic policy, finding in this identity with economic policy its own true “value.” Only after the typological and technological experiments of the last decades of the nineteenth century have exhausted their provisional tasks, setting into position repeatable structures, will the attribution of the “surplus value” of language to these structures manifest itself — correctly — as pure ornament. But it will do so with a precise function: to emit well-known or immediately assimilable messages, to soothe the “distracted perception” of the metropolitan public subjected to the bombardment of multiple shocks, both visual and economic, provoked by the new giganti della montagna [mountain giants] in the downtowns.

It is just this phenomenon that European culture could not or would not grasp. What in the United States was produced by a complex but straightforward process was experienced in Europe as a trauma. The skyscraper, which Henry Huxley could call in 1875 the “center of intelligence,”[4] was seen, especially by German culture after 1910, as a symbol and threat of total reification, as a painful nightmare produced by the drowsiness of a metropolis on the verge of losing itself as a subject. In such a frame, optimism and pessimism wind up coinciding. In 1913 Karl Schaffler points out the possibility of a new “Spirit of Synthesis” in American territorial organization: the metropolis will be recuperated here as a conscious subject dominating the complementariness of City and Suburb — and here he reproposes a municipal administration retaining ownership of the terrain — but also reestablishing the equilibrium between the individual and the totality.[5] Reification can be overcome only by considering it a “bridge” that permits the crossing of the Grand Canyon of the anguish of the masses. A “bridge”: but precisely by going beyond the experience of the Brücke, Kandinsky, in presenting his own theatrical piece Der Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Tone] in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912) , puts forward in metaphoric form a completely opposite interpretation of the same phenomenon. In Kandinsky’s unique text, as is well known, five yellow giants undulate, grow disproportionately or shrink, contort their bodies, emit guttural sounds, under a flickering light that accentuates their oneiric aspects.

File-Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, published by R. Piper & Co. - Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) kandinsky.comp-4

The previous allusion to Pirandello’s giganti della montagna was not accidental. For both Kandinsky and Pirandello, the theme is that of individuals who are “all too human,” and therefore on the verge of becoming pure signs, dumbfounded testimonies of an existence whose faculties of communication have been blocked. The whispering of the yellow giants and their “difficult” movements are the last, clumsy attempts at expression by beings who, having seen the truth, feel condemned to drown in it:

at the very instant in which the con fusion in the orchestra, in the movements, and in the lighting reaches the high point, all at once, darkness and silence fall on the scene. Alone at the back of the stage, the yellow giants remain visible and are then slowly swallowed up by the darkness. It appears as if the giants are extinguished like lamps; or rather, before complete darkness sets in, one perceives some flash of light.

The finale of Der Gelbe Klang represents, in tragic form, the annihilation of value in the flux of monetary currents — which the people of Manhattan could register, non dramatically, using such real giants as the Woolworth or the Equitable Life Insurance buildings. Moreover, such giants, in reality, despite their linguistic clothing that is just as paradoxical as the yellow color with which Kandinsky clothes his “new angels,” also give off a flash of light. But here we are already dealing with — in the words of Rosenquist — “the fleeting gleams of static motion.” Kandinsky’s symptomatic piece synthesizes the entire European attitude toward the zeroing of form that the skyscraper induces as a corollary of its own domination of the laws of economic growth of the American downtowns. The yellow giants have lost the gift of speech; but, they nevertheless insist on attempting to communicate their alienated condition. If one now glances over the pages of the German and Dutch avant-garde magazines from the period immediately following the First World War (Die Woche, FrühlichtWendingen, G), one will find that the projects entered in the competition for the Berlin skyscrapers on the Kemperplatz or on Friedrichstrasse, or for the administrative center on the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz in Magdeburg, and the experiments on the typology of tall buildings by Mies and Hilberseimer all represent a mood quite similar to Kandinsky’s. Once again, optimism and pessimism go together hand in hand. Whether in the graphic divertissements of Hablik, in the dignified reserve of Behrens, or in the grotesque geometric distortions of Scharoun or Wijdeweld, a common concern remains: to try to discern within the depths of the “great alienated one” the promise of a collective catharsis.

Just like Mendelsohn’s photographs taken, a little while later, in the American metropolises,[6] the skyscraper projects of the German avant-gardes are immersed in a mystical atmosphere reminiscent of that of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And this is not simply because the compositions of Soder, Taut, and Scharoun involve a derangement of signs similar to that of Robert Wiene’s film, but, more important, because in those troublesome tangles of forms, torn asunder by an unrelievable tension between aspiration for the sky and rootedness in the earth, reside the same drama and the same hope: the overturning of the disenchanted and pure “being” of the skyscraper to make it into an instrument of a superior synthesis. Therefore, not the skyscraper as a type, no matter how paradoxical, but the skyscraper as a unicum, as a Merzbau, that, by upsetting the order of the stratified city, succeeds in recuperating a symbolicalness, a communicative structure, a genius loci. The skyscraper that, finally, through an act of extreme violence, succeeds in purifying, while restoring its own power of speech, the place of the collective murder — the metropolis — which is now dominated by an observatory explicitly designed to reincarnate the symbolic place of the Gothic community: the cathedral.

The esotericism of Bruno Taut’s Stadtkrone is, therefore, the leitmotiv of these invocations of a “spirituality” of the exceptional, of these mystical exorcisms intended to reestablish — like Feininger’s Cathedral of Labor — the community spirit so dear to the sociology of Tönnies.

Even Mies, in mounting the model of his skyscraper in the form of a mixtilinear design with a typical medieval texture, appears to have wanted to respond to the assumption of his friend Schwitters: “because of the tiresomeness of its materials, there is no other task for architecture than to reutilize the old and to integrate it within the new…thus the metropolis can be transformed into a powerful masterpiece of matter. “[7] Certainly, Mies’ project responds to this in a paradoxical way. But its anti-materiality, with respect to the surrounding context, plays the same role as the emphatic materiality of the skyscraper designs of Hans Poelzig, Walter Fischer, and Max Berg.

Nevertheless, a substantial difference does remain that will reveal its true significance only in the works undertaken by Mies in the United States. The glass prisms of the experimental skyscrapers of 1921 and 1922 appear to announce the same “Millennial Kingdom” of which Ulrich speaks to his sister in the third part of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: “you must imagine it to be like a solitude and a motionlessness full of continuous events of pure crystal. ” That “Millennial Kingdom” is — as has been written [8] — the “unio mystica of proposition and silence, activity and nihilism,” the place where something happens without anything happening. The skyscrapers of Mies “realize” the truth of the solipsism of Wittgenstein and Musil: they cannot speak of it.

By contrast, the tall structures planned by Otto Kohtz, Emmanuel Josef Margold, Paul Thiersch, Poelzig seem to want to speak, as completely as possible, of the tragedy of solipsism, caught in the pure substance of the great mountains of Babel. Too much happens in these projects — Poelzig’s designs evoking a spiral-shaped Flughaus are typical — so that something actually does happen in them. They contain too many “words,” repeating to the point of obsession that the unio mystica they invoke is not that of Mies, but, on the contrary, that of the Great Subject with the crowd.

Poelzig, Flughaus-spiraleKohtz Otto  (1880-1956): Reichshaus am Königsplatz, Berlin-Tiergarten. Griechisches Kreuz

However, was it not Otto Kohtz himself who predicted, in 1909, the advent of an architecture in the form of a gigantic landscape designed for pure contemplation, the evocation of a Schillerian people in the form of a “universe decorated for a festival”?[9]

The skyscraper as a cathedral, as a metaphor symbolizing a rediscovered collectivity, did not remain solely at the unconscious level in German culture. Gerhard Wohler, commenting in 1924 upon the results of the competition for the new Chicago Tribune headquarters, spoke of the German skyscraper as a “symbol of the aspiration toward the metaphysical and of the spiritual behavior” proper to the Cathedral, which, when translated into modern terms, represents nothing other than “the exaltation of the idea of work.”[10]

Not far from such a reading are the judgments given by Wijdeweld and by Adolf Behne in the first issue of Wendingen (1923) dedicated to the theme of the skyscraper.[11] Wijdeweld — who published in the same issue, among other things, his notable project for Amsterdam from 1919, which was decidedly organic in origin — spoke explicitly of “constructing life from death”; Behne, having criticized as useless and provincial the initiatives in Frankfurt, Danzig, Berlin, and Königsberg, in the end pointed out a way to transform such a typology: “We must be custodians of a certain romanticism even when we hide it behind the cold American hyperobjectivity. Doubtless, the construction of the American Goliaths in our cities will provoke a shock; if conceived correctly their construction will be urbanistically romantic.”

Feininger Cathedral of socialism

6 thoughts on “The skyscraper in the Old World

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