Summer 2008

Nowhere, Everywhere, Somewhere

Building an alternative history of modernist architecture

Josiah McElheny

Photographs and drawings for the very first glass-clad skyscrapers were originally published in the summer of 1922 in the last issue of Bruno Taut’s short-lived journal Frühlicht. They depicted two designs by Mies van der Rohe: his unsuccessful 1921 competition entry for a site on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, and the Glass Skyscraper Project of the following year.[1] For the latter, he built a model with glass panels for use in his ongoing studio experiments with illumination and refraction.

Architectural models typically include contextualizing elements: a city plan often presents us with abstracted, minimal representations of buildings that already exist on the site or imaginary buildings that might be built later. The lack of delineation is intentional, in order to not distract from the grandeur of the new design. Mies’s Glass Skyscraper Project was different. He created a series of photographs where the skyscraper model was situated amid two rows of detailed—if stylized—imaginary historical buildings. Some images even depict the skyscraper outdoors, set among real trees and sky.

In the Museum of Modern Art catalogue accompanying the 2001 exhibition “Mies in Berlin,” a hand-tinted print of one of these photographs is accompanied by a caption that states, “Glass Skyscraper Project—no intended site known.”[2] Current research strongly suggests that Mies did not intend for the photographs to be understood as portraying a particular place; the model was intended as a proposal for a new theory of light in architecture.[3] Yet Mies took the unusual step of placing his design in what appears to be a real site, replete both with history and evocations of nature. The caption that the catalogue gives the project seems to imply that it is for no place. This impression is paradoxical. The thirty-story building clearly stands in a somewhere, and yet that somewhere is considered a nowhere.

The tower inhabits some kind of square, and the structures around it—made in the form of one-sided plaster façades by the Expressionist artist Oswald Herzog—are obviously intended to depict what would have been considered old buildings, even in 1922. It is a choice that creates an undeniable sense of place. To some, these scale buildings appear to be specific houses in a specific city or town; there have been repeated efforts to identify them.[4] The oral histories related by Mies’s collaborators suggest that the buildings are an amalgam of architectural memories, and so create an undeniable sense of the familiar. A Hapsburg-era square? A nineteenth-century northern European street?

The purpose of Mies’s gesture has generated a fair amount of scholarship of late, but also makes a simple statement: it seems he, at least briefly, imagined his new modernist vision existing not in a completely remade world, but in a world in which both the architectural past and nature were acknowledged. Most famous skyscraper cities, like New York, have become what they are by progressively replacing their historic architecture with ever-taller buildings. With very few exceptions, truces between the new and the old rarely seem to last. Here in Mies’s images we see what such a truce might have looked like. Here is a modernism that is not everywhere, only somewhere.

Everywhere soon became the paradigm. The year 1922 also witnessed Le Corbusier’s “Contemporary City,” and by 1925 he had introduced Plan Voisin, his proposal to raze entire neighborhoods and replace them with endless rectilinear housing blocks. While never built, this became a model for housing worldwide, much of which was a social disaster and ultimately a failure. But this new everywhere always seemed to require—or at least hoped for—a complete erasure in order to begin. Mies joined in with the program and before long we had a modernism that, in tandem with Taylorism and Fordism, could be implemented from China to Chicago, Moscow to Berlin—a modernism that was both everywhere and nowhere because it erased any somewhere that was already there. In the rare cases where people successfully objected, a solution was soon found: conquer the farmland and forest at the edge of the cities to create the concrete suburb. In either case, from the citès of France to Cabrini-Green in Chicago, social disaster ensued.

A photograph of the experimental model of 1922 made for Mies van der Rohe's Glass Skyscraper Project.

Mies is remembered to have said that the historical buildings surrounding his model were meant to be “hideous” housing,[5] and the current trend among scholars is to describe them as decaying, caricaturist, “medieval” structures and connect them to architectural depictions in contemporaneous Expressionist films about horror and decrepitude, such as Robert Wiene’s 1919 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Paul Wegener’s 1920 Golem, and F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.[6] This comparison is in perfect concordance with Mies’s own notion at that time: that the existing buildings in Berlin were a debased form of architecture. The critical interpretation reflects Mies’s own stated prejudices and perceptions, but do they also reflect our own? Looking at the sculptural models in the photographs without actively trying to imagine them as a horror movie set, 
the buildings seem more childlike than terrifying, more playful than neglected. In these visual experiments, as much as the skyscraper dominates the other buildings or trees and sky—as was perhaps Mies’s conscious intention—it is also humanized by their presence, offering us a familiar pre-modern anthropomorphic scale.[7] Perhaps this disjunction between stated intention and result is indicative of a repressed impulse within Mies’s vision. Today it is more important to look for instances, however weakly expressed, where reconciliation with the environment might have been possible, rather than reinforce Mies’s declarations of disgust towards the existing historic world around him. In analyzing the past in light of our belated realization that resources are inherently finite, we need architecture to resurrect the modernist hope for new ways of living, but outside the confines of the economic ideology of “creative destruction.”

The unusual nature of these photographic studies suggests “revisionist” questions: What if Mies were actually calling for the integration of new structures with the old? What if he were pointing to a modernism that acknowledged the architecture of the past as being compatible with—perhaps even enriching—the new modernism of technology, capital, and political “efficiency”? What if he were proposing an alternative to the erasure of the past, the clearing of the obsolete, the violent starting anew that modernism proposed and enacted? What if, instead of a postmodernism that simply borrowed forms from buildings often long ago demolished or discredited, there had been all along an accommodation between the modernism of the new and the architectures of the past? What if they had been viewed as compatible, instead of fundamentally opposed?

When Mies created these photographs, it was not yet clear what would soon happen, how perfectly the modernist project would suit the needs of the developing economic and political situation, and how this alliance would decimate the old. The Glass Skyscraper Project is a proposal that—despite Mies’s efforts to demonstrate domination—provides a slender hope for accommodation. It presents a literal juxtaposition of the new and the old, a model for a coexistence with history. The political implications of this idea that perhaps the modernist project could have developed in a situation of a somewhere, while perhaps fanciful, might also be far-reaching. People’s identity is always formed by place. Perhaps these little experiments of Mies’s can function as a reminder of how plans for a new world almost always seem to forget that everywhere and nowhere do not exist, cannot exist. Everything and everyone resides in a somewhere.

This text is indebted to scholarship by Spyros Papapetros and Detlef Mertins.

  1. Because of its baroque and, at the time, unrealizable nature, the Glass Skyscraper Project represents the only moment when Mies can be connected with the more spiritual and romantic leanings of Taut and his colleagues. Taut’s group, the Crystal Chain, had in the previous few years developed a manifesto for a new fantastical architecture that promised a politicized but quasi-spiritual experience for the common worker. Mies’s rejection from the 1919 Austellung für unbekannte Architekten (Exhibition of Unknown Architects)—sometimes seen as a precursor for the Crystal Chain—and his subsequent decision to submit the proposal to Taut’s journal are significant in this light. For more on this, see Iain Boyd Whyte, Bruno Taut and the Architecture of Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) and Mertins, op. cit.

  2. Terence Riley & Barry Bergdoll, eds., Mies in Berlin (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001), pp. 186–187.

  3. See Spyros Papapetros, “Malicious Houses: Animation, Animism, Animosity in German Architecture and Film—From Mies to Murnau,” in Grey Room, no. 20, Summer 2005, pp. 6–37, and Detlef Mertins, “Architectures of Becoming: Mies van der Rohe and the Avant-Garde,” in Mies in Berlin, op. cit., pp. 106–133. There has been speculation that the facades depicted in the photographs were modeled after contemporaneous buildings on Friedrichstrasse, the site of Mies’s earlier project, but comparison with period photographs of the avenue does not bear this out. In fact, according to Werner Graef, Mies’s former assistant, Herzog recounted that Mies instructed him: “Make me a piece of Friedrichstrasse as it once was; it does not have to be exact, only in principle.” (Papapetros, op. cit., pp. 19 and 24).

  4. According to Mertins, there is no general agreement on a source model for these buildings (email correspondence with the author). Beyond literal identification, scholars have interpreted the classification of the surrounding buildings variously; some, like Michael Hays (in email correspondence with the author), have suggested that they might be Biedermier, while others, like Graef, have compared them to buildings by Mies’s former teacher, Peter Behrens. See Graef’s comment in Papapetros, op. cit., p. 26.

  5. Papapetros, op. cit., p. 19.

  6. Even when the model was first exhibited, these surrounding buildings were described as “poor.” See Papapetros, op. cit., p. 19. The fact that the sculptural models were built as façades, not unlike movie sets, suggests another reason for this contemporary reading.
  7. In the historic downtowns of Europe—either surviving or reconstructed—tall buildings were typically banned, and so this vision of the International Style in the midst of a historic town is incongruous and surprising today.

Josiah McElheny is an internationally exhibited New York–based artist. In spring 2008, he organized performances at Orchard Gallery, New York, and the Institut im Glaspavillon, Berlin, both co-operatives run by artists and art historians. His most recent exhibition, “The Alpine Cathedral and the City-Crown,” was at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

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