Aiming high

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Mies van der Rohe's design for an all-glass skyscraper was such a radical departure from 1920s architecture that the technology didn't exist to create it. Jana Scholze reports

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 1886-1969

Born in Germany as Ludwig Mies, he started his career working in his father's stone-carving shop. From 1908-1912 he worked at Peter Behrens' studio in Berlin, where he was exposed to current design theories, and changed his name. From 1921 onward, he designed many pioneering projects and was influential in the magazine G. He was the last director of the Bauhaus, before leaving Nazi Germany in 1937 for Chicago. There he designed much of the university campus, as well as the Seagram Headquarters in New York and other glass and steel buildings.

* Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 is on at the VA until July 23. The exhibition includes fashion, furniture, film, posters, product design and fine art. School groups can visit for free, but pre-booking is required (three weeks' notice is recommended) Tel: 020 7942 2211 Email: bookings.office@vam.ac.uk www.vam.ac.ukmodernism

For details about free workshops and talks www.vam.ac.ukschools

In the early 1920s, most people in Europe would have heard of Manhattan or Chicago, but few could imagine skyscrapers. Actually, a building of the shape and scale shown in this drawing by Mies van der Rohe was unbuildable then. It was a utopian dream of the future - a future which seemed blurred and far away in the aftermath of the First World War. For the avant-garde though, it is this very context which inspired the most excellent and eccentric ideas of a utopian future.

In 1921, the Turmhaus-Aktiengesellschaft (Towerhouse Corporation - "towerhouse" was the German translation of "skyscraper") held one of the first architectural competitions in Germany to design a high-rise building.

When architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe submitted his proposal for this competition, he had never designed anything of this scale and ambition before. Mies's design was so exceptional that it secured him a central role among the architectural avant-garde and became recognised as key to an expanding architectural debate. Nonetheless, the competition jury did not favour his design and chose a more conventional proposal.

In Mies's famous drawing we see a perspective view of the proposed building, presenting an impression of the architecture rather than specifying intended construction methods. By minimising the context, focusing strictly on the building and choosing a highly-angled perspective, Mies gives the building a dramatic appearance. This drama is one of the reasons why the drawing is still considered inspiring today, even though fully-glazed high-rise buildings are a common feature in contemporary urban landscapes.

The unusually large format of the drawing further emphasises Mies's radical design. His submission for the triangular site in Berlin, between the street of Friedrichstra'e, Friedrichstra'e station and the Spree River, shows a 20-storey tower on a star-shaped plan. The suggested 80-metre-high design had 70,000 square-metres of floor space, providing twice the area offered by other competition entries.

The building was to contain shops on the first floor and open-plan offices on all other floors. High ceilings, courtyards and transparent exterior walls attracted maximum natural light.

The perspective drawing does not reveal the supporting structure, but it can safely be assumed to have been a steel skeleton with cantilevered floor slabs. The building was to be clad entirely in glass, which was the favoured material for the architectural avant-garde at the time, since transparency was one of their major concerns.

Revealing structure rather than hiding it was the driving force behind these designers' approach to architecture and furniture. Often this structure was made of steel or, in the case of furniture, other metals.

Such materials, like glass, were popular because of their clean, and hence hygienic, appearance. They also enabled designers to reduce the material shell of a structure to make it as light and transparent as possible.

Again, glass was used wherever possible.

In suggesting a glass curtain wall, Mies was able to reveal the steel skeleton and the constructive principles of modern architecture. While the use of glass in facades was becoming increasingly common in Europe, in 1921 Mies's idea of sheathing a whole building solely in glass was unique.

However, such a facade would not become technically feasible for some years.

Mies's design exemplifies utopian thinking that is characteristic of the work of those involved in the avant-garde movement in the early 1920s.

Their desire to change the world and the way people lived encompassed almost every part of life, from town-planning to domestic design. However, in the aftermath of the First World War, most of those designs remained dreams only.

This charcoal drawing, on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition Modernism: Designing a New World, represents one such architect's dream. It foreshadowed the most radical developments of the future, particularly the architecture of office buildings in the later half of the 20th century.

Dr Jana Scholze is assistant curator, Modernism, VA

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