New York

“City of Frankfurt: New Building in a Historic Context”

Goethe House

Contemporary cities are all artifice, yet they seem to operate on unalterable organic premises. it is difficult to envision any significant, lasting intervention that would creatively change an urban center’s character. Citites rumble along, and the various elements of the whole are not perceptible until they are missed. But this sense of being unable tot affect the nature of the metropolis is not a sentence or a destiny. Passionate, broad-visioned individuals can reroute the mutant giantism spawned by hermetic interests. This exhibition provided an example of such a process, showing how the city of Frankfurt, Germany through orchestrated initiative, is beginning to shape its future rather than waiting for it simply to appear.

Frankfurt has mounted a planning and building campaign which is unusual and inspirit ing. Through a series of construction activities which include rebuilding, restoration, adaptive reuse, and new building (in the oldest section of the city), it is recreating a lost history and modulating its future shape as few other cities have. The recent triumph of planning is a response to a particular set of circumstances. In the ’20s and ’30s the town was a focus of avant-garde architectural and planning activities, but during the war its heart was blasted away. The war suspended and then artificially accelerated the natural ebb and flow of construction activity; the ’50s and ’60s brought progress in the image of anonymity, as repetitious housing units were rapidly raised and a banal assortment of flabby International Style buildings served to reestablish the city’s profile as a banking center.

These conditions seem enough to have stymied any creative vision, but Frankfurt has chosen to face its disasters and its designed failures. Mistakes made in planning and architecture must be lived with; few built monstrosities go the way of St. Louis’ ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe project. While Frankfurt cannot practically tear down its mistakes, it is infiltrating its monotonous established images through a calculated orchestration of existing features with new works. For example, the city is creating a center of museums and art-exhibition activity like New York’s Museum Mile. Richard Meier is building the Museum for Kunsthandwerk; O.M. Ungers has completed his remarkable, neo-rationalist Oeutches Architekturmuseum, and Hans Hollein won an international competition to design the Museum for Moderne Kunst. Amid these architectural exclamation points, a dense fabric of residential and less monumental buildings is constructing a character for the historic Romerberg area.The planning of this entire district is being realized with intuitive wisdom; without connective tissue, monumental main events and public buildings simply echo in emptiness.

The strength of this didactic exhibition was that the reinvention of context, the restoration of both lost and existing structures, and the overall attention to an architectural texture was given equal billing with the news-making buildings of Meier, Josef Paul Kleihues, and the rest. In contrast, anyone following the popular and the architectural press in New York may believe that Philip Johnson’s split pediment AT&T Building, the Times Square development, and Battery Park City are the only architecturally significant events to occur in the past five years. This exhibition confirmed that seduction by monuments is usually misleading. Frankfurt is looking at its history and at its problems, and is embarking on what can realistically be done to create a new alternative of cultural and community building which challenges some of the atrocities while living with them. Cities are not beyond new ideas; the composite picture is comprehensible, and can be manipulated creatively. The modulations of scale, of old and new structures, and of textures and materials presented in this compact and penetrating exhibition are lessons worth reviewing in light of the blockbusters being planned for Times Square and the like. Planning requires vision, generosity, and a belief in city life.

Patricia C. Phillips