Adrian Forty’s Modern Anonymity: Ludwig Hilberseimer

by Christian Parreno

Adrian Forty's Modern Anonymity: Ludwig Hilberseimer

Of people who explored the architectural expression of anonymity and indifference in the 1920s, one of the most interesting, because the most extreme, was the Berlin architect Ludwig Hilberseimer (1885-1967). Hilberseimer’s design for the Chicago Tribune tower – the international competition of 1922 for a Chicago newspaper – was the blandest, dullest of the entries. This was not, however, through lack of architectural talent; rather, Hilberseimer was pursuing the idea that the culture of the modern city does not depend upon individuals, so monuments, the products of individuals’ aspirations, are redundant. It is not the job of the architect to create values or impose them upon the city, but instead to allow the life of the city to take its own form. Hilberseimer’s design attempted to create a very large building that was not a monument, and which celebrated no individual or groups or individuals. It is utterly anonymous, and that is quality.
The concept of a city as a place without values is even clearer in Grosstadarchitektur (1927), Hilberseimer’s scheme for a large city. In drawings for this project, which represents just about everything now most disliked about modern architecture, people scurry about like ants beneath blank curtain walled slab blocks. The buildings are crudely geometric, because aesthetics would only get in the way of the life of the mass. Hilberseimer explained that he was dealing only in generalities, for city planning is an abstraction, and does not deal with individuals. This ‘involves a reduction of architectonic form to its most modest, necessary and general requirements: a reduction that is to cubic geometric forms, which represent the fundamental elements of any architecture’.

Forty, Adrian (1995) ‘The City Without Qualities’ in Architecture and the Sites of History. Interpretations of Buildings and Cities. Edited by Iain Borden & David Dunster. Oxford – UK: Butterworth Architecture. 312-13