This design for a crystal tower, conceived by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was unprecedented in 1921. It was based on the untried idea that a supporting steel skeleton would be able to free the exterior walls from their load-bearing function, allowing a building to have a surface more translucent than solid. A number of American skyscrapers had featured expanses of glass, but Mies was the first to imagine such a building without a structural or decorative frame of masonry. Indeed Mies seems to have been inspired by photographs of American skyscrapers when they were still under construction, a stage that he felt revealed "the bold constructive thoughts, and then the impression of the high-reaching steel skeletons is overpowering."
Mies developed his radical proposal in response to a call for German architects to design Berlin's first skyscraper, intended for a triangular site bounded by the Spree River, the busy shopping street Friedrichstrasse, and the train station of the same name. The competition drew 140 entries as well as intense interest from architects, artists, and the general public, generating debate about the future of the city and representing hopes for new beginnings after Germany's defeat in World War I. While Mies's bold image of an entirely steel-and-glass skyscraper had a solid scientific and technological basis, his crystal-shaped plan reflected the more fantastic visions of Expressionist architects and artists, who were drawn to glass as a symbol of purity and renewal.
This very large drawing was repeatedly reproduced in publications around the world, achieving iconic status. In 1964, the architect, who had left it behind when he emigrated to the United States in 1938, was able to retrieve it from what was then East Germany, and it has been exhibited frequently at The Museum of Modern Art since then. Its bold image and masterful draftsmanship continue to inspire.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Terence Riley, in Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 50.