Himmelstürmend: Frankfurt on High

Himmelstürmend: Frankfurt on High

It’s never a good sign when a history of the skyscraper starts with Elisha Otis demonstrating the safety breaks of an elevator during the World’s Fair of 1853, suggesting that’s how things got started. Not only is the safe passenger ride one of just many, many inventions, developments and drivers that made skyscrapers possible, but above all further research already revealed that this story mainly tells you how much of a showman mr. Otis was, and how keen the company was about milking that story.

It is however the start of a catalogue of an exhibition called Himmelstürmend, Hochhausstadt Frankfurt / Skyward, High-Rise City Frankfurt, which is on display at the German Architecture Museum (DAM) in Frankfurt until April 19 of this year. Having been to Frankfurt many times before, I decided to order the accompanying and, thank you, bilingual exhibit publication first to see if it was worth another trip. Indeed my most sticky memory of the city is one where I find myself desperately searching for a beer in the skyscraper district, and thank goodness ended up in Sachsenhausen, an old district immediately south of the Main river.

The book starts with seven essays mainly dealing with the urban planning side of the skyscraper. This being an exhibit of the local architecture museum the book can be excused for focussing on this angle, but it’s just that urban planning and skyscrapers never really have been a happy couple in the Main City.

More than a skyscraper city, Frankfurt is a financial capital. In an attempt to be important at something in the post–World War II era, the city threw its bomb flattened space at the mercy of the banks in order to become the financial capital of West Germany.  Sure enough, the banks showed up, but they also brought along an attitude of ‘we’ll do whatever we please’, and creating eye-pleasing and pleasant-urban buildings was definitely not on their to-do list.

The local town planning department responded in a typical old school way by treating urban planning as a problem solving science involving bird’s-eye visions, only to conclude that the bulk of the ambition that was put in each plan never materialised, happily moving on to the next. It’s the kind of urban planning that seems to think of itself as a leader of development while really the profession ought to focus on facilitating what the people themselves want, which is just a pleasant place to be.

When reading all this I started to understand why I always find myself dehydrated in the skyscraper district. If the banking CEO’s and skyscraper commissioners ever read these visions, they sure didn’t show. Attempts to create publicly accessible spaces, such as rooftop bars, were promised but never delivered on. It’s no coincidence the term tiescraper was inspired by Frankfurt’s skyscrapers. As a latest example, the city went many miles to land the European Central Bank in order to establish itself as a financial capital, but finds its headquarters to be solitaire which message is all about keeping an aloof distance.

Now that the financial economy is rather aggressively reevaluating its housing needs, the city is focussing on smaller scale developments and also resiscrapers. Unfortunately, this books tells me they really are at square one when it comes to the latter, when I read lines like:

Last but not least there is an ecological argument for residential high-rises: living, working, and leisure space can be densified in such a way that street-level traffic flow can be minimized.

This space is by far too limited to explain that such lines are almost a stereotype of theoretical reasoning and have nothing to do with the art of creating pleasant vertical density.

Typically the books lists directors and heads of urban planning as these are names worth remembering. The bulk of the book however contains a rather sachlich overview of tall buildings in Frankfurt, including unbuilt plans, ordered by area.

The end of the book contains a who is who related to skyscrapers in Frankfurt, which is full of architects, artists and politicians. Interestingly no commissioners or users are listed, and especially Hans-Dieter Hillmoth, the director of the local hit radio station who initiated and organizes the Skyscraper Festival, has been left out.

The one saving grace in this book is the inclusion of an short essay about the Wolkenkratzer Festival, or Skyscraper Festival, which has been organized five times at various intervals since 1996. To me the difference between a ‘tall building’, or ‘high-rise’ in general, and a skyscraper is just plain fun. A skyscraper is a building that wants and likes to be tall. The book uses ‘tall buildings’ or even ‘high-rises’ all the time, while someone who really understand the extra oomph would always use the term skyscraper. Hillmoth is one of those people, and its thanks to them Frankfurt has some bragging rights when it comes to being a true skyscraper city.

frankfurt_01Exhibition ‘SKYWARD. Highrise City Frankfurt’ source: Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM)

Since I have not visited the exhibition and not plan to, I cannot really advice you to go or not. Knowing the DAM, I’d definitely recommend going if you happen to be in the area. Especially the unbuilt projects can give you an insight on the ambitions of the city to develop as a skyscraper city, and the reality of it.

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