The Barest Form in which Architecture Can Exist: Some Notes on Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Proposal for the Chicago Tribune Building

Published in San Rocco, 2, “The Even Covering of the Field” (2011) [link]
1. There are several articles and essays on this competition, which was a true landmark event in the history of corporate branding through architecture. See Manfredo Tafuri, “La Montagna Disincantata”, in Giorgio Ciucci, Mario Manieri Elia and Manfredo Tafuri, eds., La città americana dalla Guerra civile al New Deal (Bari: Laterza, 1973), trans. as “The Disenchanted Mountain: The Skyscraper and the City”, in The American City: From the Civil War to the New Deal (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984). See also Luca Garofalo, Concorso per il Chicago Tribune (Turin: Testo & Immagine, 1997).
2. Hilberseimer did not submit his proposal to the competition. The project was published for the first time in the second issue of the journal G as an illustration for his short piece on the high-rise typology. Here Hilberseimer discussed his proposal for the Chicago Tribune building and his proposal for a residential high-rise in order to criticize the divide between construction and form that characterized most high-rise buildings in US at the time. It is interesting to note that Hilberseimer’s publication of his Chicago Tribune project followed on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s proposal for the Burohaus, a model for the office building designed as a vast open space. The reality of industrial architecture and its adaptability to other uses was a topic that both Mies van der Rohe and Hilberseimer addressed in two of their contributions to G. See Ludwig Hilberseimer, “Hochhaus”, G: Materialen für elementaren Gestaltung, n. 2 (September 1923): 3; and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Burohaus”, G: Materialen für elementaren Gestaltung, n. 1 (July 1923): 3.
3. Hilberseimer’s knowledge of American architecture is demonstrated by several articles he wrote on the subject during the 1920s, especially the important publications Beton als Gestalter, written with Julius Vischer, and Groszstadt Architektur. In both texts examples of American industrial architecture are commented on and illustrated. See Ludwig Hilberseimer and Julius Vischer, Beton als Gestalter (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffmann Verlag, 1928); Ludwig Hilberseimer, Groszstadt Architektur (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffmann Verlag, 1927).
4. See Carl Schmitt, Römischer Katholizismus und Politische Form (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1923)
5. This argument is also addressed in Schmitt’s famous critique of the neutralizing ethos of economic management. See Carl Schmitt, “Das Zeitalter der Neutralisierung und Entpolitisierung”, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 58 (1927): 66–81.

In 1922 Chicago’s famous daily newspaper The Chicago Tribune launched an international competition for its new headquarters, which were to be built on Michigan Avenue. Carefully strategized as a media event, the call for proposals attracted both interest from the general public and a massive participation of 263 architects from the US and abroad.[1] As the winning proposal, the jury selected the Gothic-inspired high-rise designed by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood. Howells and Hood’s proposal met the organizers’ ultimate goal: to redeem the brutal product of economic speculation – the high-rise – in the form of a spectacular landmark for the city. Before the Chicago Tribune competition, high-rise buildings in Chicago and New York were usually conceived and perceived as raw histograms of land value erected to serve the sole purpose of facilitating and generating business. The Chicago Tribune competition, in contrast, went beyond the possibility of economic value being derived from land speculation to the possibility of that derived from representation. Architectural representation – the power of a building’s image – was here rediscovered not as a tool for political representation, but rather as one of economic interest, as branding. The remarkably heterogeneous responses to the competition, which presented designs inspired by wide-ranging Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque or Art Deco styles as well as some modernist ones, showed the abstract and non-representable nature of economic interests when it comes to giving it a definitive form. In its pervasive and fluctuating nature, economic interest can assume any kind of stylistic or formal expression. In terms of form, economic interest can be whatever one wants precisely because it is whatever – the potential to be anything – that is at stake in an economic process. It is possible to argue that in a regime like capitalism, in which the appropriation and exploitation of the potential of things rather than what already exists becomes the fundamental object of economic interest, the only definitive architectural form possible is one that is reduced to the barest essentials of existence: a space in which any foreseen and unforeseen activity can take place. The stark simplicity and literalness of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s proposal for the Chicago Tribune can be understood as the most radical response to the problem architectural form when erected on the unstable ground of economic interest.[2] The project consists of the simple extrusion of the required square metres of space enveloped within a façade defined by a uniform distribution of openings. The design represents a radical application of the principles of the “free plan” already implicit in the development of industrial architecture: a field of columns supporting unobstructed floors ready to be arranged according to any kind of use. Hilberseimer knew the reality of commercial and industrial architecture in US very well.[3] Moreover the language of his proposal seems to have been developed directly from the industrial architecture of the Plant, the Chicago Tribune’s old workshop, which the newspaper’s competition brief explained was to be extended or replaced with a more representative structure. Therefore the radicality of Hilberseimer’s proposal lies not in the originality of the architectural solution, but in its transferring of the abstraction of the free plan from the material production of the factory to the immaterial production of white-collar office space, where economic processes are even more abstract and elusive in terms of the organization and management of space. And yet it is precisely the radicality – or better, the literalness – with which Hilberseimer adhered to the abstract conditions of economic management, just as the concave adheres to the convex, that makes his proposal a critical clinamen within the totalizing space of economic processes.


In his article Römischer Katholizismus und Politische Form, Carl Schmitt affirmed that the reality of an economic process cannot be represented. According to Schmitt, economy is what it does.[4] Unlike categories such as “God”, “The People”, “The State”, “The Public”, “Freedom” or “The Principle of Equality”, the economy is unrepresentable; it cannot be real if it does not exist – it is matter of fact. As a political and juridical sphere, the act of representing a value, a believe, a principle gives a special dignity and authority to the agent of representation because who or what represents a high value – i.e. something that must be persuasive, or that has to feed a pathos of conviction – cannot be itself devoid of moral value. Moreover moral value is not only a prerogative of who represents and what is represented. It is also conferred upon the subject at whom a representation of something is addressed. The crude reality of the economy deals with data that are in themselves devoid of any moral value and, thus, of any representational authority. According to Schmitt, there is no possibility to establish any condition of value or charisma in a world reified by the managerial apparatus of the economy.[5] Unlike traditions of representation like those of the church, the monarchy, and the state, whose masteries are based on metaphysical and transcendental values, the abstraction of the modern factory is incapable of representation to the point that, as Schmitt reminds us, the Soviet Republic had to use obsolete emblems of work such as the hammer and the sickle (whose symbolism did not corresponded to the technically advance way Lenin defined Communism as “Soviets plus Electrification”) in order to find a “representative” symbol for Communism. It is possible to argue that it is precisely the impossibility of any convincing representation of a world reified by the management of economic processes that created fertile ground for value-free aesthetic expressions. For this reason it is not surprising that with the rise of industrialization and its expanding universe made of increasingly advanced forms of production, art and architecture were no longer considered as an embodiment of values beyond themselves, but rather as realities within themselves.
The rise of abstract art and the rise of modern architecture had already been anticipated in the 19th century by theories that considered both visual art and architecture as self-referential phenomena whose critical assessment was based only on their immanent physical and corporeal properties. These properties were form, space, volume, mass and movement – in other words, the generic properties of any artefact. If there is a true artistic and architectural manifestation of a civilization driven by its economy, then this must be the reduction of the content of a work of art to its purely generic attributes, for any attempt to represent reality in a convincing way is made impossible by the fact that reality is so complex, infinitesimal and ultimately elusive.
And yet the condition of the generic is not simply a result of industrial modes of production. The generic is an anthropological dimension of subjectivity that is of fundamental importance in capitalism. In order to extract surplus value from workers, Capital has to conquer and appropriate worker’s labour power. Labour power is not a specialized sphere but it represents the totality of the human condition. Labour Power is generic, undetermined potential “where one particular type of labour or another has not been designated, but any kind of labour is taking place, be it the manufacturing of a car door, or the harvesting of pears, the babble of someone calling in to a phone “party-line,” or the work of a proofreader.”[6]6. Paolo Virno, The Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2004), p. 81 Labour power coincides with the generic ability to act, to speak, or to do things both with our hands and with words. Labour power relies on a fundamental characteristic of the human animal: its ability to adapt to and to cope with any unforeseen situation.


The spatial indeterminacy of the free plan is a radical manifestation of how labour power has been put at work by capital. If labour power is characterized by man’s ability to adapt to any situation, and therefore by the total unpredictability of man’s actions and reactions, then the only corresponding spatial form in such unstable conditions is free space: space emptied of any obstruction and ready to accommodate any situation. The history of capitalistic spatial governance can be understood as that of the possibility of accommodating the condition of permanent unpredictability and instability that is inherent to human nature. If labour power – the very object of any economic process – can be understood as the even covering of the field of human potentialities (from body to mind), then the spatial apparatuses that correspond to this reality have to reach the same degree of openness and potentiality of use and occupation. This condition becomes even more radical when “production” is no longer understood as the production of goods, but as the production of immaterial facts such as services and information. When language, cooperation and exchange become the main instruments of production, as occurred in the so-called post-Fordist economy – the diagram of spatial relationships becomes so complex and ever-changing that it becomes impossible to translate it into a fixed spatial arrangement. The increasing importance of tertiary and intellectual work within the development of industrial cities was already becoming evident in the 1920s, particularly in Germany and the US.[7]7.On the rise of white-collar and intellectual work as mass work phenomena, see Sergio Bologna, “I lavoratori della conoscenza fuori e dentro l’impresa”, in Ceti medi senza Futuro? Scritti, appunti sul lavoro e altro (Rome: Derive e Approdi, 2008), 108–36. Also relevant is Sergio Bologna “Nazismo e classe operaia”, paper presented to the Camera del Lavoro in Milan, 3 June 1993. [An English translation is available here] While industrial work was dominated by the rigid pattern of the assembly line, in which workers were the silent controllers of machines, tertiary work was already seen as being carried out by a multiplicity of human relationships and associations whose unpredictable pattern overcame any rigid organization of space. Hilberseimer’s proposal for the Chicago Tribune building takes this reality into account by reducing architecture to its barest formal state: generic floors supported by a homogeneous field of columns, reached by elevators and enveloped by uniform façades. While Mies van der Rohe’s office buildings, such as the high-rise building in Friedrichstrasse and the Burohaus, were attempts to redeem the generic form of productive space by subtly manipulating the envelope, Hilberseimer’s is simply the most literal representation of the open-ended logic of capital when it comes to the question of form. At the same time, Hilberseimer’s design shows how architecture, once it is emptied by the destructive character of economic management, returns to being what it used to be at the very beginning: an enclosed space, an absolute form. In this respect a crucial element in Hilberseimer’s project is the façade’s uniform pattern of openings. The pattern is the vertical projection of the logic of the interior’s structural grid. However, Hilberseimer explained how this formal solution eliminates the opening as an individual piercing element on the wall of the façade and makes the building appear to be a composition of pure volumes.[8]8. See Ludwig Hilberseimer, “Hochhaus”, Das Kunstblatt (1922): 531 Hilberseimer’s interpretation of the principle of “the even covering of the field” within the plan, the section and the elevation of the building through a reliance on the simplest spatial and formal organization – the isotropic grid of columns and openings – has an ambivalent meaning. On the one hand, such organization of the building form derives from an attitude that has accepted the abstraction of economy; on the other, Hilberseimer develops a legible limit out of this condition by turning the spatial logic of the free plan against itself in the form of the absoluteness of the volume. The barest condition in which architecture can exist is presented here not as a stylistic exercise, but as a paradoxical act of representation, as a will to give to the conditions of the city its adequate form, whose meaning is the definitive renunciation of any will to representation.