How Frankfurt became Mainhattan
“… in analogy to Frankfurt’s Mainhattan skyline, downtown New York is often called Manhattan,” wrote author Andreas Neumeister a few years ago in his book “Könnte Köln sein.” What may sound like an easy punchline of ever-present city marketing, describes a phenomenon that has been mentioned over and over again: Frankfurt is the most American of all large European cities.
A fresh start after the fall
The city on the Main is one of a few in Europe that have a distinct skyline of high-rises. Only a few decades ago, Frankfurt had been a typical German city with the dome as the highest spire. Heavily destroyed during the war, the city center was hardly more than piles of rubble inside burnt-out façades giving the reconstruction under the American administration an opportunity to replace the old city with more modern, but small-scale buildings. Still, the door was open to larger and taller projects that began to emerge from the 1960s onwards on vacant lots in the inner city and the Anlagenring, the former fortification of the city that had been demolished in the early 19th century. Another city tried a similar comeback seventy years earlier after large parts had been destroyed: Chicago. Following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the entire center of the city had to be rebuilt. Due to increasing property values, here as well, the buildings were shooting up into the sky. With the help of new building technologies, the elevator, fire-proof materials, and the then new steel-frame construction, an architectural style was invented that became world-renowned as the Chicago School. Frankfurt’s high-rises have not created a unified style. They are, however, connected beyond their mere historical references by something else: their strong link to America’s history of the skyscraper.
Learning from Manhattan
Responsible for this were, first of all, strong personal connections between German and American architects. For instance, Otto Apel, one of the founders of the Frankfurt architectural office ABB Architekten, collaborated with the most influential architects of high-rise buildings in the 1950s—the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Before embarking on any designs for tall offices, clients and designers went on so-called “study trips” to consult with their American colleagues. Even more so, legend has it that the decision to build HPP’s Dreischeibenhaus for Thyssen-Krupp in Essen was made in New York after SOM’s chief designer, Gordon Bunshaft, had pressed for this design in December 1956. Similar travels were reported for the Frankfurt offices of ABB Architekten and Richard Heil. The mere adaptation of American standards was topped by a direct “import” of designs, as in the case of the Messeturm in the 1980s. Although the designer was a German immigrant, the design by the Chicago office of Murphy / Jahn was executed by the American investor Tishman Speyer—but not without problems. The staircases which in the United States would have been located in the inner core of the building had to be on the outside according to German regulations. Only after an exception was granted, could the building be built as designed.
More recently, connections are as strong as ever but draw from older historical sources. The Main Plaza tower by architect Hans Kollhoff, opened in 2001, quotes Raymond Hood’s Radiator Building (1924), one of the masterpieces of New York’s Art Deco boom. Similarly fascinated by this era, the Frankfurt office Meixner Schlüter Wendt recently modernized Harvey Wiley Corbett’s skyscraper fantasies in a visionary design called “Himmel über Frankfurt.”
Contrary to the expansive skyline of Manhattan, Frankfurt’s high-rises are limited to small clusters. What makes the skyline remarkable is its extraordinary density, not singled-out buildings. Whereas Koolhaas in his manifesto for Manhattan described each part of the grid as an opportunity for complete freedom and individuality, Frankfurt is the outcome of a more or less successful planning process by both city and investors. But just how often, for better or worse, even here zoning plans were discarded is hard to recognize in today’s city. The urban warfare of the late 1960s and 1970s is over, as is the population’s rejection of high-rises in general. This changed self-image might be best explained by artist Zoltán László’s visual commentary “Römerspargel”: not the soon to be reconstructed old town represents Frankfurt but the skyscrapers. Contrary to other heavily destroyed German cities such as Dresden, Frankfurt, via a detour through America, managed to create a new modern identity for itself.
View of Mainhattan
An exhibition in Frankfurt sets out to present this exciting story. It shows the universal problems of urban planning encroached upon by investors, internationally operating companies, and local politics. The show illustrates how identity and the image of the city are to plan and how they are evaluated as either positive or negative according to shifting historical interests. The “what-if” of the unrealized ideas and their effects on the city stand out as the most exciting part: the Hochhaus am Roßmarkt by Johannes Krahn (1950), the Campanile at the main station by JSK Architekten (1985), or American designs such as the Commerzbank by Mies van der Rohe (1968) or Charles Moore’s copy of the tip of the Chrysler Building for the Römerberg (1980). The German Architecture Museum seems to be an ideal venue for such an exhibition, not only because its architect Oswald Mathias Ungers was one of Frankfurt’s active high-rise architects but because the museum itself constructs an image of the skyscrapers: visitors can walk up to the top floor and look out of the square windows to see a perfectly framed view of the banking quarter.
HIMMELSTÜRMEND - Hochhausstadt Frankfurt
8 November 2014 - 19 April 2015 at Deutsches Architekturmuseum
Schaumainkai 43, D-60596 Frankfurt am Main
 Andreas Neumeister, Könnte Köln sein, Frankfurt am Main 2008, p. 119; cited in: Philipp Sturm, Peter Cachola Schmal, Hochhausstadt Frankfurt. Bauten und Visionen seit 1945, Munich 2014, p. 16.a
Successful transatlantic partnership: Frankfurt’s mayor Wolfram Brück with Horstmar Stauber, president of the Messe Frankfurt, and the American investor Jerry Speyer marvel at a model of the Messeturm
© Kai-Uwe Wärner, 1988
Richard Rummel’s drawing of future New York (c. 1912) which was adapted by Harvey Wiley Corbett in the 1920s
Meixner Schlüter Wendt’s update for living on different levels in Frankfurt
© Meixner Schlüter Wendt
Zoltán László, Römerspargel, 1999
© Zoltán László
Meixner Schlüter Wendt’s update for living on different levels in Frankfurt.
© Meixner Schlüter Wendt