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Expressionism

2. Architecture

Source: Oxford University Press

Expressionist architecture, especially in the German-speaking area, developed during the years of political crisis preceding and following World War I. It was a protest movement in architecture with socio-political overtones and was fuelled by a solemn and euphoric belief in the future, which it strove to realize. Architecture was perceived as a substantial educational tool in refashioning human society. Pioneering developments in the fields of engineering and technology using such new building materials as steel, concrete and glass smoothed hitherto unexplored paths and seemed to open up new doors to the realization of Utopian ideas of society. The Expressionist generation of architects aimed to free form from the confines of the norm, replacing it with a direct, spontaneous communication between the idea and the product. The traditional building-unit principle was to be resolved in flowing or crystalline distortions of space. The mood of the period was reflected most radically in the Utopian phantasmagorias of Paul Scheerbart. In many written works from the turn of the century on he evoked an architecture made of glass, the light, crystalline, curving, floating images of which would transform the ways of living and thinking of the ‘Old European’. However, the movement’s dependence on clients who were willing to experiment, in addition to other external factors, meant that architectural practice was able to match the visionary start of Expressionism in only a restricted way. Many of its most creatively original contributions never went beyond sketches of ideas on paper. The inherently Utopian character of Expressionist architectural sketches systematically points forward to future possibilities in the development of architecture.

Significantly, the first examples of Expressionist architecture to be constructed were industrial buildings. In such commissions architects discovered what might be described as ‘fallow land’ which offered less resistance to experimentation. The transition to Expressionism was effected in Peter Behrens’s buildings for AEG in Berlin (1903–13; for example). They have a ceremonial character and developed as a new force from Romantic, national architecture, which was turning away from the eclecticism of the period of Emperor William II. The AEG turbine factory (1908–9) was the first German building to introduce the combination of steel and glass. Even though Behrens’s buildings went far beyond pure functionalism in their expressive monumentality, they already indicated rationalist tendencies. In this they differed considerably from the contemporaneous buildings of Hans Poelzig. His water-tower (1911) in Posen (now Poznán, Poland) and his chemical factory at Luban (1911–12; for illustration see Poelzig, hans) were distinguished by a sculptural, dynamic, almost lyrical Expressionism, which culminated after World War I in his conversion of the Zirkus Schumann into the Grosses Schauspielhaus (1919) for Berlin. By the use of applied stalactite shapes he transformed the interior into a fantastic visionary cavern startend. The Jahrhunderthalle (1912–13) in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) by Max Berg can also be counted as one of the few projects realized before World War I that can be described as Expressionist (for illustration see Berg, max). As a steel-and-concrete structure with a cupola with a bold 67 m span, it pointed in the direction of an Expressionism that was completely in the grip of new technical achievements.

One of the important stylistic roots of Expressionism was Jugendstil or Art Nouveau architecture. Having begun with a formal language that was confined to surface decoration, Jugendstil evolved towards sculptural three-dimensionality. Such buildings as the Hochzeitsturm (1907) in Darmstadt by joseph maria Olbrich, the Werkbund Theater (1914) in Cologne by Henry Van De Velde or the Casa Milà (1906–10) in Barcelona by Antoni Gaudí indicated a smooth transition from Art Nouveau to Expressionism. They were signposts on the way towards a new type of concrete architecture using cast sculptural shapes, though they themselves did not yet use concrete. At this point Erich Mendelsohn made his contribution; during his student years he had been closely connected with artists of the Blaue Reiter (see §1 (i)(b) above) and was decisively influenced by them. In numerous drawings before and during World War I he conjured up a new monolithic architecture using concrete, which aimed at overcoming the traditional structural laws relating to support and loading to achieve an organically flowing internal space. His first ‘built sketch’ was the Einstein Tower (1919–21) in Potsdam . It gave the impression of being a freely formed abstract sculpture. Even though it is renowned as a famous example of Expressionist architecture, at the same time it demonstrated the engineering and technical limitations of cast-concrete structures; large sections of the tower had to be made of rendered brick. Recognizing that his sketches were not (yet) able to be built, in his subsequent buildings Mendelsohn reverted at first tentatively and later more explicitly to the rectangular building unit, confining himself to ‘Expressionist touches’ in dynamic resolutions of corners, with a strong emphasis on a built mass that had been conceived three-dimensionally.

The political basis of the Expressionist avant-garde in Germany came to a head after World War I. The Arbeitsrat für kunst was founded in Berlin in 1918 and shortly afterwards joined forces with the Novembergruppe, which had been set up along the same lines. Under the leadership of Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut and the architectural critic Adolf Behne, it became a political and artistic mouthpiece for architects such as Otto Bartning, Max Taut, Bernhard Hoetger, Erich Mendelsohn, Adolf Meyer and Hermann Finsterlin (1887–1973). In March 1919 the Arbeitsrat launched its manifesto under the heading: ‘Art and the people must be united. Art should no longer be for the enjoyment of the few, but for the happiness and life of the masses. The objective is to bring the arts together under the wing of the great art of architecture.’ The suppression of the Spartacist Revolution a few months later brought about a growing feeling of disillusionment, which ultimately smoothed the way for the advent of Neue Sachlichkeit and Functionalism. The Utopian visionary spirit of Expressionism lived on in reminiscences in the letter sequences emanating from the Gläserne Kette, a correspondence group that included the Taut brothers, Gropius and Finsterlin among its members. In Finsterlin’s many sketches and in Taut’s Alpiner Architektur (Hagen, 1919), Expressionism was shown at its most extreme, fully independent of any considerations as to whether it could actually be built.

The early Weimar Bauhaus, founded and directed by Walter Gropius, is also rooted in the climate of Expressionism. Its overall teaching concept was based on Expressionist ideas. Taut’s concept of ‘Die Stadtkrone’, a Utopian secular cathedral of the people for every city, was echoed in the woodcut by Lyonel Feininger in the first Bauhaus manifesto (1919), which used the motif of the Gothic cathedral to idealize mediaeval craftsmanship and symbolize the Expressionist Utopia of the ‘cathedral of the future’. Thus many of the later masters of ‘Neues Bauen’ went through a youthful ‘Sturm und Drang’ phase that had affinities with Expressionism. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created his first design for the Friedrichstrasse office building (1919) in Berlin as a crystalline glass body, which seems to hark back in a refined form to Paul Scheerbart’s visions. The same liking for acute angles and over-emphasis of verticals can be found in the Chilehaus (1921–3) in Hamburg by Fritz Höger startend, although here the idea is conveyed in decorated bricks. The buildings of rudolf Steiner in Dornach, near Basle, come into a special category (first Goetheanum, 1913–20; second Goetheanum, 1924–8). Flowing spatial distortion is an aspect they share with Expressionism, but in Steiner’s buildings this derives directly from anthroposophical philosophy. Towards the mid-1920s a new trend and direction became apparent among the German architectural avant-garde under the designation ‘Neues Bauen’, moving away from Utopia towards reality, precise data and practical functionalism.

While the number of buildings constructed along uncompromisingly Expressionist lines in Germany remained small in the final analysis, there were countless examples in Dutch architecture, especially in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam school with its publicity organ Wendingen (1918–31), directed by Hendrik Th. Wijdeveld, maintained close contact with the Expressionist avant-garde in Germany. Urban-planning development in Holland, however, was not subject to the drastic interruptions experienced in Germany, and the socio-political commitment of the Expressionist protest that was of prime importance in Germany was a subsidiary factor. Rather, a delight in experimenting in exotic forms was at the forefront. Among the most outstanding buildings by the Amsterdam school are the block of flats for the builder Klaas Hille (1911–12) and the Eigen Haard estate (1915–16; 1917–21), both in Amsterdam, by michel de Klerk; the Minder Marinepersoneel (Minor marines) building (1911–13; destr.) in Den Helder by P. L. Kramer; and the Scheepvaarthuis (1912–16) in Amsterdam by J. M. van der Meij (with de Klerk and Kramer). The heyday of Dutch Expressionism was expressed in sometimes bizarre brick sculptures. In a certain respect it came to an end in 1923 with the early death of de Klerk, who had undoubtedly been the scintillating centre of the Amsterdam school. The group of architects associated with De stijl, who were at the opposite pole from the Amsterdam school, took over the artistic leadership of the Dutch avant-garde, influencing Functionalism, which was becoming established in Europe in the mid-1920s. Certain tendencies or aspects of Expressionism were revived in the 1950s in Brutalism and also in the poetic shell constructions of such architects as Jørn Utzon or Eero Saarinen.

Paul Vogt
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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