Scary architecture: The early works of Hans Poelzig

Expressionism was an odd style, architecturally speaking. Mendelsohn’s stuff in the early 1920s was amoebic, stretching, undulating; by the end of the decade, he was committed to Sachlichkeit. Some of the dynamism of his expressionist pieces carried over into his more functionalist designs, as in the Red Banner factory in Leningrad (1926). Taut’s work in glass was marvelous, of course — and his ideas concerning the dissolution of the city were interesting as well. Hans Scharoun’s curvaceous forms were closer to the International Style from the start, but rounded or gently beveled off along the edges. A ripple runs along the façade of certain of his structures, such as Siemensstadt (1929-1931), almost reminiscent of the Vesnins’ contemporaneous ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow.

But the architecture of Hans Poelzig was from another planet entirely. Poelzig’s buildings were not merely idiosyncratic; they were positively psychotic. What Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1909) achieved in literary form, running alongside and counter to Secessionism and Jugendstil in the arts, Poelzig rendered into solid masses. The architecture journal San Rocco recently ran a call for papers on the theme of “scary architects,” with Poelzig as the cover-boy. It was no accident, that’s for sure. His buildings might never have been as formally modern as those of his peers, but they tower over the German industrial townscape with semi-traditional elements manifested at a terrifying scale. His renovations to the Großes Schauspielhaus in Berlin of his might even be described as a “stalactite” architecture. Nightmarish, but stunning.

Poelzig even looked demented: the circular glasses, the Moe Howard haircut, the slightly crossed eyes. Plus, in the 1934 Unversal Studios movie The Black Cat, the character Hjalmar Poelzig — an Austrian architect clearly modeled on Hans — is played by Boris Karloff. This was right after Frankenstein, too, when Karloff was at the height of his fame. Meanwhile, the costar was Bela Lugosi, right after Dracula. Below is a popular translation of his 1906 essay on “Fermentation in Architecture.” Also check out Fosco Lucarelli’s more expansive examination of Poelzig’s sulphuric acid factory in Luban over at SOCKS-Studio.

Fermentation in architecture

Hans Poelzig
Die Dritte Deutsche
Ausstellung (1906)

Essentially, the buildings at the Dresden Exhibition of Applied Art of 1906 mirror the process of fermentation which our architecture is today passing through, whose end cannot yet be foreseen and whose products are as yet scarcely to be recognized.

The main tasks of modern architecture do not lie in the ecclesiastical sphere, nor do monumental constructions of a secular character exercise a decisive influence. Life in the modem era is dominated by economic questions; thus the participation of the people and of artists in architectural problems of this kind — from the private dwelling to town planning — is constantly growing.

This is the starting point for most of the movements towards formalistic constructions, in so far as we can speak of a movement at a time marked by the multiplicity of vacillating trends — trends which for nearly a hundred years have been changing in quick succession the fundamental principles upon which they were based.

Attempts, mostly based on the art of Schinkel, to transpose elements of the Greek language of forms onto our buildings, were followed by an unselective use of forms taken from the most varied styles of the past — from Gothic via the Renaissance in both its Italian and its German manifestation to Baroque and Empire — generally with no regard for the inner spirit of the forms, with no regard for the material from which these forms originally sprang.

And isolated attempts by outstanding teachers of architecture in South and North Germany to attain by detailed study a knowledge of the artistic language of the ancients and its true meaning were soon crossed with energetic attempts to invent a new world language of architecture, whose rules and roots would not parallel or resemble any of the styles of the past.


And once again there is beginning a shamefaced revival of foreign words from architectural idioms belonging to many stylistic epochs, even primitive ones, and these foreign words are frequently grafted onto stems of fundamentally different character.

In almost all the subdivisions of art that serve decoration, with its simpler basic requirements, the modern age has attained a genuine style of its own and has splendid achievements to show. After initial vacillation there was a wholesome return — influenced by a study of the art of early times and especially of that of an Asian people — to techniques adapted to the material in question and an artistic elaboration of the motif based on a detailed study of nature.

Above all, wallpapers, textiles, glass windows, surface decoration, and minor arts of all kinds at the German Exhibition of Applied Art show this clearly enough, and architecture too demonstrates the decorative skill of its creators. But both the successful and the unsuccessful solutions clearly reveal that a true architecture is not to be achieved with the armory of decoration, that the problems of modern architecture cannot be mastered by purely external means.

Flight from everything historical can no more bring salvation than a purely decorative return to forms from the past.

The principle of interpreting things in purely surface terms has for several decades led to shapes in various materials being reproduced according to a play of lines forced into a particular system — with no regard for scale. Apart from the great curtailment of inventiveness, this schematism may be harmless for small-scale works, but when applied to large-scale, tectonic projects it leads to monstrosities. It is partly as a result of recognizing this fact that we see so many instances of renunciation of any tectonic solution at all: supports remain shapeless and receive merely surface decoration, dividing cornices are omitted altogether.

This produces a tranquillity in the appearance of buildings that was often missing in the past, but it is a tranquillity applied by force, not the outcome of a real balance of energies accompanying full emphasis of the tectonic transitions.

Acid factory.

It is a frequent error of periods of fermentation to impose suddenly and forcibly developments that normally take several epochs to evolve, and to attempt to give a work an exceptional quality by applying external peculiarities that have not come into being organically and spontaneously. The artist’s attention is distracted from what must be his main task: an unfailing mastery of his motif directly corresponding to his temperament and ability.

We also forget that the utilization of structures from earlier times for a building designed to meet the demands of modern life must be accompanied by an unmistakably modern adaptation of these structures, and that the correct use of materials and construction consciously adapted to purpose produce inner advantages that cannot be replaced by decorative embellishments, however skillfully applied.

We cannot do without the past in solving the architectural problems of our own day. We may dispense with the externals, but not with the work done in the past on the mastery of tectonic problems.

In spite of all the constructional achievements and changes, most of the best building materials are still the same and many of the constructions of the past remain unsurpassed. We are absolutely compelled to stay firmly planted on the shoulders of our forefathers and we deprive ourselves of a solid foothold if we begin needlessly to experiment afresh on our own account.

A sure eye and the right freedom in performing the tasks presented by the use of new building materials are to be acquired from a close study of what is possible and good for other materials and motifs. This freedom has to be gained by an intellectual analysis and mastery of tradition and has nothing to do with that lack of restraint which inevitably leads to helpless confusion.

The sad role frequently given to iron — that mighty aid to light structures and great spans — is that of a coupling which, because of its malleability and its ability to operate in concealment, is compelled to link together two elements in a building that are inorganically juxtaposed.

Water towers.

Every architectural work first has to tally with the work done by the engineer — and the modem architect more than any has no right to think illogically. But most of us are and remain sentimentalists and behave just as romantically as those who revived the formal elements of Gothic — not its tectonic core — around the middle of the nineteenth century. We all too frequently seek to save the emotional content of past epochs, without first thinking what use it is to us.

The past has bequeathed to us a deep understanding of materials and their characteristics, the evolution of science has afforded us a much more precise knowledge of the laws of statics, and yet for the most part we are more restricted and illogical in our thinking than was ever the case in an age that confronted architectonic problems armed only with sound common sense.

It is left to the engineer to calculate and design a unity between load and support, the right measurements for the parts of the structure consisting of various materials. The architect all too often seeks his salvation in purely decorative constructions that have to be imposed on the fabric of the building and spoil its organic clarity.

Every real tectonic constructional form has an absolute nucleus, to which the decorative embellishment, which within certain limits is changeable, lends a varying charm. First, however, the absolute element has to be found, even if as yet in an imperfect, rough form.

And the artist who approaches the design of structural elements solely from the viewpoint of external, decorative considerations distracts attention from the discovery of the pure nuclear form.

Domestic architecture is the first to begin freeing itself from an exterior conception, to make demands that operate from the inside outward, that help this architecture to achieve authenticity and have to be taken into account.


And yet here too the striving to say more than necessary often robs the building of that calm and naturalness which can be achieved by simplifying the overall design. Even here we are too much bogged down in an exterior, painterly conception and pay too little attention to the reconciliation between initially contradictory architectural demands (unity of material and form, limitation in the choice of materials) which creates tranquillity. Only when this overall tranquillity has been achieved does it become possible to apply decorative richness without overburdening the structure.

Instead, we often damage buildings of smaller dimension by attempting to increase their importance by stressing individual elements in a manner contrary to the organic harmony of the whole; we cannot go far enough in utilizing the most varied building materials in a single structure. And painterly play with emblems and applied decoration of all kinds, in so far as they serve no structural purpose, is merely confusing and easily leads to a mantle of sentimentality being thrown round a perfectly good basic structure, charming the undiscerning imitator and distracting his attention from the true core of the whole building.

The new movement carries the banner of objectivity against traditional structures that have become empty of content and petrified into a scheme. Objectivity is possible in architecture only on the basis of sound construction and a formal idiom evolved out of it.

Creative buildings of a new kind can come into being only in this way.

The fabric of our architectural idiom is still confused and we lack a knowledge of what is essential. We are still chasing after fashionable manners that after a short time, having been vulgarized by a series of imitators, become the object of contempt, whereas real architecture as the product of intense thought governed by artistic considerations offers little opportunity for unjustified robbery by imitators.

The right kind of architecture is already beginning to appear, especially in the case of buildings presenting few complications; here the path of unaffected artistic expression is already being trod. It is time to stop trying to make a style of this, to stop burdening the artist with the demand to evolve an intrusive personal note, which drives him to superficialities. For the time being we must demand only unrelenting objectivity and a solution, in keeping with good taste, of a clearly thought out problem.

Factory and cinema exteriors.

13 thoughts on “Scary architecture: The early works of Hans Poelzig

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