Return to the Horrorhaus: Hans Poelzig’s nightmare expressionism, 1908-1935

.
Two years ago, I introduced my readers to the work of the German expressionist architect Hans Poelzig. Many were doubtless familiar with his buildings already. What I sought to highlight, though, was the sheer scariness of his architecture. Hence “scary architecture.” SOCKS Studio, always excellent and often operating on the same wavelength, also put up a post on Poelzig around the same time.

In the time that has passed, I have amassed hundreds more high-quality images of plans, sketches, and period photographs of Poelzig’s built work. Needless to say, they aren’t any less scary than before. One could easily imagine Max Schreck’s Nosferatu lurking in the corridors of these structures, with Caligari’s hypnotized somnambulist dashing madly over their rooftops. Alfred Kubin’s monsters threaten to burst forth at any minute.

Flights of fancy aside, these really are stunning images. Dark, peculiar, and unexpected. I’m not sure what lends them this eerie quality, especially as a range of different building types are depicted, delineated, or photographed. Yet all of Poelzig’s structures share this tenebrous aspect, whether one takes his elegant cinema palaces, ominous monuments, or frightening industrial complexes (see the acid factory and gas works). Great stuff.

Click any of the following thumbnails to see the images in higher resolution, and scroll through to see more. Enjoy!

Continue reading

Hans Arp and El Lissitzky, The “isms” of art (1924)

.
Monoskop recently posted a scan of El Lissitzky and Hans [Jean] Arp’s Kunstismen (1924), translated roughly as The “Isms” of Art. It is reproduced here in its entirety, page by page, or in
full-text pdf format.

The original text runs in three parallel columns separated by thick dividers, very much in a constructivist style. Each column is in a different language: first German, then French, then English. Originally, I was planning on pasting the text from these in the body of the post. But I decided against it because, upon further examination, the translations are simply awful. German might have been a natural second language for Lissitzky; French and English were clearly not his strong points.

So instead, I’m posting an article that came out shortly afterward by the Hungarian art critic Ernő [sometimes Germanized as Ernst] Kállai, translated by John Bátki. Kállai’s work is not well known in the Anglophone world, though I did rely on one of his articles fairly extensively in an article on architectural photography. Here he summarizes the rapid succession of “isms” in art from 1914-1924 and astutely observes that this period ferment was then drawing to a close.

The twilight of ideologies

Ernő [Ernst] Kállai
“Ideológiák alkonya”
365 (April 20, 1925)

.
Translated from the original Hungarian by John Bátki.
Between Two Worlds: Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

Kunst kommt von Können. [Art comes from ability.]

The saying is very old and a commonplace, and has even acquired some ill repute; still, it is high time we pay heed to it and, more important, put it to use.

The age of ferment, of “-isms,” is over. The possibilities of creative work have become endless, but at the same time all paths have become obstructed by the barbed wire barriers of ideologies and programs. It takes a man indeed to try and fight one’s way from beginning to end, across this horrible cacophony of concepts. Not that all of these theoretical skirmishes, manifestoes, and conclusions for the record were not indispensable for the evolution of ideas, or were incomprehensible. Even the wildest flights of pathos, the most doctrinaire stylistic catechisms had their own merit. It was all part of the ferment caused by Impressionism, and the infighting of the various expressive, destructive, and constructive schools.

But all of this turmoil is now finally over. Our awareness of the diverse possibilities has at last been clarified, so that today we are witnessing a time of professional consolidation and absorption in objective, expert work. This holds true for the entire front: the areas of political, tendentious art and Proletkult as well as those of Cubism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Neoclassicism, and Neorealism — and also in criticism. The most extreme, most exacting measure of individual vocation and achievement is that which is being employed by each and every school or camp toward its own. The process of selection has begun, and its sole essential guiding principle is this: what is the artist capable of accomplishing in his own field, through his own particular means and message.

Continue reading

Erich Mendelsohn, Red Banner Textile Factory in Leningrad (1926)

Charlottenburg, Germany
July 11th, 1926

.
We have completed the early project for Stuttgart. The enclosed sheet shows its directness as a spatial organism. To alter it, i.e., to eliminate or add anything, will call for new work and a new design.

So it will be better to push it through as it is and thus bring it to life.

This evening I am traveling to Stuttgart via Nuremberg. We are doing without pictures — which are only attempts to deceive untrained eyes — but are having a colored model prepared straight away. K. is bringing it on Wednesday morning. Until then I will…put my iron in the fire. On Wednesday I am lunching with Bonatz and dining with him at Hildebrandt’s. The omens are favorable, though I cannot believe we shall triumph without a struggle.

But I have a good conscience with regard to this project, which is half the battle.

Still no final decision from Leningrad. My telegram in reply to the renewed Russian invitation is so far unanswered. In this I see neither a good nor a bad omen, but am simply remaining completely indifferent to the way things are developing, which is hard enough to control from close to and quite impossible at a distance.

The endless space of Russia makes dream and aspiration — idea and action — impenetrable in the negative sense, infinite in the positive. [my emphasis — RW]

Even having to reckon with the reality of the few months when building can be done in Leningrad upsets numerical calculations and shifts their emphasis. The constants remain, but the indices explode, because the Russians are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their inner value, and their necessary correlation.

Meanwhile speculation continues about our possible handling of the whole project development. My studio is today a complete forum for statical computations, not, as it is generally, a trapeze of intuition or a firm springboard of organized planning.

At the same time H. telephoned in order to hold out a 90 per cent certain prospect of the Mosse block being realized. All three blocks are to be built at once and my negotiations with the building authorities must be taken up “at once.” People coax me into making compromises, without permitting themselves to notice that they are prepared to sell me down the river at the appropriate moment. So it is necessary to be doubly watchful and unyielding.

If all this comes together, holidays and mountain lakes become unthinkable.

Leningrad, USSR
August 1st, 1926

.
The presentation of the project in Moscow has caused the Textile Trust the greatest difficulties and disagreeable cuts, additions, and mixtures — in short a fine flower of compromise…

They want to create a prototype on the basis of the latest international experience, but they entrust the incomplete picture to the hand of a bad copyist.

They make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but they are stuck fast in the suburbs of Königsberg. And all the possibilities are here, as you know.

But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.

Continue reading

Hannes Meyer and Le Corbusier, alternative visions for the Palace of the League of Nations (1926-1927)

The League of Nations competition, 1927: Contemporary architecture comes to the front

Sigfried Giedion
Space, Time, and
Architecture
(1938)

.
The 1927 international competition for the League of Nations Palace at Geneva is one of the most illuminating episodes in the history of contemporary architecture. For the first time present-day architects challenged the routine of the Academy in a field which it had dominated for generations, the design of m0numentally impressive state buildings. The Academy won this particular engagement, but its victory injured the prestige of its methods.

The conventional routines showed themselves incapable of producing architectonic solutions to problems of modern organization. The proof of that helplessness did much to break down popular resistance to modern treatments.

It was plain from the start that, among the 337 projects submitted, one — the work of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret — was peculiarly important and significant. Later developments verified this first judgment.

What made it important: It unexpectedly forced high officials from everywhere in Europe to consider seriously a kind of architecture which they had always dismissed as aesthetic trifling. For decades there had been an established style for the stately official building — an international style that hardly varied from country to country. Custom had made its validity seem guaranteed for all time, and the official element automatically turned to it when the matter of their Geneva setting came up. The scheme that came to the forefront, however, shockingly disregarded the stylistic approach in order to tackle specific problems.

The idea of a league of nations is one which we encounter time and again in history. Its realization, however — the actual establishment of a neutral center where representatives of every country might meet to maintain the equilibrium of the world — was a completely new thing and brought a highly complex institution into being. Its varied functions required a division of its headquarters into three main parts: a secretariat, where the daily work of its administration could he carried on; a meeting place for committees of various sorts whose sessions occurred intermittently (the Conseil and the Grandes Commissions); and a hall for the yearly sitting of the Assemblee generale. Besides this, a great library was needed in the whole complex.

The outstanding fact about the scheme submitted by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret is that they found the most compact and best-conceived solution to these needs.

The Secretariat, the great administration building near the entrance to the grounds, was given a slender wing which paralleled the lake. The rows of horizontally sliding windows gave every clerk or typist an unimpeded view over water and mountains. A roof garden was available for rest periods. The building had a ferroconcrete skeleton and seerned to hover above its site on supporting pillars set back of the curtain walls. Le Corbusier had used the same treatment, a short time before and on a smaller scale, in his Villa Cook at Boulogne-sur-Seine.

The great Assembly Building was moved forward to the lake front. Two huge expanses of glass made up its side walls. The Grande Salle des Assemblees, meant for twenty-six hundred auditors, was designed with the needs of a large audience as the determining factors. It had to be possible to hear and see perfectly from every one of its seats. To ensure this, the ceiling was given a nearly parabolic curvature. This was on the advice of the specialist, Gustave Lyon. But the ceiling is not simply introduced into the design as an acoustical aid:

it is taken up into and influences the whole form of the hall. Le Corbusier converts what was offered simply as a technical expedient into aesthetic means. Le Corbusier went a step further in his project for the United Nations building in New York, 1947. There he included the floor in the total curvature of the space. This would have been the most inspiring interior space of our period if its realization had not been made impossible by certain political interests. The later development of the hall by others shows no trace of Le Corbusier’s inspired sketch; it is merely an enormous igloo.

In the treatment of the ceiling Le Corbusier unconsciously followed the example of earlier men. Thus Davioud in the seventies used a parabolic ceiling in a project for a theater of a capacity of five thousand. The Adler and Sullivan Auditorium of 1887 in Chicago — the finest assembly hall of its period — is similarly modeled by considerations of acoustics.

Le Corbusier’s plans show a thoroughly considered treatment of the traffic problem. The problem was acute when the General Assembly was in session, and it had to be possible to move great streams of cars in short order. The rear entrance of the Assembly Building accordingly took its form from an everyday solution to the same difficulty — the sheltered loading platform set between two transit lines. But once again a purely utilitarian development is transmuted into an expressive means. The development of such a means of expression can be seen thirty years later in the transformation of the architectonic articulation of the flat platform roof of the League of Nations project into the upward curving concave shell that rises majestically above the façade of the Secretariat Building at Chandigarh. Continue reading

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.

Interiors.

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. Continue reading