Good old days?

2009.03.22

I’m possibly the last person to know about this (wouldn’t be the first time) but last year the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive) put around 100,000 images onto Wikimedia commons, for us all to wonder at.  A link here into the page giving an overview by year (this was initially a bit tricky to find, I thought).

I’ve picked out a few images (below) which all feature architecture (since this is an architecture blog), but actually the buildings are perhaps the least fascinating element. So far I’ve only skimmed through 1919 to 1939, but the overriding impression of utter chaos, civil unrest and the rising tide of Fascism is disturbing, to say the least.

Photography is of course a self selective process, or at least used to be in pre-digital times, so is perhaps as much a record here of what was considered important then. Add to this the not inconsiderable factor of being filtered through the ‘random survival’ of time – war destruction, political repression, accidental loss.  I sometimes wonder whether in a few hundred years absolutely every digital image will survive (perhaps recorded on a small chip that can be fitted in your ear, say) or whether absolutely every digital image will be lost.  Or at least unreadable. Much like Betamax videos.

Mendelsohn’s Mossehaus, 1923:

The Schloss, 1919, I guess at the conclusion of the revolution:

Einsteinturm, 1928

The Europahaus, 1931:

Poelzig’s Babylon Kino, under construction, 1929:

Living with your car? Surely a bad idea…

Potsdamerplatz, 1932:

(A comment left by Tamar, which I’ve moved up here:

The Potsdamer Platz picture with the ads is very interesting:
“Vote Hitler” (on the two signs under “Chlorodont, White Teeth”) and all of that above a confectionery (Conditorei). This is the poster in the middle:
“Schluß jetzt, wir wählen Hitler!” (we had enough! we vote for Hitler)

Next to Hitler, “Vote for a Person, not for a Party”, and since everything is so symbolic in this picture, you can also see a sign for “vegetarische Kueche”

The same building, I would imagine few month before that, with film posters – link).

The Reichstag, before fire, bombing, abandonment, reconstruction, reuse, reunification, reconstruction (again), and the return of the parliament:

Mendelsohn’s Columbashaus, Potsdamerplatz, with campaign image of Hindenberg.  Later to be war damaged, then demolished:

Oberbaum Brucke, 1932 (blocked by the wall during the city’s partition, rebuilt in the 1990s by Santiago Calatrava)

The morning of the Reichstag fire:

Construction of the Reich Aviation Ministry (still standing, next door to the Topography of Terror site)

Enough already.  I could keep going for hours, but will stop here. Perhaps I’ll do a proper trawl through at some point (it’s only 100,000) and make sure I have the best ones…

No business like Schau-business.

2008.10.22

About a year ago I visited the city of Wroclaw in Poland, which as everyone knows (I didn’t) used to be called Breslau, and was the capital of the German province of Silesia*.

A friend took me to see the Jahrhunderthalle, a vast concrete framed auditorium opened in 1913, and now known as the Centennial Hall.

Kaiser Wilhelm II turned up to attend part of the celebrations there that year, but at the last moment refused to go in, partly because he didn’t like the ’socialist’ theme of the earlier opening event, but it was thought also because he didn’t like the unadorned ‘modern’ design, which failed to pay deference to the monarchy. Ring any bells, in relation to a current British Prince?

I knew nothing about it all this at the time, but cut to a year later, and I’m halfway through a rather excellent book called German Architecture for a Mass Audience. The author sets out an alternative view of the history of 20th century german architecture; looking at how key buildings were built for a new audience – ‘the masses’ – as opposed to a middle or upper class elite. Seen from this angle, a theme runs from early modernism and expressionism, through, gulp, the architecture of the Third Reich, and on through postwar modernism, taking in religious, commercial and secular public buildings along the way. In short, ithe book proposes that “…the founding moment of high modern German architecture cannot be detached from the mass culture in which it was a willing partipant.”

Anyway, two buildings discussed in detail are the Jahrhunderthalle, and Hans Poelzig’s Grosses Schauspielhaus in Berlin, the loss of which I’ve previously mourned.

On the face of it, the two buildings have nothing in common. The first, a vast exposed concrete arched structure celebrating the limits of engineering, by Max Berg, in Breslau.

The second, a highly decorated expressionist reworking of an existing building, heavily reliant on lighting to achieve its interior effect, built a few years later by Hans Poelzig, in Berlin.

However, Poelzig was responsible for designing every other aspect of the celebrations surrounding Berg’s hall, including buildings and landscaping, and had himself designed an early reinforced concrete building in Breslau two years previously, which still stands:

Also, Poelzig’s client for the Grosses Schauspielhaus was Max Reinhardt, a theatre impresario who had organised the Breslau pageant. It’s also worth remembering that a world war had occurred between the building of the two; by necessity, the Schauspielhaus had to rely on the use of plaster decoration and clever use of light.

Most annoyingly, at the time I visited I knew nothing of either the Wroclaw Poelzig building, or that a rare surviving department store by Erich Mendelsohn also survives there, adding another Berlin/Wroclaw connection.

By the way, I’m indebted for the above image and for the interior shot of the Jahrhunderthaalle to wouterschenk on Flickr.

*Footnote

I’m well aware of the sensitivity of throwing around phrases like ‘used to be in Germany’ in this complex historical context. To be more accurate, it was a part of the Germanic state of Prussia, a fuller explanation available here, or better still, consult a professional historian.

Erich Mendelsohn: the Mossehaus & the Metalworkers Union Building

2008.05.01

Also see other post for Mendelsohn’s Einsteinturm in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.

Today we’re pretty used to the idea of putting modernist (usually high-tech) elements into buildings from previous eras; Foster at the Reichstag, I M Pei at the Deutsche Historical Museum, to name a couple of Berlin examples.

But in the early twentieth century the idea would have been almost unheard of. So how groundbreaking must Mendelsohn’s Mossehaus have been?

The original building of 1900-1903, by Cremer & Wolffenstein, was a neoclassical sandstone affair, the corner of which was badly damaged by post first world war rioting (it must have been pretty extreme rioting, but such were the conditions in Germany at the time, I guess).

Mendelsohn retained most of the building’s main facades, but completely rebuilt the corner, and added two/three additional stories, in a totally original, streamlined expressionist style.

What was also radical for its time was the focus on the corner of the building, seen by Mendelsohn as the focus of movement; at the junction of streets, as opposed to a ’static’ entrance in the middle of a facade.

Oddly, section of ‘original’ facade on the southern elevation which should date from 1903 has been replaced by a recent, bland, office curtain wall. Perhaps this part was lost in WWII and the whole elevation rebuilt, including the Mendelsohn additional stories?

Elevation on Jerusalemer Strasse

Elevation on Schützenstrasse – more recent, but why?

Following the Einsteinturm, Mendelsohn became hugely successful, running Germany’s largest architectural practice between the wars, with commissions including department stores in Stuttgart, Chemnitz and Berlin (Potsdamer Platz, demolished after the war).

It’s interesting that the Mossehaus was Mendelsohn’s first major commission following the Einsteinturm, and the expressionist ideas are evident. But by the time he was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s (he was a Jewish, successful, modernist architect, so not exactly popular with the Third Reich) he was producing buildings that we would recognise as entirely modernist. The Metal Workers Union building (Industriegewerkschaft Metall), at the southern end of Alte Jakobstrasse, is one of these.

Unlike the Mossehaus, which is currently occupied by Total, who don’t like you even peering into the entrance area, reception staff at the Union building allow access to the entrance area and main staircase (if you ask nicely).

Annoyingly, the staircase was completely scaffolded when I went; I’ll drop in again soon and replace the images with better ones.

The original commission was for a substantially larger building over two blocks, linked by a bridge; someone at Manchester Uni has done a quite cool video for the building.

The building has just been completely refurbished, and is classic ‘streamline moderne’ – long, long brass handrails, strip windows and expanses of white render. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lobby bears a striking resemblance to the interiors of his pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea – Mendelsohn’s only major building in England. The spiral staircase, with its sweeping handrails and vertical lighting system suspended throughout its height, seems near identical.

staircase.jpg Bexhill

And then Berlin…

Rear elevation, which fittingly enough looks out over Libeskind’s Jewish museum directly to the north.

Alte Jakobstrasse elevation. An unsettling image on show in the atrium shows the Union symbol replaced with a swastika in the same circle design during the 1930s.

Oddly, the atrium information boards also describe Mendelsohn’s Bexhill pavilion erroneously as being in Bexley (a part of south east London, in which it definitely isn’t).

Erich Mendelsohn and the Einsteinturm

2008.02.12

See also post on two other Mendelsohn buildings in Berlin – the Mossehaus and the Metalworkers Union building, here.

When you actually see them ‘in the flesh’ for the first time, some seminal modern buildings are a disappointment. Buildings hardly ever look like they do in photos, and the sun’s not always shining (especially here in Berlin).

Not so with the Einsteinturm (Einstein tower), probably the best known work by architect Erich Mendelsohn. The tower, actually a solar observatory, forms part of a cluster of other observatories and related research buildings on a wooded hill on the edge of Potsdam. The Mendelsohn building is the last one you reach, after passing the various much larger Victorian structures (Wilhelmisch, in Germany?). When you finally catch site of it, it seems tiny; an effect magnified by the fact that it’s lower down the hill, and that the lowest level is set into the ground. Small but perfectly formed though. It’s as if the rest of the site was built for the use of ‘great men of science’ and the Einsteinturm for tiny fairy folk.

Einstein tower

The telescope itself has a vertical and a horizontal component; the vertical part is housed in the tower, with the horizontal part running the length of the whole building. This lower section of the building is partly buried, with its windows poking out of the turf, adding to its hobbit-like qualities. No need to describe its technical aspects further, as there’s an excellent simulation here (what did we all do before Youtube?).

The structure is actually brick with a cement render covering, rather than the solid concrete which Mendelsohn claims was his original intention. The overall effect though is quite unearthly, in an early sci-fi, Flash Gordon kind of way. It’s also a surprisingly pretty building.

Einstein tower rear view

The tower was completely refurbished in the late 1990s and is now once again in use as a solar observatory. Access to the interior is therefore limited – you can visit by appointment on certain Saturdays in winter only, but can walk up to and around it pretty much anytime during the day (staff at the gatehouse to the site were friendly and obviously used to archi-tourists).

Some fine shots by velvetairProjects here at Flickr, including a photo of the cut through model.

Like Hans Poelzig, Mendelsohn’s career spanned from early expressionism to international modernism. As well as the Einsteinturm, his key surviving buildings in Berlin are the Kino Universum (now the Schaubühne), the alteration of the Mossehaus, and most notably the Metal Workers Union Building – see my other post for these last two.