Day 50: The Deutscher Werkbund – Making Germany Prettier For 105 Years

originally published February 19, 2012

You know, if it wasn’t for those pesky uptight goose-steppers showing up in the mid 1930s, the Germans might have experienced a peerless renaissance of inventive art. As it stands, the influence of pre-Nazi German art and architecture is still impressive. Aesthetically, some of it is nothing short of incredible.

It all started with the Deutscher Werkbund, a collective of German artists, architects and designers. They hooked up in Munich in 1907, all thanks to this guy:

Hermann Muthesius is notable for being one of the few people in history to have done something useful with a philosophy degree. He grabbed a degree in architecture, then spun both disciplines with his art history training and came up with some pretty mind-rocking results.

Hermann had studied something called the English Arts & Crafts movement. Unfortunately this had almost nothing to do with macaroni pictures, but was more about incorporating traditional craftsmanship, and medieval, folk or romantic styles of decoration into architecture and design. Hermann brought these fresh-cooked ideas from his time in London into the German art world for its inhabitants to feast upon.

He established the Deutscher Werkbund (literally translated as ‘The German Work Buns’, I think) with twelve architects and twelve business firms. Hermann looked around at the state of German architecture and thought he could tweak it into something awesome.

In 1914 the Work Buns put together an impressive showing for the Cologne Exhibition. Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion was one of the showcase pieces of the event and, despite containing nothing but some stairs, a waterfall and a trip-out room with a kaleidoscope projector, and despite the building looking a little like a multicolored boob, it was an impressive artistic achievement.

The Werkbund Exhibition opened on May 15, and was slated to run through the end of October until the outbreak of World War I curtailed the event. It shut down in early August, and its buildings, which included a model theatre and model factory, were torn down.

Perhaps the Work Buns’ most famous member was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies is known as one of the inventors of Modern architecture. I know his name in the field of architecture is probably like Buddy Holly’s in the field of rock ‘n roll history, but I’ve looked at a few of Mies’ creations, and they tend to look like rectangles. Dull glass-and-steel rectangles. I’m sure this is philistine-speak, but what is so impressive about a guy who contributed something like this to the Manhattan skyline?

Alright, enough of that guy. In the first three decades of the 20th century, Germany was all about expressionism – it infiltrated their literature, their visual arts, and their movies. Seriously, if someone suggests going to see a silent expressionist film from 1920’s Germany, resist the urge to run screaming in the other direction. The Weimer-era Germans produced some of the most bad-ass visual images ever committed to celluloid.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Just see this damn movie.

Back to the Work Buns. Another prominent architect within the group was Peter Behrens. Pete was an elder who taught a lot of the modernist pioneers, including Mies. He designed everything from skyscrapers to clocks to fonts. Of course, he’s not to be confused with the Peter Behrens of the German music scene, known for such magnificent melodies as 1991’s “Der Purple-Lederhosen Lambada” (which I assume is the forbidden dance of freakish, Tinky-Winkian love).

Theodor Fischer was the first president of the Deutscher Werkbund, and one of its co-founders. His style seems to be more classically German, with rounded walls and expressive details. (also, really hated cameras)

But he loved to frown at them.

Josef Hoffman, or “the Crazy Austrian” as he was (probably) known, was another co-founder of the group. Hoffman dealt with some more abstract ideas – and here’s what I’m liking about the Work Buns. You had Hermann pushing the Arts & Crafts school of architecture, Ludwig “The Rectangle” Mies van der Rohe, and this guy, who was doing his own thing. This wasn’t a collective aiming to push a particular school of thought into the mainstream, this was a mix-tape of varying styles, simply striving to make German architecture into something important.

The above picture is of the Palais Stoclet, a mansion Hoffman designed in Brussels. The thing looks like a style stew of art deco, gothic and modernism, and it makes me look at the subrbi-yucky box I live in and grumble with disgust.

The Deutscher Werkbund pushed another exhibition, this one in Berlin, in 1924. Not wanting to wait another decade, they threw one together in Stuttgart in 1927, which included something called the Weissenhof Estate. The Weissenhof was made up of 21 buildings containing 60 dwellings, designed by seventeen of the Work Buns’ finest architects.

The Weissenhof Estate featured mostly modernist architecture, specifically the International Style, which focused on balance instead of predictable symmetry, and an expression of volume rather than mass (whatever that means). In skyscraper form, the result appears sterile and uninteresting to me. But this Estate would have been pretty incredible to behold – unfortunately only eleven buildings remain, mostly thanks to another war.

The Werkbund threw together one more exhibition, in Breslau, 1929, before getting shut down by the Nazis in 1938. Perhaps Hitler wanted to focus all architectural efforts within the Reich toward designing their Space-Nazi Moon Base; the Wikipedia article isn’t very clear on this, and the timeline on the Werkbund’s official site is in German.

The group was reestablished in 1949, and to this day they promote and commemorate artistic advances in the (mostly modernist) field of German architecture. Their first post-war exhibition was in Cologne. In 1952, they decided to develop a mascot. Unfortunately, the best they could come up with was (and I’m not making this up) the Werkbund Cock.

Speaking from a city whose valued architecture is rather scarce, I can appreciate what the Germans were trying to promote a century ago. In a world that was growing increasingly more industrial and far less personal, the Deutscher Werkbund was trying to remind people that architecture matters. And it does. Even if it’s just a glass boob-thing, built for no other reason than to show that such a thing can exist, architecture as an art form cannot be forgotten.

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