Without doubt Germany has produced some of the most important architects of the modern era. For this reason, we want to devote a small set of posts to reflections on some the more important exponents.
We begin with Peter Behrens… 🙂
Although one of the most important and influential architects of the modern era, most people would be hard pressed to name more the one of the buildings by architect and designer Peter Behrens (14 April 1868 – 27 February 1940). If they could name one, and even this is not certain, perhaps it would be his AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin (pictured above). Although he is less well known than other architects—perhaps because his style was not easy to summarise and, indeed, even the Turbine Factory itself is difficult to appreciate without an understanding of its historical context—his achievements have been significant, and his importance for the development of architecture might best be understood by looking at some of the young architects (all of whom have become famous) who worked in his studio around 1910, such as: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
Largely unknown to many people, Behrens designed Belin’s Alexanderplatz, perhaps one of Germany’s most iconic and well known public places.
Born in Hamburg, Behrens moved to Munich in 1890 where he began his career as a painter, illustrator and bookbinder. In these years, he was part of Munich’s art scene, and worked in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style that was popular at the time. In 1899, Behrens was invited by the Grand-duke Ernst-Ludwig of Hessen to the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony, where he was offered the opportunity to build his own house.
The resulting building—Behrens’ first work of architecture—is deeply indebted to Art Nouveau, but it is more remarkable for the way in which it deviates from Art Nouveau norms. Many consider its more austere, stripped down style to be Behrens’ first step away from decorative styles and towards the modernism that he eventually helped to inspire.
In 1907, Behrens teamed up with ten other artists and designers and a group of twelve companies to create the Deutscher Werkbund, an organisation that was deliberately designed to compete with the English Arts and Crafts movement, and to improve the status of German design and industry. As a result of this organisation, Behrens was employed by AEG as an artistic consultant and called upon to design everything from the company’s logos and typefaces to its product design, effectively making Behrens the world’s first industrial designer.
(image: wikipedia / Karsten Killian)
From this alliance in 1909 came the AEG Turbine Factory. Once again, the design did not entirely eschew traditional architecture, with solid gable ends and corner walls recalling an abstracted classical temple. However, the building’s industrial nature required a significantly different approach, in both its spatial and functional requirements, to anything that established architectural styles had to offer. As a result, steel and glass predominate in the building’s 123-meter long shell.
From the AEG Turbine Factory, it is not difficult to trace a lineage to Walter Gropius’ design for the Fagus Factory four years later, and then onward to the rest of the modern movement. Still relatively young, Behrens went on to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and the Prussian Academy of Arts. Though he never replicated the success of some of his protégés, his style also continued to evolve—ironically, 19 years after he created the Deutscher Werkbund to compete with English designers, Behrens designed the “New Ways” house in Northampton, considered by some to be the UK’s first Modernist house.
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