Modernist German Architecture
“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
There are two paradoxes to think about when looking at photographs of modernist architecture. The first is that the early modernists, the disciples of the International Style especially, were authoritarian in their demand that the only angle that could be used was 90˚. That was partly a reaction against the florid excesses of Art Nouveau and the unnecessary adornments of neo-classicism; clean, rigid lines were a proper response in the age of the engineered machine. But to capture that idea on film photographers had to look for dramatic angles. The flat perspective of a façade shot front on revealed nothing of the architect’s intentions. The second is that this generation of architects was the first to consider buildings as spaces utilized by people. This was an era when architects like Wells Coates believed an apartment was a place of refuge and it ought to be white with minimal, preferably no opportunity for the resident to decorate it with furniture or objects. Similarly, an office cluttered with distractions was no place to think. Photographs of buildings that included too many people proved the point. You couldn’t see how a train station was supposed to work if the photograph showed a crowded platform at peak hour. Deserted it suggested a transit place of rapid and convenient movement.
Around the turn of the century a significant break occurred in the way architecture was photographed. In the 19th century photographers tended to choose the point of view that best explained the building. Monuments tended to be photographed straight on, from the point of view that they were supposed to be approached from, If a more imaginative photographer wanted to highlight the emotional importance of the structure it could be shot low down from an angle and made to dominate everything around it. The change in the 1910s came about partly because architects began to think of space as a mutable concept; their finished drawings didn’t have to reflect reality and they made much more use of dramatic perspective. Around the same time German camera companies like Leitz and Voigtlander were experimenting with small, hand held cameras with wide angles and apertures. They allowed photographers to get into positions denied to their predecessors who had to be able to mount a heavy box on a tripod. It’s no surprise that some of the most dramatic architectural photographs of the early modernist era come out of Germany and Austria, the birthplaces of Alfred Loos, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Even before the Bauhaus began articulating theories on what photography should visualize, photographers were taking a cue from architects.
German modernism of the 1920s and ‘30s can’t be disassociated from Nazism. For one, the Nazis embraced modernist architecture more than any other government – the only possible rival being fascist Italy. German modernist architecture reached its high point with something that was never built; Albert Speer’s reconstruction of Berlin. Had that happened all the principles regarding function, space and human usage would have crystallised. As it was, some of the best German architects were Jewish but even for those who weren’t yet were opposed to the regime, the ways in which modernism could be easily adapted to suit dictatorships exposed a critical flaw in the thinking. Fundamentally, the rigid and tightly controlled designs suited fascism. Where an architect imagined pace allowing flow of movement, a fascist could see the same as a means of control.
Another connection to consider is the number of buildings destroyed or so badly damaged during the war they were either lost or substantially reconstructed. It is easy to forget that the lost heritage of cities like Dresden or Berlin went beyond the medieval and Renaissance eras and included what, just a couple of decades earlier, had been some of the most contemporary designs in the world. One of the most idiosyncratic was the Tannenberg War Memorial, designed by Walter and Johannes Kruger. At first glance it looks like a medieval fortress but it was built between 1924 and ‘27 as a tomb of unknown soldiers from the First World War. Hitler later authorised it as the mausoleum of his predecessor, von Hindenburg. The Krugers were originally inspired by Stonehenge but also by two decisive battles that took place on the site, one in the First World War, the other 500 years earlier, when Polish and Lithuanian soldiers had defeated the Teutonic Knights. Modernism didn’t always mean a determined severance with the past. National identity and heritage being symbiotic, architects across Europe turned to historical evidence in the landscape for inspiration. In 1945 retreating German soldiers mined the monument, destroying most of it. The Polish government finished off the job in 1950 and only foundations remain.
All of the images in this post are real photo postcards from the mid 1930s. the photographers most likely had studios in the cities and though unknown and forgotten today were sufficiently aware of contemporary aesthetics to know how modern buildings should be photographed. To a certain extent that involved fictionalizing them, using wide angles to give unreal perspectives and removing as many people as possible from the scene.