In 1927, the Nazis, ambitious for power and early simmering with racist hatred for all things un-German, didn’t know what to make of the shining white city on a hill in Stuttgart. So utterly alien to the fascists was the blinding bright geometry of the houses and apartment buildings that they could only cast about to find the most insulting comparison possible–something not European, something “primitive,” something like an “Arab village.” Driven by their overriding desire for Teutonic authenticity, the political party that left no occasion to ridicule modernism unmarked, distributed a postcard of the new architecture with Arabs, nomads, photomontaged onto the winding streets.
The city of Stuttgart, ignoring its local traditionalists, decided to take a modern direction in its Die Wohnung (The Home) Exhibition of 1927. Sponsored by the Deutscher Werkbund, the full name of the exhibition was Die Weisssenhofsiedlung or the Weissenhof, Estate, a showcase for the efforts and talents of Europe’s most advanced builders was ridiculed in a deliberately misreading of the simplicity, characterizing clarity as ignorance. Although the Nazis, in the mid-twenties lacked a coherent position on modern art, the poisonous ideas of Paul Schultze-Namburg were already in circulation and his antipathy towards rootless nomadic modern architecture provided an available critique powered by racism.
The project, headed by architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), was marked as un-German and the Nazis would not forget the affront of the Weissenhof settlement. They had to wait only a few years for the pleasure of closing the Bauhaus, also headed by Mies by 1933, and had plans for the Weissenhof which they purchased. Revenge was sweet but brief for the Nazis. Considered a significant landmark in Modernist architecture, the project in Stuttgart was subjected to numerous indignities under the regime of Adolf Hitler. Towards the end of the Second World War, the Weissenhof was partially destroyed. Today, the site is considered a World Heritage treasure, its buildings are being slowly restored, the vision of their creators shining through and beyond the dark memories of Nazi projects. It is saying a great deal to note that the functionalist moment for Nazi architecture–its high point of innovation–was the concentration camp, the built environment that was an assembly line of industrial murder, while the Weissenhof Estate was a more modest achievement, an experiment in building modern housing for middle and lower class people.
Germany had been late. Late to becoming a nation, late to the great game of Empire, late to industrialization, and late to urbanism. Berlin, and otherwise modern city, was a city of renters. People did not aspire to own homes, they were crammed into tiny apartments, stuffed into attics and shuffled down to basements. For decades, the housing shortage had been exacerbated by the diaspora from country to town and after the Great War, people streamed into industrial towns looking for work. The problem of lack of decent housing was acute but the question was what kind of housing should people have? Post-war architecture in Germany was highly politicized, torn between progressive socialist parties that dreamed of utopian cities in the service of the working class and the more traditional contingent that wanted to honor historical precedents, i.e., middle-class domestic needs.
With hindsight, it is possible to see the conceptual link between socialism and modernism made by the Nazis who connected modernity to years of post-war class unrest and demonstrations in the streets. But for the young architects, the question of modern housing was a career making opportunity. By the Twenties, Mies van der Rohe was a chancer, a comer in architectural circles, well known in Europe and in Germany. He was part of every significant organization in modern architecture, from the Deutscher Werkbund to the group of ten Berlin architects, known as The Ring, all dedicated to the promotion of the tenets of New Objectivity to architecture. The Ring was under constant attack from traditional architects but the Ring was more than capable of defending itself in the press. Their program, such as it was, for Neues Bauen was relatively simple–functionalism and straightforward matter of fact forms, determined by construction methods and technological advances.
Hovering behind the scenes, off stage, was Adolf Loos (1870-1933) of Vienna, whose book, Ornament and Crime (1910), provided the manifesto for New Architecture, which would be stripped of ornament and decoration, and emphasize the unadorned “surface” of a geometrically formed block-like structure. But the road to Modernism was not as straightforward as the design itself. To the nervous bourgeois, the idea that the built environment could structure society was an alarming one and that perception would ultimately derail modernism in Germany, which ironically, was the nation responsible for the development of modernity in architecture.
Take for example the Dächerkrieg (or Roof War). The Roof War roiled Berlin for four years, from 1924 when architect Bruno Taut, part of The Ring group, was hired and designed flat roofs for a row of buildings in the Zehlendorf section of Berlin, in 1928. The street of Am Fischtal became a microcosm of the debate with a contrasting row of peaked roofs and elaborate doorways glaring at the plain white exteriors designed by Taut. Today, the rows of contending houses still face each other across the street, co-existing in the peace of history. At the time, however, feelings ran too high to attribute the emotions of the opponents to their attitudes towards roofs. In times of social and economic unrest, the strangest objects or topics can become vehicles for political arguments. Fueled by ugly racist and nationalistic sentiments, the roof was politicized and its slant or lack thereof symbolized a power struggle between left and right. But in the mid-1920s, the forces of the pitched roofs seemed to be fighting a rear-guard battle. Modern architecture appeared to be not just the style of the present but the approach that would also mold the future.
The Great War had interrupted the development of modern architecture, which had been well underway before 1914. The idea of Machine Age architecture, or functionalism, was a credo that can be dated from the practice of Peter Behrens (1886-1940) and his apprentices, which included Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. But for the early years of the twentieth century, the architecture of the Machine was more of a dream than a reality. There were only two truly modern buildings in Germany when the Great War broke out. The first and the one that is still extant is the Fagus Factory (1911) by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his partner, Walter Meyer, in Bonn. A factory with a curtain wall of glass, the shoe last factory, was an advance, in terms of modernity, upon Behrens’ Turbine Factory (1908). Sadly, the curtain walled building Gropius designed for the Cologne exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund was destroyed during the War, but its precedent loomed large in the architectural community.
The impact of Gropius upon the German architects was enormous, destroying the lingering of the influences of the exuberant modernism of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who was far too fond of decoration. After the War, there was a pause in building as Germany recovered, gathered its collective soul and began to move forward. The German artists now had to permission and the financial opportunity to build Machine Age architecture. After 1925, the financial situation of the Weimar Republic was at last on a firm footing, America had come through with some aid thanks to the Dawes Plan, and municipalities, convinced of the need to build new urban housing for a new world, now had to means and the will to follow through for the people who needed a place to live. Enter Neues Bauen. At last, the new Germany could be built and, in 1927, with the most famous of the inter-war experiments, the city of Stuttgart would be crowned by the “village” (siedlung) of white buildings (weissenhof). The Weissenhofsiedlung was more than a village, it was an exhibition, a showcase for new building techniques, new technological advances in structure, and a strong statement about how people could live in a modern world.
To his credit, Mies allowed each architect to design with freedom, as long as his rules of flat roofs and white as the color of all the buildings and, of course, no ornamentation, were followed. He also determined where each building would be sited, giving himself the place of pride–dead center and at the top of the hill–for his own apartment block. As a generous gesture, Mies gave the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) first choice as to where his house would be placed. Like all modernist architects of the period, the artists of the Weissenhof thought in terms of mass housing, where personal statements and non-rational shapes would be inappropriate for prefabricated and predetermined building materials. The modern architect designed according to the concept of “rationality” and standardization that led to typification. While Mies posited the need for Typisierung (the formation of a repeatable type), he allowed for “freedom of usage.” As he said in 1926, “The exterior shell of things, the crystallization of life processes remains standing..and exerts its influence long after its kernel has been hollowed out.”
The distinction between inside and outside, the domestic and private and the public and exterior facing aspect of a building was one that Austrian architect Adolf Loos had written about at some length. The public face of the modernist building was a series of sharp-edged blocks, free of decoration, painted while and undisturbed by errant roofs, but the interior of these shells, the space Loos considered to be “female,” could be personalized by the owner. In his apartment block, Mies adopted another practice of Loos: the notion of the back of the home as facing a private garden, contrasting nature–private, facing inward–to culture–the unrelenting white wall, rising as a barrier, protecting the owners from the eyes on the street.
To the public, unaware of the architectural dialogue which had been thriving for a decade, the Weissenhof project would have been a revelation. The apartment block of Mies loomed above the works of the other architects, presiding, as it were, over the “colony,” a group of buildings he regarded as “Medieval” in its clustering. The exterior of his horizontal building was uninterrupted, and Mies kept the horizontal ribbon of windows flat to the wall, denying the entryways any emphasis that might break the purity of the line of the flat white wall. In contrast to the unforgiving obdurate exterior, the interior of the building was free and undetermined. His “freedom of usage” could exist, because he used a steel frame for the first time to construct his apartment building, filling in the frame with masonry blocks, covering all these materials with white plaster. Therefore, the steel structure carried the load, and there was no need for interior load bearing walls. Mies opened up the inside space and configure it as an open plan, free of obstructions.
This inversion of the Weissenhof, in all its innovation, was, in its time, a prime example of the “shock of the new,” a term popularized by art critic, Robert Hughes. The Americans and the Dutch knew that architect Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first to open living spaces, eliminating the enclosed and specialized rooms beloved by Victorians. But Wright used fixed interior partitions, with placement decided by himself alone. Sensitive to the Art Nouveau concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wright designed the interior space, from stained glass windows to the furniture himself. Thinking of the blueprint as his blank canvas, Wright would often nail the chairs and tables to the floor.
In contrast, Mies gave up the total control of the private space and left placement decisions to the owners’ needs. Borrowing an idea from the Dutch Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), he installed movable partitions, allowing the resident to shape rooms and spaces as he or she needed. “As you know,” he said, “I intend to try out the most varied plans in this apartment house. For the time being, I am building only the outside and common walls, and inside each apartment only the two piers that support the ceiling. All the rest is to be as free as it possibly can be.” During the exhibition in 1927, half a million visitors streamed into Stuttgart to see the novel housing complex.