November 05: The Chain Letter that Deserved More Links

2016/11/05 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1919 Bruno Taut initiated a group correspondence among a dozen other German architects.

The project might be unique in architectural theory for producing a document–since the various contributions can be seen together as a single “correspondence” (or “chain letter”)–that expresses a philosophical current written by many hands.  Dated between November 1919 and December 1920, the letters codified the main ideas and themes in German Expressionism, one of the more visionary and optimistic approaches of the interwar years.  Specifically attuned to the properties of glass, the writers encouraged experiments in a colorful, jewel-like architectural idiom that would regenerate society after the horror of war.

This was not new terrain for Taut, who already in 1912 had met writer/poet Paul Scheerbart, who wrote about glassy mobile architecture it in his book Glasarchitektur (1914), which is dedicated to Taut.  Taut returned the favor by commemorating his admiration for Scheerbart in the Glass Pavilion built for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition of 1914.

Both Scheerbart and Taut inspired the others to consider architecture as a means to revive architecture and, with it,  society: correcting the social, political and moral problems that had led to the disaster of war through building projects of a specific techno-aesthetic character.  Taut was already convinced of Scheerbart’s claims of direct connection between the manner of building and social conventions among a culture, which argued that if a civilization simply changed its architecture, it would change its character.  The approach was no different than the ideas for which Pugin had argued in the 1840s; the difference in the 1910s and ’20s was in the materials and manner of the buildings, and the transfer of  transcendent power of deity from an Omnipotent Creator to an architectural material that could transmit natural illumination, symbolic of the divine for millennia, quite literally into human existence more swiftly and completely than masonry buildings.  Taut’s world would be defined by colorful but transparent glass in jagged, faceted forms that would transmit and reflect the light of the sun and stars. It was an artistic architecture, one he admitted was sometimes non-functional.  But Taut was brave enough to call the mania for “functionality” for what it was: an efficient, soul-crushing bore, and surely architecture should prioritize stirring the soul and awakening the emotions.
In a collaborative spirit that is unusual for architects in general and architectural theorists in specific, Taut took great pains to work through his ideas with lots of other people.  In 1918 he founded the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Work Council for Art), but served for only a year before Gropius took over (he seems to show up ruining a lot of things, doesn’t he?).  Upon his departure Taut started the letter that circulated among German designers, most of whom took clever pen names, including Wenzel Hablik (“W.H.”), Wassil Luckhardt (“Zacken”), Hans Luckhardt (“Angkor”), Hans Scharoun (“Hannes”); the best pseudonyms included those used by Taut, who himself signed as “Glas,” Hermann Finsterlin (“Prometh”), Jakobus Gottel (“Stellarius”),  and Walter Gropius, who took the telling and not-fun name “Maß” (“measure”).
In the course of the correspondence, all contributors were directed to draw and remark on the drawings of others.  The correspondence was meant to be swift and informal.  The Expressionists had a brief but rosy flowering; their designs were very often too imaginative to ever be realized.  They had some influence in the way that other modernist architects embraced their favored material, but failed in arguing their point against the banality of the Factory Style which became the more profound influence in European Modernism and later the American version of the International Style.

Image: “Alpine Architecture” by Bruno Taut  (from this source)

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