Weimar architecture wasn’t just about the Bauhaus. Dan Borden reveals three electrifying examples of Expressionism that are still standing in Berlin today.
Berlin’s Weimar-era transformation into a world capital was driven by a fevered hunger for everything new. The starting gun sounded on January 1, 1920 when the city grew 13 times in size by swallowing seven surrounding towns, from Köpenick to Spandau. Greater Berlin was a new metropolis of four million people with their eyes focused on tomorrow.
Not everyone was thrilled about this high-speed race into the future. Berlin’s homegrown artists were labeled Expressionists because they painted jagged shapes in garish colours. If they expressed anything, it was angst – fear that lighting-paced, mechanised change was sweeping away history and individuality.
Most of Berlin’s architects, like Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius, embraced the machine age by spearheading the glass-and-steel International Style, popularised by the Bauhaus. But there were dissenters. Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam is a blobby Expressionist sculpture, an observatory that looks like a giant boot from outer space. Another faction of Expressionist architects built huge, factory-scaled buildings but covered their steel frames with old-fashioned brick twisted into curving, jagged, human-scaled details that evoked both a romantic past and an uneasy future.
Cathedral of electricity
Berlin’s high priest of brick Expressionists was Hans Heinrich Müller. He’d laboured in obscurity for 15 years when, in 1924, he landed the job as head architect for Berlin’s new city-owned electric company, BEWAG.
Electricity was the invisible force behind Berlin’s growth, driving turbines by day and lighting cabarets by night. From its start with a few electric street lights on Friedrichstraße in the 1880s, the power network was expanding into every home in every district. In less than a decade, Müller designed over 40 big-budget BEWAG buildings.
Müller’s masterpiece is his 1925 Kreuzberg Umspannwerk , an electrical transformer house on the Landwehr Canal. While other architects designed office buildings that looked like factories, Müller wrapped this industrial box in an elegant brick skin inspired by the medieval castle/cathedral complex in the Prussian city of Marienburg (today Malbork, Poland). His lofty machine halls were proportioned like basilicas. Müller’s message: the power radiating from his buildings was modern magic, worthy of reverence.
The buzzing transformers moved out in 1989, but the Umspannwerk Kreuzberg will reopen at the end of 2017 as Google’s Start- Up Campus, a brainy lab generating future entrepreneurs.
Bricks in ecstasy
Müller’s industrial cathedrals gave others license to play with modern-medieval mash-ups. As the Umspannwerk Kreuzberg opened, the father-son architects Ernst and Günther Paulus were designing a real house of worship in the Berlin district of Smargendorf. The Kreuzkirche , or Church of the Cross, is a rambling 1929 complex which looms over Hohenzollerndamm with a windowless brick tower 16 meters wide and 54 high. This intimidating facade, recalling early-Christian basilicas, is accented with jazzy brick zigzag patterns and topped by three pert copper caps. Its most exuberant feature is an entrance canopy by sculptor Felix Kupsch, a blue glazed-block pagoda which looks like a Hollywood take on a Polynesian restaurant.
The church-factory cross-pollination came full circle with the Church on Hohenzollernplatz in Wilmersdorf. Designers Ossip Klarwein and Fritz Höger created a simple box wrapped in rows of brick pilasters so rigid it earned the nickname Kraftwerk Gottes, or “God’s power station”. But once you reach the entrance, it’s pure religious theatre: the brick pilasters curl into towers flanking curved steps which lead through a giant mosaic-covered Gothic arch into a nave lit by rainbow-coloured stained glass.
The Church on Hohenzollernplatz opened in 1934, a year after the dawn of Hitler’s Germany and the end of the Expressionist era. Architect Klarwein, a Jew, fled to Palestine. Others were forced to tow the party line. The “decadent”, human-scaled Expressionism gave way to cold fascist Classicism and a new vision, a Nazi-dominated tomorrow.