Modern Architecture and Expressionism
Architects on Architecture
Expressionism is to architecture as adultery is to marriage, at least in the sense that most people publicly support the stern moralists who condemn it, while wishing they were engaged in some themselves. But whereas adultery is a precise enough sin to be proven in law in the face of the adulterer’s denials, accusations of Expressionism are something that most architects can talk their way out of—and of this we have had a public demonstration in Britain lately, with Richard Sheppard using the Third Programme to rebut accusations of Expressionism leveled at himself and other architects by such a stern moralist as Nikolaus Pevsner.
For Expressionism is not precise. As the accepted label for a particular substyle of early 1920s modern architecture it is as precise as such labels need to be, but as a description of any aberration from approved practice today it is so nebulous and misleading that nobody but a very inside insider is likely to know what it means when confronted by any particular example. But if it seems so vague, why is it an insult of such power as to demand rebuttal? Or is it one of those anathemas whose power lies in their very obscurity? Or even in their antiquity?
It is clear that at least some of the abhorrence that Expressionism is supposed to inspire lingers on, in some ancestral way, from that period in the early Twenties when it was a fairly precise term, describing a free, anti-classical approach to building-form, rhetorical exaggerations of angles, curves, and asymmetry. But how did this come to rank as a sinister aberration that had to be trampled down whenever it reappeared? Is it possible that, like original sin, it owes its continuing popularity to the persistent fury with which it is denounced—in other words, that it has been talked up into something bigger than it is?
HOWEVER DIVERSE and scattered the origins of Expressionism in the short-lived and precise historical sense—and Dennis Sharp is right to insist that those origins lie pretty tidily within late Art Nouveau—the apotheosis of the movement can be located quite compactly in the city of Berlin and its social and intellectual discontents in the period immediately after the Armistice of 1918. Only there could you have the right mixture of liberating irresponsibility and last-ditch hope on which to float those projects for luminous space-satellites, crystal skyscrapers, star-cathedrals, alpine flower-valley hotels. All the Expressionist works of Walter Gropius, for instance, fit neatly into the Berlin ambiance of those four years 1919-1923. Those were also, of course, the years of his now rather mysterious marriage to Alma Mahler, which may explain something, but only about his own personal case. The other Expressionists weren’t married to her, but they had problems of their own, no doubt, and indeed their personalities and motivations were so diverse you wonder what held them all together.
Their undoubted coherence, however brief, must have been largely the work of Brno Taut, who organized their “Utopian Correspondence”—a kind of visionary architectural chain letter—ran their magazine Frühlicht, and wrote the program for their “soviet,” the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, calling for the reunification of the arts in architecture, in a way that clearly anticipates the sentiments of the founding proclamation of the Bauhaus. All this paper activity is highly symptomatic of the situation in Berlin at that time, when talk was plentiful and building scarce. Some of this Expressionist paper architecture is important (Mies van der Rohe’s first sketches for glass skycrapers, for instance), but little of it led to any built achievements. Of the few that got built, the most consequential are Hugo Häring’s farm buildings at Garkau near Lübeck, and Eric Mendelsohn’s observatory tower at Potsdam for Albert Einstein. Garkau, forgotten in the Thirties and Forties, became a student legend in the Fifties, and then Alvar Aalto built what seemed to be an enlarged version of it for the center of Saynatsalo in Finland. One wheel at least had turned full circle, one sort of Expressionism (in wood and brick) seemed ripe for revival, and the moralists began to fulminate again. So far there has been no sign of a revival of the smooth, sexy, sculpted forms of the Einstein tower, though they would be ideal for reproduction in currently fashionable materials, like vacuum-formed plastic.
But why revive it? Why moralize against it? Why not just let it alone and see what happens? The answers do not really lie in Expressionism itself. Nor will you find them in Dennis Sharp’s thorough and well-documented book, which tells what were the sources of the movement and what happened while it was a going concern, but not what went wrong when it stopped in 1923. And stopped very suddenly, too: in 1922 practically every modern architect in Germany was an Expressionist, in 1924 none was. Most of the former Expressionists designed houses in 1925-6 for the famous exhibition on the Weissenhof ridge above Stuttgart. They designed them in standard International Style modern—white walls, flat roofs, big windows—as if every memory of Expressionism had been removed by some ingenious cultural lobotomy.
In retrospect, the apparent thoroughness of that lobotomy can be misleading: it is doubtful whether the architects themselves had really suffered so violent a change of opinion as the history books can make it appear. What seems to have happened was that they were persuaded into a change of style for a variety of reasons. One important reason was that the new abstract art, coming to them from Mondrian and van Doesburg in Holland, from the constructivists in Russia, and from the Middle European countries through Moholy-Nagy and Friederich Kiesler, exhibited an orderliness that was consistent with the solid German classicism which all had mastered as architectural students.
ANOTHER IMPORTANT REASON was that most of the Utopian products of the postwar months were patently unbuildable, and when improving economic circumstances put real building tasks on their drawing boards, they had to pay respect to factors like the force of gravity. It does not appear that the change was accompanied by any great moral crusade. Where Expressionist projects had actually been built, and built well, their designers remained proud of them. Gropius, for example, saw nothing against illustrating his highly Expressionistic zig-zag concrete monument in Weimar, or his handicrafty log cabin for the Sommerfelds outside Berlin, even in books published in the Thirties.
But when Sigfried Giedion came to compile his seventieth-birthday tribute to the great gray eminence (Walter Gropius, Work and Teamwork, 1954) these works were not only not illustrated, but suppressed from the chronology as well. The whole episode was expunged from the record, not by the architect, but by an historian. For it is, regrettably, my own profession of architectural historian that has tried to suppress the memory of Expressionism; it is my own revered master, Nikolaus Pevsner, who has recently castigated the alleged revivals of Expressionism, on the time-honored, but hard-to-prove, grounds that it is unfunctional, expensive, and distastefully exhibitionistic.
So the real problem may not be internal to the movement at all, except that something about it got up the backs of the two most distinguished architectural historians of our time. What was it? The aims of Expressionist architecture, as formulated virtually on its deathbed by Lindner and Steinmetz in Ingenieurbauten, 1923, were “in untrammeled artistic creation ‘each according to his own powers’ finding new forms for new problems.” Clearly there can be nothing offensive about finding new forms for new problems; that is what modern architecture has been all about from the Crystal Palace to the Big Shed for Apollo at Cape Kennedy. Moreover, if you measure this aim against the surviving Expressionist paper projects, like Mendelsohn’s sketches for film studios or automobile factories, you see that among the things the new forms were supposed to do was to say something about the new problems being solved—the length of automobile production-lines, the height of cranes, the mechanical stresses of wide-span construction. Quite as much as did Le Corbusier or any other Functionalist, the Expressionists saw form as an expression of the nature of the building’s function.
Forty years later, so did Louis Kahn in the famous Richards Memorial Laboratory towers in Philadelphia. He sought new forms for a new problem—the full servicing of laboratory work-spaces—and he came up with a solution whereby the externally manifest form—brick turrets full of stairs, piping, ducts, and other services, clustered around the laboratories—expresses the nature of the building’s functioning. But does this make it Expressionist architecture?
No, because it is not “untrammeled artistic creation.” Kahn used the accepted formal language of the time—the brick turrets come from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, the manner of cantilevering the corners of the laboratories from Richard Neutra’s Rush City project, and so forth. It is classical, in Lawrence Durrell’s sense of the term: “the classical in art is what marches by intention with the cosmology of the age.”
THE ARCHITECTURAL COSMOLOGY of our age was invented, or codified, by historians like Pevsner, Giedion, or Hitchcock who became interested in modern architecture just after Expressionism had collapsed; they were present at the birth and growth of the next style, the style of Weissenhof which Alfred Barr later named simply “The International Style,” and they did what must now seem an extraordinary and foolhardy thing—they picked the International Style, still less than a decade old, as the “true” style of the twentieth century—as high Gothic is seen as the true style of the twelfth century or Rococo of the eighteenth.
The architects, I suspect, were astonished and delighted. Astonished to find that what had seemed at the time to be some minor adjustments toward changed aesthetic fashions and the practicalities of building had apparently been part of the great impersonal movements of the Zeitgeist, whereby the “true style of the twentieth century had emerged.” Delighted to find they had helped their time to “come to self-consciousness,” they were now the practitioners of a great historical style.
Outside politics, it is difficult to find so flagrant a misapplication of historical judgment, and it has left the historians in a political situation where they must knock any attempt of the twentieth century to come up with a different style. So Giedion, in Space, Time and Architecture, travesties Expressionism and asserts that its influence “could not be a healthy one or perform any service for architecture”; Hitchcock, in his otherwise encyclopedic Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, dismisses it in a paragraph and two footnotes, and Pevsner has to suppose that its present revival is only “another interlude” which will burn itself out, while the style of “1930 is still very much alive and kicking” (though Pevsner does have the moral courage to admit “I am party.”)
So now we know what was so heinous about Expressionism. It committed the Sin against the Zeitgeist, marched against the cosmology of the age, promoted untrammeled artistic creation instead of sticking to the script retrospectively prepared for modern architecture by the historians. Above all it was the intimations of free will implicit in “untrammeled,” and explicit all over the drawings and other graphics of the Expressionists, that upset the historians, because the style that they had picked had to be the product of vast and implacable historical forces (like mechanization, economy, democracy, etc.) not of individual fancy.
Of course, it is those intimations of free will that have made Expressionism look increasingly attractive in the decade or so since the imposed orthodoxy of the International Style broke up—the decade since Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, the decade that has rediscovered other disorderly movements, like Futurism, and unclassifiable individuals, like Gaudi. The fact that Expressionism is also a kind of forbidden fruit has added to its adulterous attractions, no doubt, and the result is that there is now a tendency to rave on about it too much. Young architectural historians, teaching Hist. Mod. Arch. II or Arts of the Twentieth Century in liberal-arts courses tend to inflate Expressionism’s importance, just for the pleasure of defying their elders who tried to put it down.
For the concept of untrammeled artistic creation has an almost irresistible pull for architects. Within almost every architect there is a frustrated artist fighting to get out. You might not suspect this from architects’ formal pronouncements; you could wade almost the whole way through the 400 pages of stodgy architectural chit-chat that make up Paul Heyer’s Architects on Architecture without getting the slightest inkling that US architecture floats on a heaving sea of disgruntled artistry, were it not that Philip Johnson gives the game away: “The painters have every advantage over us today…no deadlines, no budgets…no committees of laymen…an architect leads a hard life—for an artist.”
It is the splendor and the misery of architecture to be vastly more than an art. Painting and sculpture engage only the cultural or emotional man, but architecture engages his whole living, breathing organism including its social extensions. An architect who is a real architect, who can operate over that full range of human involvement is far more than a mere artist, he is large and contains multitudes. Unfortunately, most of those professionally practicing what passes for architecture are only artist-sized, and contain no more than a single individual who would have liked to take up art, had not Puritan conscience (his own or, more likely, his parents’) enjoined him to do “something more useful.”
They are reinforced in their artistic longings by a new architectural public, created in their image. A product of organs of persuasion as different as the Museum of Modern Art, Time Inc., Aline Saarinen, and the proximity of the Ivy League schools of architecture, this public (of which one is particularly conscious in New York) flatters itself by believing it understands something of the professional mysteries of architecture, and flatters its favored architects by applauding them when they come on “artistic.” Ignoring the fact that the inner workings of a good building must be an extraordinarily sensitive and adaptable mechanism, it concentrates on the exteriors, regarding say, the Yale or Brandeis campus as sculpture gardens, Park Avenue as an art gallery of facades.
This, increasingly, is the public for whom architectural books are made, though I don’t think the publishers got it right in the case of Modern Architecture and Expressionism, where the plates, printed with some kind of liquid smog, would choke the enthusiasm of any normal art-lover. But Architects on Architecture could almost be taken as documentary proof that this public now exists. Hitherto architectural books usually have fallen into two categories: primers for beginners and expert works for specialists. Mr. Heyer’s book is neither: too specialized for a beginner, too generalized for a specialist, too boringly familiar for an architect, who has heard himself saying too much of it too often already. The kind of audience that these forty-five illustrated interviews with US architects imply is one of recently hooked architecture addicts.
For anyone else, its inadequacies are too patent, especially its lack of depth of information. For instance, I have heard Mies van der Rohe utter opinions opposite to what he appears to have told Mr. Heyer—a bit more research might have suggested that he had picked a bad day to talk to him about the Chicago School. But even for the addict, the book will have inadequacies—the absence of Robert Venturi and of Charles Moore (Paul Rudolph’s successor at Yale) means that two new topics for the New York architecture fan are missing.
For this public is chiefly concerned with the topical and the new—it is a true child of communications. It is the audience that has run to applaud each new surface innovation, such as Edward Durell Stone’s grille-work or Paul Rudolph’s ribbed concrete, and has equally hurriedly discarded out-of-date innovations (like Stone’s grille-work, or Paul Rudolph’s ribbed concrete). By a seeming paradox, it is this audience, whom Pevsner would despise, that will probably prove Pevsner right about Expressionism. Ever since the Museum of Modern Art’s neatly opportunist “Fantastic Architecture” show in 1960, this audience has been hot for Expressionism and fantasy in architecture. But the mood could change any minute now, in favor of something new (probably “quality,” meaning marble and bronze, or even “grace,” meaning something like the State of Maine pavilion at the Montreal Expo). Then, in the calm after the Expressionist orgy, there may be time to consider what the concept, with or without a capital “E,” has meant to the architecture of our time, whether as a specific period and style that are past, or as an intention that has continued through later periods and styles of modern architecture down to about yesterday.