Modern Architecture and Expressionism
by Dennis Sharp
Braziller, 204 pp., $15.00
Architects on Architecture
by Paul Heyer
Walker, 415 pp., $17.50
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 …