Theo van Doesburg’s “Stuttgart Weißenhof 1927, Die Wohnung: ‘The Dwelling,’ the Famous Werkbund Exhibition” (1927)

I. Some remarks about the pre-history.  The demonstrative architectural exhibition, being held in Stuttgart from July 23 on, means the realization of an idea which has existed for years in the minds of the younger generation grouped around the periodical G (Gestaltung).  This notion can be worded thus: since all exhibitions, whether of art objects or of architecture or technology, only show separate portions of an entity, Einzelstücke, and because on the other hand in our modern time the Gesamtarbeit, the unity of a collective stylistic purpose, is the only thing that counts, it must be clear to everyone that the exhibition of separate works of art, architectural models, and designs lacking an inner coherence is pointless and passé.  On the contrary, the requirement should be the following: demonstration of an entity in which all parts (meaning: color, furniture, utensils, etc.) are organically combined.  With the regular manner of exhibiting, the placing and hanging of loose objects next to, or on top of, each other, this was of course impossible, because that would be too much of a strain on the imaginative powers of the masses.  They wanted to place the visitor within, instead of opposite, the new environment and make him “experience it,” instead of “looking at” it.  This new requirement to demonstrate instead of exhibit was put into words for the first time in 1922, at the international artists’ convention in Düsseldorf, by the constructivists: “Stop holding exhibitions.  Instead: space for demonstrations of collective work.”  And under point 4: “Stop separating art from life.  Art becomes life.”

In fact, as everyone will remember, the aim to achieve a Gesamtarbeit formed the basis of the modern art movement in Holland, which around 1916 propagated its ideas in the modest periodical De Stijl and took up the defense for a collective rendering as opposed to an individualistic one.  Then, in the midst of the war, no trace of this zeal was to be discerned in other countries, and this is understandable when we realize that this new tendency postulated an international orientation.

The periodical G, in which the functionalists started publishing their views on architecture in 1923, was primarily based on the ideas of the Dutch and Russian artists, the former of which were becoming more and more the aorta of the new direction in Europe.  It is because of the initiative of the architect Mies van der Rohe, by far the strongest personality of the group of German constructivists, the core of the circle around G (only five issues of this periodical were ever published), that the common ideal of a demonstrative architecture exhibition was almost completely realized.  Not only is the Siedlung Weißenhof Mies van der Rohe’s work with respect to grouping, etc., but the stands of construction materials and ingredients in the Gewerbehalle [Trade Hall] and the Plan- und Modellausstellung [exhibit of plans and models] — all of which are of great [165] importance for the entire planning of the exhibition — can be considered his mental property as well.  Neither should we forget the Versuchsgelände [testing area], located next to the Weißenhofsiedlung, where the visitor can get acquainted with the construction and building method and the materials used here.  Various kinds of solutions for roof covering of flat roofs, sound proof walls, etc., are displayed here.

Certainly nobody will be surprised that the realization of this wide-ranging demonstration required enormous energy, all the more because unexpected difficulties, prejudices, and even political complications had to be overcome; not to speak even of the financial difficulties, resulting from the tight budget with which the organizers had to work.  We have to credit the architect Mies van der Rohe, vice president of the Werkbund, for having tackled the majority of these problems, assisted by the 15 collaborating architects as well as by his faithful supporters Werner Gräff, Willi Bauermeister, [Ludwig] Hilberseimer, and [Richard] Döcker, etc.; the latter undertook the supervision and execution of the work.

It is not premature to state that — leaving the quality of the architectural products themselves aside for the moment — this undertaking of a demonstrative exhibition is the product of a modern necessity, not only putting the traditional way of exhibiting in the shadow, but surpassing it, and rendering it obsolete for future use.  Those who have visited the exhibition held in Paris in 1925 and compare it to this exhibition, will have to acknowledge that the former sinks into insignificance compared to the construction manifestation in Stuttgart.  The latter contrasts sharply with the exhibition in Paris, with respect to organization as well as to the exterior aspect.

II. Impressions of the exhibition. — When we, after visiting the Weißenhofsiedlung, come to the glass display in the Gewerbehalle, we find ourselves, without preparation, in the best and purest presentation of this exhibition in the field of interior architecture (if these words are not a misnomer!).  This glass hall, also executed after a design of Mies van der Rohe, owes its creation to the unequivocal task of displaying fragile material (semi-transparent and opaque glass of different colors) in such a way that it would be shown to full advantage.  This was realized best by raising glass plates of enormous dimensions straight in the free space as walls, unprotected from top to bottom, without base board, profile or ornament.  These glass plates are mounted in narrow, flat frames of nickel-coated steel.  The problem was a sober one, but the solution reached the highest point that blessed, inspired visual artists can attain, and that only in very special moments: conquering the material with all of its faults, such as [166-167] weightiness, resistance, and transience, with the maximum of the energy force of the material itself.

Every material has its own energy force, and the challenge is to enhance this energy force to its maximum by proper application.  The opposite is: violation of the material by wrong application, whereby a relatively large percentage of the energy force is lost.  Weighing one material against another in respect to their energy and character, and proportioning them well, most certainly belongs to the essence of the new architecture.  Only in this way can modern architecture bring to realization what it has to offer in involuntary beauty.

Only when iron concrete was, for the first time, applied in the right way (I believe this was done by Wright), were the character of the tension and the energy of the iron concrete shown off to such an advantage that architecture attained a new beauty, involuntarily, without a preconceived aesthetic intention.  The same is true for plate glass, seamless floors, and other unjointed surfaces of materials, which by their purity, simplicity, and their Gespanntheit [surface tension] are in keeping with the modern mentality.

It is my utter conviction, formed in practice, that only the ultimate surface is decisive in architecture.  “How so? and what about the construction, the mechanism?”

The answer to this question is: “The ultimate surface is in itself the result of the construction.  Bad construction leads to a bad surface.  Good construction produces a sound surface with tension.”  Indeed, the finishing touch of architecture is in the finish of the surface, interior as well as exterior.  The development of the ultimate surface is essential, from the first stone to the last stroke of paint.  Every architect having a visual sense for construction knows this, and with this glass display Mies van der Rohe proved to be on top of this construction.

What must be remembered in his problem of the ultimate surface is the following: only the surface is of importance for people.  Man does not live within the construction, within the architectural skeleton, but only touches architecture essentially through its ultimate surface (externally as the cityscape, internally as the interior).  The functional element becomes automatic, only the summarizing surface is of importance, for sensory perception as well as for psychological well-being.  It has an impact on the morale of the inhabitant.  A previous generation (for instance, that of the Jugendstil movement from Darmstadt) was impervious to the purity of the surface and violated it by a multitude of separate objects, wanting to camouflage their lack of sense of architecture and construction.  [168-169] Nowadays things are different, perhaps we have come to the other extreme, and the new ideal of an empty space and a pure surface comes closer to realization all the time.  Here we are in the midst of the problem of so-called “interior design” and I will have occasion to go into more details about this — still unsolved — problem in a special article.

III. Houses, are like people.  Their features, posture, gait, clothing, in short: their surface, is a reflection of their thinking, their inner life.  The glass hall in the Gewerbehalle is the expression of a broad-minded human being with lofty ideas.  The same is true for this housing complex, which, on entering the Siedlung, immediately strikes us by its grand conception.  The interiors also show this.  Although the dwellings are still separated from one another, they do not give us the dreary impression of juxtaposed uniform living-cells.  When shall we finally venture on centralized construction, and assemble a large diversity of dwelling possibilities and life functions under one roof (approximating the American skyscrapers)? Just as, with respect to the interior, the trend points toward the unit space, it will, with respect to housing for the masses, lead us to the “unit dwelling,” standardized in accordance with uniform dimensions (modules).  Then also the hopelessly boring repetition of one and the same type of dwelling will not be seen anymore.

This row of mass-produced houses already resembles this kind of “unit dwelling” in many respects, and belongs to the best in its kind in the Weißenhofsiedlung.  For the same recurring surface on which to build, different floor plans were designed (with a few exceptions), which warrant, with small variations, about the same economical layout.  In these dwellings finally the traditional space between ceiling and doors was abandoned.

The latter have been extended to the ceiling, which makes the rooms look much higher than they really are.  Because of a lavish use of glass the rooms, corridors, and service quarters are large and light.  The floor plan, the living function and can be followed everywhere.  Here we see the great advantage of wide windows, contrasting with the relatively dim rooms and caverns of the castle which Behrens erected between these modern houses, wherein the small openings for the window are totally out of proportion with the façades.

In the housing block by Mies van der Rohe the interior furnishings were for the most part not the architect’s responsibility.  Therefore we find many things there that are incongruous with the modern surroundings (somewhere I even saw an interior where the walls were hung with striped wallpaper!).

[170]

But the same holds also true for the extraordinarily brash, overwrought, and very depressing “sculpted” baroque interiors by the Swiss Jeanneret (Corbusier), who showed with his two houses constructed in Weissenhof that he, in spite of his many good theories, in practice never overcame the Renaissance and the Baroque.  These interiors are speculative aesthetic, puristic paintings, converted into sculpture.

IV. Le Corbusier’s architecture in Stuttgart is strongly influenced by the German functionalists, although these were not as clever as Le Corbusier in employing their construction principles in practice.  Shifting of the pillars inward, as Corbusier practices — I believe he was the first to do so — is also derived from them.  In Russia, too, people already struggled years ago for the abolition of the traditional concepts of statics and the visual feeling of gravity in modern architecture.  Only enrichment of technical possibilities could meet this need.  The latest exhibition of Suprematist architecture in Moscow (some examples of which could also be seen in the Plan- und Modell-Ausstellung in Stuttgart) showed some bold examples of these endeavors, whereby the daring computations were important.  Basic in new architecture is the maximal use of the materials.  With the functionalists, however, the decorative as well as the visual effect has been totally suppressed.  Therefore, Corbusier’s villa construction does not agree with this, since with him everything, thus every part as well, is geared to an aesthetic (albeit purist-pittoresque) effect.  His interiors are sculptures in color, having a very surprising visual effect, which are, however, only in exceptional cases serviceable as living space.  These interiors are conceived too much as studios (like in Montmartre!).  In no building is one so much aware of the painter and so little of the constructor as in the dwellings by Le Corbusier.

Nevertheless there is something extraordinarily depressing in the narrow long corridors, which, although their dimensions are derived from the paquebots [mailboats], remind us of the narrow clefts of the trenches.  The chocolate-brown of the walls augments this impression even further.  No, this architecture, this interior, is not “of our time,” in spite of the fact that very beautiful cubist paintings are hung on the walls.

As a result, the general consensus is that Le Corbusier-Saugnier has, by aiming at outward appearance, with this architecture, except for a few constructive details, stopped being a constructor of such great importance as was accorded him until recently.

Scharoun is more conscientious.  I previously discussed these new tendencies in architecture, which I summarized under the name “Functionalism,” and I am very surprised that the found of this trend, [171] the architect Häring, is not represented here.  Principally this trend came from Russia, and therefore it concurs with the communist philosophy of life.  It is after all understandable that, as a reaction to a period of decorative squandering and overloading, another period followed of maximal restraint in architecture and the production of utensils.  However, the question whether such a dogmatically, even politically conceived spatial constraint, although only employed for factories and workers’ dwellings, can be carried through from a biological and psychological, in short: humanitarian, viewpoint, should rationally be answered with “no.”  There is absolutely no secret that in the new construction methods, the problem is sober, clear, and business-like, and the correct, logical use of the modern building materials will cause the new form of architecture to emerge quite involuntarily.  The latter facilitates a realization on a grand scale [172] (called “industrialization” by me).  The “Kossel” system may serve here as an example in miniature.

Although the dwelling has become an easily manageable apparatus for daily living, in which all aesthetics are odious, no one will deny that the surplus of human energy makes demands beyond a solely practical and hygienical space for living.  In which form these demands express themselves in the dwelling (the interior) wholly depends on the inhabitant.  Everyone carries his surroundings, his atmosphere with him and therefore the neutral living space may be called the most successful.  Built-in furniture, even that of cement or concrete, can wreak havoc here.  A modern dwelling will not press the taste or the aesthetic conscience of the individual who lives in it.

In contrast to the attempt at maximal neutralization and austerity in the dwelling (as practiced more or less consistently by the functionalists, among whom I include Stam), nearly all the other interiors may be called obtrusive or “middle class.”  In the former, the designers wanted to break with the hypocritical smugness characterizing the interior of a previous generation (with or without symmetry, with or without antimacassars!), of which there are several “modernizations” to be found here, femininely appointed interiors under French influence by designers from Frank, Taut, and Behrens to Oud.

Neither does Scharoun escape these aesthetical treatments of ceiling, walls, and details, considered odious according to functionalist ideas.  A rational functionalism, as the modern, undecorated utensils show, can be carried through in the case of passenger ships and train compartments (in which the architects Loos and Corbusier find their inspiration).  A solution for the modern dwelling which is satisfactory in all respects has as yet not been found, although the architects Mies van der Rohe, Scharoun, Stam, and also Gropius, though the latter to a lesser degree, are closest to such a solution.

If modern architecture is to become suitable for industrialization, we not only will have to sacrifice most of the aesthetic element, but also as a consequence thereof to cut off new construction completely and ruthlessly from the aesthetic architectural tradition.  This has already happened to the utensils for daily life, which have highly risen in our esteem.  We have severed them mercilessly from every notion like “art,” applied to art and arts and crafts.  Now we recognize that the best, yes — even the most beautiful, utensils are those which were not touched by craftsy designers.  Once architecture will also come to this stage.  The Siedlung Weißenhof confirms this once more.

Originally published in Het Bouwbedrijf, Vol. 4, No. 24, November 1927.  Pgs. 556-559.

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~ by Ross Wolfe on September 13, 2011.

5 Responses to “Theo van Doesburg’s “Stuttgart Weißenhof 1927, Die Wohnung: ‘The Dwelling,’ the Famous Werkbund Exhibition” (1927)”

  1. [...] of [functionalism], the architect Häring, is not represented here.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Stuttgart-Weißenhof 1927, Die Wohnung: ‘The Dwelling,’ the famous Werkbund exhibition.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles [...]

  2. Jena live

  3. [...] of [functionalism], the architect Häring, is not represented here.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Stuttgart-Weißenhof 1927, Die Wohnung: ‘The Dwelling,’ the famous Werkbund exhibition.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles [...]

  4. yeaaaah

  5. Die Wohnung is pretty interesting. Thanks.

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