Walter Curt Behrendt’s The Victory of the New Building Style (1928)

Introduction

Influenced by the powerful spiritual forces in which the creative work of our time is embodied, the mighty drama of a sweeping transformation is taking place before our eyes.  It is the birth of the form of our time.  In the course of this dramatic play — amid the conflict and convulsion of old, now meaningless traditions breaking down and new conventions of thinking and feeling arising — new, previously unknown forms are emerging.  Given their congruous features, they can be discussed as the elements of a new style of building.

Though the public regards these new building forms with immediate and visible excitement, their unfamiliar appearance often leads to a feeling of unease and incomprehension.  For the public, and at best for those members of the profession who have not been hardened by the dead certitude of a doctrine, only one path leads to a vital understanding of the new architecture.  These new forms must be shown to be inevitable, so that they will be seen as a natural consequence and logical result of a changed formulation of the problem.

This is the approach taken in the following remarks.  Their aim is to make a broader circle of people familiar with the crucial building problems of the time; to show that these problems concern not purely aesthetic issues or the vain conceits of a company of misfits but rather quite universal and concrete questions.  These questions, moreover, are of interest not just to architects to us all, and they can therefore be discussed in a very specific way.

The New Architectural Form

Let us begin by describing very superficially the exterior attributes of the buildings of the new style, which, owing to a number of unmistakable features, stand out against their surroundings so emphatically.  As the accompanying illustrations show, they are usually works with a simple, austere form and a clear organization, with smooth, planar walls, and always with a flat roof and straight profiles.  The building body is generally articulated by a more or less lively gradation of masses and by the distribution of windows and openings in the wall surfaces.  It is also apparent that the openings the windows, and occasionally, also the balconies (quite contrary to tradition) are placed at the corners of the buildings, where formerly we were accustomed to seeing the load-bearing parts of the building or the solid masonry of corner piers.  Further, we notice that these buildings altogether lack the familiar and [90-97] customary means of decoration.  The advocates of the new building attitude seem to have a particularly keen dislike for the column, that popular showpiece of academic architecture, and they are notably cool toward any kind of ornament or decorative detail.  Ornament — the decorative accessory, the detail in the old sense — has completely disappeared.  They prefer smooth walls and consciously exploit the wall’s planar attributes as an architectural design tool.  They compose simple building bodies, which are themselves plastically articulated, and create a powerfully punctuated rhythm of movement by linear accents or occasionally by overhanging slabs and deeply shaded projections, which emphasize and strengthen the impression of the corporal, the spatial, and the three-dimensional.

The most curious and striking feature of the new architecture is the absence of any kind of exterior ornament, which is then usually the first criticism leveled against it.  This is completely understandable.  In many areas of our life today we stand under the crippling weight of traditional views that cloud our judgment.  Our artistic judgment is also greatly confused by the widespread superstition that art is synonymous with decoration.  This deeply rooted belief makes it inevitable that not only the lay world but also the professionals look upon the unadorned and therefore unfamiliar works of the new architecture as cold and dry, raw and unfinished, purely and simply as inartistic.  They miss in these buildings the familiar charm of decorations.  They are put off by linear, hard, and angular forms.  And we must conceded that such limited judgment is to some extent justified, that the buildings of the new style do lack the effect of the pleasing, the artistic, the emotional that was evoked by the sensuous charm of detail in historical works.

The Opponents

Next, let us speak of the opponents of the new architecture.  They can be divided into three groups, of which the most dangerous are the opportunists.  With the skill of all profiteers, they make the outward characteristics of the new art their own, and with an adroitness unique to them, they know how to express themselves in that idiom as well.  They discredit the new movement with the catchphrase ‘form without ornament,’ chosen purely for its assonance, thereby evoking with their spiteful slogan the specter of a new formalism, which, even with its algebraic sign changed, is no better than any other.

Of the other two groups, one consists of the opponents of principle, the opponents out of conviction, who regard themselves as the guardians or supporters of sanctified traditions and who use this sentiment to oppose the emerging new style.  They see the traditional rules of their academic teachings and the laws of their professional judgment overturned by the works of the new building style, and therefore call for the spread of such subversive radicalism.  With these opponents, there can be no quarrel.  Their case is hopeless; they misconstrue the idea of tradition.  They fail to see that this idea, if it means preserving inherited possessions, also entails the mass of traditional and still unresolved problems that must be addressed and, whenever [98-100] possible, brought closer to a solution.  These faithful followers of tradition sense nothing of the change of form; they know nothing of the profound meaning of ‘Stirb und werde (Die and become); they fail to understand that every construction entails destruction, that ‘both the man who destroys and the man who builds are manifestations of will: one prepares the work; the other finishes it.’

The other group is more benign and is not hardened by basic principles.  They regard the works of the new architecture as the harmless folly of the artist and see it only as one of several new artistic fashions that have rapidly succeeded one another in the last few years.

This supposed artistic fashion is, by the way, not as altogether harmless as it appears to these more restrained opponents, as evinced by the concern it has meanwhile aroused in parliamentary circles.  A short time ago a faction in the Prussian Diet, responding to the perfectly understandable interests of its constituents, addressed an interpellation to the state government, in which it pointed out ‘that because of the fashion of straight-line forms in house building as well as in interior furnishings, the carving and wood-turning trades suffer from severe unemployment.’’ Because quality craftsmen in these noble artistic professions are in danger of becoming extinct, the state government has been asked whether it is prepared to promote the two affected trades by awarding contracts, and with that, as it literally goes on to say, ‘to change the trend of fashion.’ This heroic attempt in the name of art to appeal to the salvation of the middle class has something touching about it, but it misconstrues the situation if it considers a far-reaching artistic movement to be a frivolous artistic fashion hostile to the middle class, which can be most quickly and effectively rendered harmless by awarding state contracts.

The Style Movement

The efforts to renew architecture examined here concern a spiritual movement, not a fleeting artistic fashion or some new ‘ism.’ The originality of this movement and its intimate connection with the spiritual life of our time is well attested to by its international character — the fact that it has arisen in various countries simultaneously and with similar goals.  Manifestations of this movement, with certain nuances conditioned by national characteristics, can be found in America as well as in almost every European country: in Germany and Holland, in Austria and Czechoslovakia, in Italy, France, and Russia.

There can be no better evidence for the living relevance of the ideas that support this movement.  A movement so elemental and so widespread internationally, which has arisen spontaneously in various places with similar goals, may hardly be considered a transitory and thus frivolous artistic fashion.  But neither will a purely aesthetic consideration of its achievements up to now allow us to appreciate its aims.  We cannot properly evaluate the creations of this new building attitude using the more or less casual sympathies or antipathies of personal taste.  To understand their nature, we must [101-107] probe deeper and seek out, above all, the spiritual ambience in which this movement has grown.

What supports and drives the new movement is neither a craze for innovation nor some cheap need for sensation, such as the desire to impress or do something different no matter what.  Rather, it is the opposite.  It is the will to return to basic principles and elementary rules of building and once again to build exactly as the ancients did.  It is the desire to come to terms with the new realities of our time and the new life they entail.  It is the endeavor to shape these new realities spiritually and to master them creatively through design [gestaltend, durch Gestaltung]. It is the striving to free ourselves from the stifling burden of now meaningless traditions and rigid ideas of form and thus to work unselfconsciously, free of prejudice, and with originality — just as is happening everywhere today in those creative fields where mass production defines the face of our time.  It is the longing to enrich architecture with the same creative approach to design that rules in our technical and individually produced work, and thereby to make architecture once again a productive and vital part of our time.

It is therefore a very modern striving, a very natural and understandable desire, and a thoroughly unromantic longing! It is a striving that pursues a vital and most relevant task, one supported by the knowledge that everything shaped at a given time is born out of one and the same instinct, one and the same sense of form.  It struggles to reclaim this lost unity today by attempting to place artistic creation at the same spiritual wellspring from which the new wealth of forms in technical design have arisen.  It is a striving that, once it attains its goal, will ultimately bring about that unity of formal expression that has always been the unerring feature of any style.

Let us now examine it in somewhat greater detail.

Technical Design

In all creative fields having nothing to do with art, or rather in those areas untouched by the direct influence and intervention of art (which is to say in all fields of technical design), a formative power is at work today that has created an entire world of new, previously unknown forms.  The wealth of these forms is immeasurable, and the richness and diversity of these new things belie the frequently heard complaint about our era’s poverty of design and lack of formative power.  At the same time, however, precisely the wealth of this new store of forms arising around us in every field of technical design clearly confirms the memorable words of Conrad Fiedler, who once said that not all times express the best of what they have to say in art. The formal energy of our time is certainly not lesser or weaker than in times past (no one can dispute that, given our many creations), but our design potential up to now has not manifested itself most strongly and purely in art, but rather in the fields of applied art of in technical and industrial production.

All these many forms of technical design — our machines and mechanical devices, our instruments and utensils, our modern vehicles, ships, airplanes, [108-109] automobiles, and so on — are functional forms.  They were created with a specific performance standard in mind, and to fulfill a purpose most perfectly This goal was not achieved overnight or at first try: every goal presumes a path.  So too these forms, advancing progressively toward a given goal from trial to trial and result to result, were very gradually extracted, developed, and shaped from others, always more rigorously and more exactly accommodated to new production processes, machine methods, and the specific limits of the material and construction, yet always with a greater knowledge of and clearer insight into the performance standard.

In the individual stages of this form selection, we can also clearly follow how the sense of form became simultaneously refined and perfected with a greater awareness of the performance standard.  The formal evolution of locomotives, airplanes, and automobiles that we are witnessing today firsthand (figs. 28, 29) vividly illustrates this process.

All these forms, as we said, are functional creations [Zweckgebilde]. Selecting their appropriate form is not an aesthetic problem but a constructional one.  Nevertheless, these forms contain a whole series of aesthetic elements: clean and precise lines, the consummate purity of their proportions, the taut tension of their flat and curved surfaces, the colorfulness of their paints and varnishes, and the sparkling sheen of their finishes.  The aesthetic elements of these creations are so numerous that it is typically said that the elegant styling of a modern luxury automobile can be considered a handicraft creation of our time, just as a royal carriage of Frederick the Great was for the age of the Rococo.  Thus these aesthetic elements may be seen, if not already as elements of a new style in themselves, then as the yeasts or starting points for the formation of such.

If architecture, which is itself predominantly a field of technical design, today seeks again to orient itself to these methods of form selection, if in this effort at orientation it begins to emulate those aesthetic elements apparent in the creations of technical design, it does not do so in a superficial, formal sense by simply imitating these forms.  This would only be a new kind of formalism, the visible manifestations of which have been, very appropriately, termed ‘Machine Romanticism’! It should, on the contrary, be a conscious renunciation of every formalism.  Likewise, the new architectural attitude no longer regards form simply as an aesthetic problem, but at the same time and decidedly as a constructional one.  I mean this not in a naturalistic sense or as some form of Constructivism, that is to say, neither the now-fashionable dogma of Russian descent nor the older teachings of a faded materialism from the time of Viollet-le-Duc and the Neogothic school, which saw form as a product of purpose, material, and construction.  Rather, it should be taken quite literally: ‘to construct’ [konstruieren] derives from the Latin verb construere, meaning ‘to invent, to deduce, to shape, to form, to design.

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Modern Utility Buildings

It is no coincidence that, in architecture as well, new and previously unknown forms were created on precisely those occasions when a form was selected in the objective and impersonal way of a technical design, as a constructional problem — that is, with the tasks of the modern utility building: factories workshops, warehouses, silos, water towers, and so on.  Here the building was dealt with strictly under the constraints of a specific and clearly defined performance standard, which, moreover, appeared rigid and implacable in its economic demands.  The nature and character of these building tasks entail the pressing demand to seek a solution irrespective of any representational, artistic, or decorative intentions, with a frank regard for the performance standard.  They also make full use of the new manufacturing processes, the new material limits and methods of construction, and they stand in a conscious, logical, and systematic compliance with these new realities.  And it has happened that completely new forms have been developed first with those tasks of industrial building that, with respect to the technical selection of form, were conceived and executed constructionally and creatively. They are fundamentally new forms that also unmistakably carry the new aesthetic elements.  They are forms of a new architecture style that, as it cannot be otherwise, display in their nature an inner kinship with, in their effect an unmistakable similarity to, the aesthetic elements seen in the new creations of  technical design (figs. 32-35).

New Realities

In order to approach the new style’s formal problems  — to discern them more clearly and grasp them more vividly — we must now inquire into the new realities of our time with which the architect today has to come to terms in his approach to design.

What are these realities?

The first reality is a series of new tools, new machines, and new methods of construction.  To deny their existence would be self-delusion; to reject their use would be a waste of energy.  Using mechanical means of production for the entire building industry (and not just for civil engineering, where it has long been adopted) is an economic necessity.  The industrialization of the building industry will certainly find acceptance on an ever-larger scale and at an accelerating pace, at least within the field of housing, which provides for the needs of the masses.  Although trained artisans and specialists are essential to many commissions in the building trades, and especially cultural and luxury buildings, and although future building will remain also in large part a highly skilled and seasoned trade, trained personnel in many fields are nevertheless being replaced more and more by machines and industrial technologies.

Further realities are a number of new building materials, such as iron, concrete, and glass.  Previously these materials were either altogether unknown or not used to the same extent or in the same way as today.  With their adoption [111-114] and use, however, they have fundamentally altered traditional building and construction practices.

With these new realities, architecture has been enriched first of all materially with a number of new possibilities.  To mention just one of these achievements (perhaps not the most important in its nature but the most obvious in its effect), the scale of building today, thanks to the inventiveness of the engineer, far exceeds the limits formerly imposed on it, because of the new methods of iron and reinforced-concrete construction.  In fact, every shackle in this regard has been undone.  These new construction methods, whose influence has recently also become evident in expanded possibilities for wood construction, make it possible to span the greatest openings and create almost unlimited spaces with no internal supports (fig. 37).

In addition to this material enrichment, however, the adoption of new building materials and construction processes has also induced a spiritual upheaval. The introduction of these materials and processes has changed completely the basic principles of building — spatial ideas as well as structural [115] concepts.  This upheaval is no less far-reaching in its effects than the change of perspectives that took place in medieval building with the invention of the Gothic vault As with that invention, the upheaval has raised a whole series of formal problems.

Specialization of the Building Profession: The Engineers

It is rather remarkable that these new problems, several of which we will shortly consider in greater detail, were scarcely considered until now and that they are still not recognized in most works of contemporary architecture.  This is true even though the new means of expression have been eagerly accepted everywhere, and every material enrichment has been used extensively.  To seek in passing an explanation for this remarkable fact we might note that the development, refinement, and application of new construction processes have been almost exclusively the concern of engineers. Systematic investigation of the technical and structural properties of new building materials required extensive theoretical and mathematical knowledge which could only be acquired through detailed and time-consuming specialization Therefore, the engineer has developed alongside the architect as a specialist in the technical and constructional tasks of building.  Thus the principle of the division of labor, which has had a decisive effect on the industrial production of our time, has also found acceptance in the building trades, much to the detriment of architecture.

Specialization in the building profession, incidentally, took place very early First, in the field of military engineering the task of building fortifications became a specialized branch of architecture.  Then, with the founding of the École des Ponts et Chaussees (School of bridges and roads) in Paris in 1747, the fields of hydraulic and road construction were excluded from the sphere of architects and assigned to specially trained experts, architectes constructeurs. In the course of the nineteenth century additional branches, especially those related to transportation, were also removed from the sphere of architects.  Bridge building evolved into a private concern of engineers; train stations and factory buildings were handed over to them; and in recent decades all new and truly vital building tasks have devolved to them.  By contrast, the architect for his part has now evolved into a specialist or virtuoso of decoration: seeking the solution to his task in amassing ready-made decorative forms and making new variations on the five column orders.  In this preoccupation with employing decoration with the greatest virtuosity, the architect has completely forgotten construction, design, and building.  This fatal one-sidedness has caused him to Jose sight totally of the many formal problems that have since been raised by the new realities of our time.

New Formal Problems

From the wealth of these new formal problems let us single out a few of the most elementary cases to illustrate the nature of the new design tasks.  One is the example of had and supports, the other is that of the wall.

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The adoption of iron and reinforced-concrete construction has radically altered the traditional relationship of load and supports. The development of so-called cantilevered construction has combined the formerly discrete building elements of beams and columns: if not as one homogeneous element (as in concrete construction), then into a unit welded together with joints (as in iron construction).  In their simplest structural form, as composite iron supports, these cantilevered girders are being used extensively in the new platforms of the German railway (fig. 38).

Figure 39 shows the same construction in reinforced concrete, again for a train platform.  Figure 40 once more shows iron cantilevered girders in a large structure, a hall, where the one-directional cantilevered girders in the side wall can be distinctly recognized.

The new use of this cantilevered construction allows the upper parts of the structure to project far beyond the lower parts, without using supports.

The signal tower in Laon (fig. 41) shows this type of construction used in a superstructure raised above a railway platform.  The switch tower itself rests on cantilevered girders supported on slender columns so as not to narrow the platform or obstruct traffic.  Figure 42 shows another example of the same type of construction in concrete — a coal bunker, where the conveyer belt for the automatic transport of the coal to the bunker pocket is placed in the upper, cantilevered part.

The development of cantilevered construction has enriched architecture by a new function —  that of being suspended  — a function whose development, formation, and design constitutes one of the most interesting formal problems in the new style.

The office building in figure 43 shows an attempt in this direction; the projection of the upper story has the practical purpose of increasing the floor space and thereby compensating for limitations of the site  — a narrow and shallow corner lot.

The new possibility has been developed more freely as architectural form and incorporated into the plan of a villa (fig. 44).

Let us now consider the second example — the wall.

As the industrialization of the building trades advances, precast construction will find increasing acceptance.  In building construction, and especially in housing, the individual components will be produced in large plants (as has already long been the case in iron construction), cut to specified norms, and assembled or installed at the building site.  Walls will then no longer be built of brick but formed as large uniform plates composed of weatherproof, thermally advantageous material — or better still, a seamless and jointless wall will be fabricated by pouring or layering materials (figs. 45,46).

As such building methods develop, the wall will lose its traditional character and change its function from a supporting to a supported element.  No longer needing to support itself, it will stretch across the inner supporting framework like an outer protective skin, a skin that whenever possible will be wall and roof at the same time.  As skin without a hearing function, the wall [117-121] will always tend to become lighter and above all thinner; theoretically, a material of membranelike strength would be sufficient for this purpose.  With that, the wall will also change its architectural character.  Whereas formerly the thickness of the bearing wall offered ample opportunities for plastic articulation and modeling, such modeling becomes impossible as soon as the wall is reduced to the slight dimension of a skin.

The use of glass is a stage in the wall’s transformation from a supporting to a supported element.  The relieved opening has now replaced the bearing wall: an event that vividly demonstrates the functional change.

The factory building shown in figure 47 is a logically designed example of this developmental stage.  Because large windows are required for the lighting of the workshops, the exterior walls are predominantly glass.  The ‘relieved opening’ is especially noticeable in the left corner of the building.  The nature of the relieved opening is seen still more clearly in the design of an office building (fig. 48).  In this reinforced-concrete building the exterior walls (wall parapets in this case) are supported by interior cantilevered construction similar to that shown in figures 37 and 38.  The intervening openings are enclosed with a glass skin.

The changed function of the wall — its transformation from a supporting to a supported element — is clearly seen in the buildings of the Bauhaus at Dessau, which contain several floors of superimposed teaching studios (fig. 49).  An immense glass apron suspended from an upper concrete frame creates a completely translucent exterior wall.  The next step would be to make the wall completely out of glass, as is done with the factory’s stair tower (fig. 50; see also fig. 36).

The walls functional change is also made abundantly clear in American high-rise buildings. In the early period of the skyscraper, the high-rise was treated architecturally as an ordinary building — as it could not be otherwise  —  and differed from the traditional multistory building only in having more floors and thus greater height.  Figure 51 shows one such high-rise of the oldest type, which in its architectural development represents one of the most successful examples of this kind of treatment, although its styling today appears antiquated in the same way as, say, an older type of automobile.  This conception normally resulted in those hulking stone colossi consisting of stacked rows of columns and temple motifs that dominate the city and streetscapes of large American cities (figs. 52, 53).

If, as the older examples show, the high-rise was really only an enlarged building whose walls rise up from the earth below, the masonry of the lower stories would have to be so thick in order to carry the load above that window openings would no longer be possible and no natural light could penetrate into the lower floors.  But in fact these walls no longer rise up from the ground.  The construction of the high-rises, or the so-called skyscrapers, first became practical only with the invention of the steel frame or ‘iron birdcage’ construction.  Figure 54 presents such a steel frame and thus the actual shell of a modern high-rise.  Enclosing this frame allows the wall panels to be [122-124] started anywhere (but, for practical reasons, usually in the middle).  The new building in the background of figure 55 clearly shows that the wall no longer supports but is supported, that it assumes the character of a skin.

The skyscrapers erected in the last few years take into account this changed building process, and they show a smooth and pronounced, surfacelike treatment of the wall.  All floors above the socle are integrated in an architecturally neutral zone, whose smooth surfaces are articulated only by the lively rhythm of numerous rows of windows (fig. 56).

The model in figure 57 by a German architect brings this conception to its logical conclusion.  It is a proposal for a high-rise in which the glass wall is treated unambiguously as a skin. Whether glass is the right material for this purpose may be debatable, but this formulation of the problem proceeds from correct premises.

Design

Wherever the effort is made to investigate practically and deal honestly with the many formal problems raised by the new realities of our time, it becomes apparent that we cannot tackle them with the conventional forms of ‘polytechnical architecture.’ Traditional notions of form — rigid conceptions of form  —  for the most part even hinder the working out of new forms.

Thus there is no other way than to start afresh, abandon the old, invalid [125-126] notions of form, and go to work in one’s own independent way constructionally, formatively, and creatively.

There is no other way than to conceive anew the functions of the building elements, as well as the demands of the new construction processes, and give a unique form to the new building materials based on their structural laws and new methods of industrial technology.

There is no other way than to start with the structural framework, make its inner play of forces visible, and thereby produce new aesthetic elements in such a way that the inner tensions of the spatial organism are brought into a pure and harmonious relationship.

The proportions thereby adopted will once again achieve their proper and original task: namely, to be the expression, the vital and truthful expression, of the functions and programmatic requirements of the building and all its parts.  Such proportions were always true in classical styles; in classicistic styles they were generally inexact, superficial, and accidental.  The whole building will thereby again become a unified organism, whose individual parts entail each other and are held in tension.  This way of designing no longer permits chance ornament, superfluous adornment, or applied decoration.  One and the same driving force produces forms and proportions altogether integrated, a characteristic that Jacob Burckhardt has described as the most distinctive sign of all original and organic styles.

Let me limit myself here to a single but very striking example of this new way of designing. Figure 58 depicts the recently completed Chicago Tribune Building.  Following the ambitious wishes of its owners, this newspaper palace was to become — as is usually the case in America — ’the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.’ To carry out this intention as much as possible, an international competition was announced, whose great appeal elicited participation from architects of almost every country of the world.  The building was executed according to the winning design of an American architect.  This design portrays a skillful and outwardly impressive, but nevertheless quite trivial imitation of a Gothic spire, specifically, the Antwerp Cathedral.  Figure 59 shows the same building under construction with the reinforced concrete ribs of its structural frame.  Next to it we see the design that the architects Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer submitted to the competition (fig. 60).  We can observe here how systematically the new formal problems are taken up, how their design has followed the nature of the new construction and the new function of the wall, and we can compare how the structure and proportions of this proposal express the new realities much more clearly and naturally than does the executed design, which misuses the motif of a cathedral tower for a profane purpose and thereby sins irresponsibly against the original.

Color in Architecture

By nature, certain colors accord with the new conception of form.  The call for a colorful architecture heard so frequently in the last few years only becomes [127-129] intelligible in this regard and thereby receives its meaning and justification.

The new architecture needs color; it needs it as a design tool to articulate the smooth surfaces of its walls, and it needs it in a functional sense to exploit color’s chromatic values and valence and thereby express the tensional relationships of the spatial organism.

The use of color in this new sense can be seen on a coffeehouse in Rotterdam, a temporary building for an empty lot designed by the architect J.J.P. Oud (fig. 61).  The colors of the principal surfaces are chromatically distributed as follows: the upper right corner is vermilion; the frame around it to the left is canary yellow; the substructure is ultramarine with black borders; and the front door is gray.  The windows above the substructure are yellow, gray, and white with black edges; the firm’s large logo has gray letters on a black ground; and the lettering on the illuminated signs is white on a gray ground.

This small building, by the way, is also an excellent example of how the elements by which a shop facade attracts attention — the firm’s logo, the illuminated sign, and so on — can be given an organized form.

Color used as a design tool in this way will largely assume the former role of ornament and detailing, which the new architecture lacks and must lack as it has to rely on machine labor and industrial technicians rather than people trained in the arts and crafts.  But what the new architecture loses in artistic charm, it will more than compensate by the exactness and precision of its execution, the sharpness and accuracy of its lines, and the smoothness and tension of its forms.  One can truly say that the new style is in a very distinct way a material style, that is, a style that uses the material — be it steel, glass, ceramics, and so on — for the sake of its materiality or refined material beauty.

Artificial Illumination as a Problem of Form

As attractive as it would be to pursue within the separate technical branches the many problems of design being raised by the new realities of our time, we must be content within the framework of this book to emphasize only the simplest cases.  Still, by way of suggestion, we might draw attention to one of these problems, perhaps one of the most interesting and charming facing architecture today, and moreover one that up to now has scarcely been considered, much less tackled in practice.  This is the problem of artificial illumination, or the problem posed by using electricity for lighting.

The introduction of the electric fixture has freed lighting design completely in locating the light fixture, in determining the light intensity, and almost completely in operating the light, because the current can be turned on and off with a switch.  Nevertheless, these expanded possibilities have only begun to be exploited.  Only the luminous advertisement (incidentally, also a new form problem) has until now made extensive use of the new freedom (figs. 62-65).  For architecture these new possibilities have been fully exploited with respect to the materials, as far at intensification of lighting effects is concerned.  In the design of lighting, by contrast, we almost always persist in traditional [130-133] notions regarding the shape of the lamp — the candelabra and lightbulbs — that is, in forms developed in response to the technical necessity to concentrate light at particular points.

Where the effort has occasionally been made not only to use these new possibilities but also to design them, illumination is exploited in a functional sense, that is, it becomes an effective tool for designing the space, explaining the spatial function and movement, and accentuating and strengthening the spatial relations and tensions.

This can he seen in the staircase for the Berlin Red Cross Building shown in figures 66 and 67.  Here the light fixtures are designed in the shape of angled tubes attached to the bottom of the stair landings, where they underscore both with their form and location the stairs’ tendency toward movement.

These very general comments offer nothing more than a few hints regarding the lighting problem, and they are inserted only because they introduce in a vivid way a larger and more important problem, in nut the central problem [134] of all architectural creation: namely, spatial design. Notwithstanding its crucial importance, however, it can be treated here only more suggestively than exhaustively.

The Problem of Space

Very generally, this much can be said: the new conception of form is clearly also expressed in spatial design, which is directed toward explicating functions and internal tensional forces.  Even in the arrangement of the floor plan, the intention should be to design the spatial structure as a unified organism that conforms both as a whole and in its parts to the different functions it serves.  The individual spaces should thus be designed so that their basic form, sequence, and transition correspond to the various functions they serve: circulation, work, housekeeping, dwelling, and so on.  Instead of stringing out spaces along an axis in the usual way and ordering the sequence symmetrically — an idea whose schematic and misunderstood use, following Schinkel’s example, has produced so much hypocrisy and tedium  — we should now arrange them according to their functional values and internal tensional relationships.

This new tendency is logically carried out in the floor plan of an office building (fig. 68).  Situated on a busy street, the main facade is inflected not only to increase the number of shop windows but also to create a protected space where one can view the goods on display at leisure, unhindered by street traffic.  The shop windows, with their angled placement, are drawn into the visual field of passersby.  The traffic areas, the corridors in this floor plan around the staircase, are widest where the traffic flow is greatest; they narrow within the building where the traffic lessens owing to its dispersion into adjacent rooms.

The same intention can be seen in the floor plan of a dwelling (fig. 69), where the rooms of the house wrap themselves around an undulating staircase as around a spinal column, so that all the individual needs of the household operations are most carefully accommodated.

In a freer style, the rooms in the house plan shown in figure 70 almost completely dissolve their borders by flowing into one another, yet they are also bound to one another by the dynamics of their internal tensions.

Formal Problems in City Planning

Finally, it remains to consider how this way of designing also applies to city planning, how it conceives the city’s formal problems.

It becomes clear that the city can no longer be considered a projected plan whose outlines are to be laid out schematically on a drawing board with a straightedge and triangle, according to the principles of axial symmetry.  The city should now be conceived for what it in reality is — namely, a living organism whose supporting framework and structure are to be designed to handle as thoroughly and efficiently as possible the many functions of life they must fulfill.

The city serves work in all of its aspects; it serves dwelling, traffic, and [135-137] recreation, and as a Jiving organism k carries out these age-old functions with continuous interplay.  Therefore, the urban area can be divided into individual living spaces in accordance with the functions of this organism — industrial zones, residential zones, traffic zones, and recreational zones — and these different living spaces are then set in motion and related to one another according to their internal interactions and reciprocal tensions.

These issues elude pictorial representation.  Still, the master housing plan for a large central German city (fig. 71) can give a rough idea of it, as the new plan shows how the industrial zones extend along the river, how the residential districts are joined to them, how the green and recreational areas penetrate wedgelike into the inner city, and how the suburbs relate to the urban spaces yet are preserved in themselves as special entities or independent zones.

The new conception goes further.  It no longer understands the city as a unity demarcated by politics but sees itself in it; that is, it sees the city as a whole, once again as a living space, whose parts reciprocally relate to other immediate and more remote living spaces in its environment, to the provinces, and to the immediate and more distant spheres of economics and raw materials.  It sees it in such a way that the whole country is designed as an integrated organism for dwelling, whose different living spaces and powerful tensions are kept in check and balance.

This understanding of the housing problem holds new and important prospects for the future.  In the long run this conception cannot and will not stop at political borders between countries; it must and will eventually lead to the world being planned according to the natural conditions of economic geography, in which the human environment will be developed as an integrated organism serving its peaceful functions according to the principle of human reason, while holding its forces in complete balance.

The Struggle for the New Style

At this point it is appropriate to bring our deliberations to a close.  This is not the place to draw a parallel between the new conception of design and other events of our spiritual life, or to relate our changed understanding of form to the general change in our forms of life, economy, and society.  Nor is it our task to develop some kind of aesthetic for the new building style, whose primary development we are now experiencing.  The style is still not mature enough for such an aesthetic examination; the results achieved up to now are inadequate.  Here we have tried only to point out a few selected formal problems of the new style and thus demonstrate the legitimacy of this new way of designing, so that the new forms will be understood as the result of a new formulation of the problem.  Still, a few general and summary observations should be added to these remarks.

For several years a growing number of young architects in all countries have concerned themselves with the new formal problems in building.  By doing so, they have continued with the problems that the Belgian painter [138-139] Henry van de Velde first saw and formulated about three decades ago, problems

that he, an outsider and early forerunner, also sought to solve practically in his work, at a time when scarcely anyone sensed or understood the problem.  He held in his visionary mind the idea of a new style, whose principle should be, as he himself expressed it, the dogma of rational conception, of Immaculate Conception.  He lived up to this idea by always seeking anew to clarify it theoretically and realize it practically: first in the invention of odd functional arabesques, then in the making of furniture, and finally in architecture as well.  The new movement that he then called into being in Germany with the explosive force of his idea of a ‘new style’  — the so-called Arts and Crafts movement — has long since receded into decorative tomfoolery, having lost sight of its true goal.  His idea of the new style, has remained, however, and has since shown its vitality.  The line, wrote van de Velde, the line is a force, and with that he coined the principle of the new style, the principle of a dynamic and functional architecture.

How far he himself was successful in realizing the idea of a functional architecture can be seen in the theater that he built in 1914 for the German Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne — the earliest work of the latest style and in the purity of its intentions also one of its most venerable achievements (fig. 72).

Standing next to van de Velde as the other forefather of the new style is the American Frank Lloyd Wright (fig. 73), the great student of the brilliant Sullivan.  His work, which in America is altogether singular and has remained up to now without influence and emulation in his native land, has had a decisive influence, especially on the young Dutch architects.  In Holland it has found the soil well tilled through the educational efforts of Berlage, who from the beginning has energetically instructed his students in the value of construction.  From Holland, Wright’s influence has passed to the other European countries.  Among the courageous champions of the new building spirit we should also place in the first rank the Viennese architect Adolf Loos.  Early on he intuitively grasped the new formal problems; as a prime mover in both word and deed, he worked for their recognition and solution (fig. 74).

On the shoulders of these men rests the work of the young generation of architects struggling for the new style.  No individual talent or personality will decide the issue.  It is the spirit of the time that here compels the form.

The works illustrated on these pages as evidence of this struggle should be judged neither as examples of an individual’s talent nor as finished results.  They were shown here only as examples that in some sense clarify those formal problems that still await solution.  All are only preliminary solutions to these problems, stages in the process of design invention, yet all are important and valuable precisely in the way they formulate the problem.  For in the end a talented person’s importance to his age is also determined by how he himself decides, how he selects his task, and how he prepares himself for it.  When young architects who with their work courageously profess their loyalty to [140-141] the new problems of the time are rebuked for the incompleteness of their efforts, they can cite the words of Hans von Marées, who, when similarly accused of not finishing his paintings, responded with pride that others had not even begun theirs: The man who sets out to discover a new land runs the risk of foundering on a reef.  It is easy to avoid the reef by letting the land remain undiscovered.’

In the end we must take up and systematically work out the new building problems of the time that pressure us from every direction, rather than avoiding them again and again, consciously looking the other way, or simply making do, one way or another.

The Technical Colleges

With a few notable exceptions, the official educational institutions — the academies and the technical colleges — charged with acquainting the next generation with the new building problems now pay no attention to this present responsibility.  Whereas the purely technical departments of these schools, such as the departments of building or mechanical engineering, eagerly see to it that the younger generation is made thoroughly familiar with the new realities of the time so as to prepare them as completely as possible for the practical work of the profession, these things are scarcely considered in the neighboring departments of architecture.  Historical styles, however, are discussed all the more.  The teaching of style may be necessary, even indispensable, to train one in spatial thinking and to cultivate one’s sense of form, just as in higher education instruction in dead languages is continued to train one to think logically and to develop a sense for language.  But in the end it is imperative that we learn the syntax of our own living language, so that we can correctly construct sentences in which we express our needs and say what disturbs or moves us.

The Clients

Finally, we must say a few words about clients, for it is important after all to consider the new architecture from the perspective of consumers as well.  It is now apparent that it is precisely they — those who in every respect and for every reason must be the most conscious promoters and most active champions of the new building attitude — who are the most restrained and impeded by false prejudices.  In their professional lives these clients (entrepreneurs, factory owners, bankers) are the most unbiased, the most progressive, and the most modern people.  They head the most modern companies; they ride to their offices in turbocharged Mercedes automobiles; they travel by plane to their business conferences; they receive their stock reports over the wireless; and now they even place their orders by telephone from a moving express train.  In everything pertaining to their profession, they think factually, rationally, and without prejudice.  As soon as they speak of art, however, they become sentimental and think of Nuremberg, Venice, or the Petit Trianon.

They doggedly persist in the ingrained superstition that art is synonymous [142] with decoration.  Thus they dress up their factories like medieval fortresses; they build their banks like sumptuous Renaissance palaces; they build their villas like Baroque castles.  Even though they make extensive use of every technical advance everywhere else in their lives, they are surprisingly content to live work, and dwell in houses in which no trace of the transformed living conditions can be seen.

When will clients finally understand the spiritual discrepancy between their Louis XVI salons and their Rolls Royces? When will they draw the necessary conclusions from such knowledge and bridge this duality in their sense of life? If they eventually succeed in unifying their style of living, the new movement will acquire a powerful burst of energy.  This stream of life will lend a powerful impulse to forces in many cases still splintered today by friction and resistance and demoralized by being in flux.  And with that, their creations will achieve increased grace and acquire that measure of freedom and sensual richness that their now often cramped and occasionally all-too-doctrinaire architectural works yet lack.

The New Architecture

An architecture that is to be a living component of our time and a true expression of our new sense of life cannot look different, cannot be essentially different than our machines, our mechanical devices, our airplanes, and our automobiles.  It can be no more whimsical, no more poetic, no more emotional than our electric motors, turbines, and planetariums.  But it can be just as intuitive, just as visionary, and just as creative as the latter — another, no less wonderful emanation of the human spirit.

The new architecture will be clean, exact, and precise in its lines; it will be clear and tense in its forms; it will have an almost classical purity in its proportions.  It will, in addition, be imaginative in an unexpected way, that is, in the immaterial gravity of its suspended constructions of glass and iron, in the purity of its colors, in the cultivated beauty of its materials, and in the resplendent wealth of its natural and artificial light.  We cannot imagine what richness of expression will unfold when architecture begins for the first time to manipulate freely the elements of the new style that it now seeks to acquire.  And we cannot imagine what fanciful creations will arise from the wealth of its new means of expression when it once more happens that, as Hans Poelzig has said, we again build for the good Lord!

Meanwhile, we have only just begun! But in the struggle for the new style that we have so respectfully considered, the architecture has solid ground under its feet now that it has entered on the path that all original creations follow.  If it continues along this path, if it goes to work supported by the principles of all original and organic creation and with an objective and suprapersonal dedication to the cause, then the blessing of art (that which the ‘polytechnical style’ with all its artistic means has up to now concerned itself in vain) will be bestowed of its own accord on the works of the new style, of the machine style, of — if one wishes to call it thus — the technical style.

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 19, 2010.

4 Responses to “Walter Curt Behrendt’s The Victory of the New Building Style (1928)”

  1. […] of the machine style, of — if one wishes to call it thus — the technical style.”  Behrendt, The Victory of the New Building Style.  Pg. […]

  2. […] Walter Curt Behrendt, The Victory of the New Building Style.  Pg. […]

  3. […] Behrendt, The Victory of the New Building Style.  Pg. […]

  4. […] be considered a transitory and thus frivolous artistic fashion.”  Behrendt, Walter Curt.  The Victory of the New Building Style.  Translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave.  (Getty Research Institute.  Los Angeles, CA: 2000).  […]

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