A Commentary: Bruno Taut, The City Crown, 1919

Bruno Taut, “The City Crown”, in Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby (eds.), Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 295-301.

 

The intention to flee, from the dangerous city, to the safe haven of the countryside or small town, is an intention that defines the architecture of the early twentieth century within Germany.[1] Berlin during the war years of 1914-1918 was one such dangerous city, and architects such as Bruno Taut sought to provide an alternative plan for the city where the spiritual and profane aspects of city life were separated.[2] Influenced by the Garden City movement and Gothic architecture, Taut in ‘The City Crown’ provides a polemical blueprint for the new city in which brotherhood and harmony are championed.[3] [4]

Taut’s vision of ‘The City Crown’ contributes to calls for the return to the land which gained strength in Germany at the turn of the century, and became institutionalised with the founding of the German Garden City Association in 1902.[5] The world’s first garden city was founded by Ebenezer Howard in Letchworth in 1903 and is continually referenced by Taut and contemporary writers such as Paul Wolf.[6]  The housing within Taut’s plan is modelled on the simple cottage structures that he had designed for the German Garden City Association from 1913-1916 in Falkenberg, in the Berlin suburbs.[7] First published in 1919, Taut’s piece also reflects the very real and un-romantic need to return to the land due to the food shortages that had become apparent in Berlin and other German cities by the early months of 1915, that had by 1918,  progressed to mass starvation.[8]

In tandem with the defeat of the nation in World War One and mass starvation, came the Spanish influenza.[9] 250,000 Germans are thought to have died in the pandemic flu in 1918 and 1919, one can see in ‘The City Crown’ that the importance Taut places on the orientation of the city- in order to let good air flow into the city and bad air be contained within the factory district, may be contextually informed by the pandemic.[10] [11] If the pandemic spread like wildfire due to the high density living conditions in Berlin, Taut illustrates an ideal city vision with 150 people per hectare, ample space for each resident.[12]

Taut’s major point is that the new, reformed city must have a building that champions and showcases the highest ideals to be striven for by the people. Without some spiritual centrepiece, the city has no concrete illustration of faith and thus no way for the individual to rise above his own personal concerns.[13] The glass temple creating Taut’s Crown, can be seen in terms of a modern equivalent to the Gothic cathedral.[14] A glass crystalline building, ‘conceived both as a protest against the insanity of war and as a pointer to a better society.’ [15] [16] The sheer amount of light Taut describes within the Crown and the light it reflects ‘like a diamond over everything, sparkling in the sunlight’, provides an alternative to the Mietskaserne and the dark courtyards of Wilhelmine Berlin. [17] [18]

The crystal motif recurs throughout architectural theory of the early twentieth century. Walter Gropius described architecture as ‘the crystalline expression of human beings’ noblest thoughts’.[19] Taut describes his City Crown as the ‘Crystal House’, championing glass architecture’s ‘purity and transcendence’.[20] The inspiration for the glass architecture of Taut and his associates in the Arbeitstrat fur Kunst and the Glaserne Kette group stems from the fantasy author Paul Scheerbart. [21] Scheerbart created worlds of wonder, describing utopian existences lived out under new transparent and colourful architecture.[22] Taut met Scheerbart in 1912, and in February 1914, Taut published ‘A Necessity’, an article calling for the collaboration of all the arts in constructing a new building of glass, steel and concrete.[23] The building would have no function apart from transcendence, and one can see in ‘The City Crown’, that the Crown itself ‘contains nothing apart from an incredibly beautiful room’ that causes ‘every major sensation’ to be awakened when walking around it.[24] [25] The Crown also represents the union of all the arts, directed by the architect.[26]

Contrary to advocating the abandonment of cities, as Taut later advocates in his 1920 piece, ‘Dissolution of Cities’, ‘The City Crown’ offers an alternative vision for the urban landscape- in which both the material and spiritual needs of the population are met.[27] [28] Taut was located on the political left, but arguments for the return to the land appeared on the far right also.[29] The Expressionist fantasies of the 1920s, of which Taut created many, were made manifest in part by housing associations and trade unions, under the Socialist City Council towards the end of the decade.[30]  Glass, steel and concrete architecture to Taut represented a new age, of spiritual enlightenment and of collaboration between the arts, a peaceful age, yearned for by the post-war generation of Germany.

 

[1] Iain Boyd Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 291.

[2] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 292.

[3] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 293.

[4] Bruno Taut, “The City Crown” in Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 296.

[5] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 291.

[6] Paul Wolf, “The Basic Layout of the New City”, in Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 295. Although he advocates a relocation from the city to the country, advocating the creation of garden cities modelled on Letchworth in England.

[7] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 292.

[8] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 291.

[9] Iain Boyd Whyte, “Chapter 9: City in Crisis”, Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 275.

[10] Ibid, p. 275.

[11] Taut, “The City Crown”, p. 298.

[12] Ibid, p. 299.

[13] Ibid, p. 296.

[14] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 292.

[15] Whyte, “The Expressionist Sublime”, p. 118.

[16] Ibid, p. 296.

[17] Taut, “The City Crown,” p. 301.

[18] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 292.

[19] Walter Gropius, “The New Architectural Idea” in Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 286.

[20] Taut, “The City Crown,” p. 301.

[21] Whyte, “The Expressionist Sublime”, p. 126.

[22] Whyte, “The Expressionist Sublime”, p. 126.

[23] Bruno Taut, “A Necessity” in Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 276-278.

[24] Taut, “A Necessity”, p. 278. ‘All idea of social purpose must be avoided’

[25] Taut, “The City Crown,” p. 300.

[26] Taut, “The City Crown,” p. 300.

[27] Bruno Taut, Dissolution of Cities (Hagen: Folkwang, 1920), pl. 1. Illustrates Taut’s alternative settlement plans, contrasting a crowded city with his organic, petal like settlements.

[28] Taut, “The City Crown,” p. 296.

[29] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 292.

[30] Whyte, “Chapter 10: Critical Responses”, p. 293.

 

Bibliography

Books

Boyd Whyte, Iain. “Chapter 10: Critical Responses.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 291-293. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Boyd Whyte, Iain. “The Expressionist Sublime.” In Expressionist Utopias: Paradise, Metropolis, Architectural Fantasy, exhibition catalogue edited by Timothy O. Benson, 118-137. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Washington University Press, 1993.

Gropius, Walter. “The New Architectural Idea.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 286-287. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Taut, Bruno. Dissolution of Cities. Hagen: Folkwang, 1920.

Taut, Bruno. “The City Crown.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 295-301. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Taut, Bruno. “A Necessity.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 276-278. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Wolf, Paul. “The Basic Layout of the New City.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 293-295. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

 

A Commentary: Karl Scheffler, The Tenement Block (1911)

Scheffler, “The Tenement Block”, in Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby (eds.), Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 158-163.

The four decades after the unification of Germany in 1871 witnessed a construction rush- particularly the construction of tenement buildings. With no centralised planning authority, speculative developers and land-owners ruled building in Berlin. Scheffler in his 1911 piece, articulates his view that the developer becoming king of all building is a detriment to the people and the city of Berlin.

Scheffler’s major point is that the failing of the city council to invest in public land when it was indeed public and to create imaginative building regulations has led to sporadic building practices within Berlin, which only aid developers and land owners rather than the city and its people. Scheffler’s critique of the council is a critique linked to the contemporary condemnations of the conservative art policies of Kaiser Wilhelm II, featured in periodicals championing the avant-garde including Pan (1895-1900) and Kunst und Kunstler (1903-1933), edited by Scheffler from 1906 onwards.[1]

Scheffler enters the contemporary discourse on the issue of over-crowding and poor housing quality in Europe and particularly within the city of Berlin.[2] Writers such as Werner Sombart writing in 1906, cited the common European tenement apartment block as making ‘civilised family life impossible’, through its over-crowding caused by the actual design of the building and the economic strains on tenants.[3] Scheffler mirrors his sentiment, although on a more practical level- citing the modern tenement apartment within Berlin as being ‘so cramped that man and wife simply cannot allow themselves a family of any size’, thus the contemporary tenement apartment is a physical barrier to the creation of family and the growth of a community.[4] In 1893  a study was published focusing on 803 apartments located in the Sorauer Strasse, which housed 3.383 people, it established that in 30 percent of the apartments, tenants were taking in night lodgers and as a direct consequence, each person had less than twenty cubic metres of air.[5] Scheffler continues the contemporary critique of tenement blocks, theorising a solution for the problems and horrifying results of such studies, rooted in building regulation and the championing of public rather than private interest.

Scheffler believes the colloquial term Mietskaserne, translated as tenement barracks, represents an innate longing for one’s own space.[6] A contemporary, Rudolf Eberstadt, states that the composition of the Mietskaserne is characterised by the entire plot being taken up by the house, ‘the individual apartment disappears’, the individual is therefore lost within mass architecture and profit is created for the few.[7] [8] Scheffler advocates that the modern tenement block must be built in conditions that take into account ‘real public needs’- not the profit of the developers.[9] Throughout his piece, Scheffler references the speculative nature of building in Berlin, which he believes follows a capitalist methodology; ‘the population is set to decline because housing policy is capitalist in nature’.[10] He presents Capitalists as the antagonists- so appears to be writing for the educated, politically aware, who believe in Socialist principles- at least within the realm of architecture.

Contrary to presenting an architectural alternative to the tenement block, Scheffler as his solution, advocates a complete revision of the conditions that create over-crowding and poor quality of life within the current tenement blocks. Conditions he lists as including; speculative landowners pushing up land prices through building method, building regulations set by the local government focused on bureaucratic public health rules and lack of a communal goal and focus in building.  

[1] Carl Georg Heise and Johannes Langner, “Karl Scheffler” in Metzler art historian Lexicon: two hundred portraits of German-speaking authors from four centuries (Stuggart: Metzler, 1999), pp. 343-6.

[2] Writers such as Walter Sombart, “Domesticity” (1906), Theodor Goecke, “The Working-Class Tenement Block in Berlin” (1890) and Max Jacob, “From Apartment House to Mass Apartment House” (1912) all commented on the modern development of the tenement block, both within a European and Berlin-centric sphere.

[3] Werner Sombart, “Domesticity” (1906) in Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940, ed. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), p. 151.

[4] Karl Scheffler, “The Tenement Block” (1911) in Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940, ed. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), p. 160.

[5] Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, “The Proletarian City”, in Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940. Edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), p. 136.

[6] Ibid p. 159.

[7] Whyte and Frisby, “The Proletarian City”, in Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940, p. 135.

[8] Rudolf Eberstadt, Abwehr der gegen die systematische Wohnungersreform gerichteten Angriffe (1907), quoted in Johann Freidrich Geist and Klaus Kurvers, Das Berliner Mietshaus, 1862-1945. (Munich: Prestel, 1984), p. 219.

[9]Scheffler, “The Tenement Block” (1911) in Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940, p. 163

[10] Ibid p. 160

 

Bibliography

Books

Boyd Whyte, Iain and Frisby, David. “The Proletarian City.” In Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940. Edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 134-137.

Goecke, Theodor. “The Working-Class Tenement Block in Berlin” (1890). In Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940. Edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 137-143.

Heise, Carl Georg and Langner, Johannes. “Karl Scheffler.” In Metzler art historian Lexicon: two hundred portraits of German-speaking authors from four centuries. Stuggart: Metzler, 1999.

Jacob, Max. “From Apartment House to Mass Apartment House” (1912). In Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940. Edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 164-167.

Scheffler, Karl. “The Tenement Block,” (1911). In Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940. Edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 158-163.

Sombart, Werner. “Domesticity,” (1906). In Metropolis Berlin: 1880-1940. Edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 150-153.