AEG TURBINE FACTORY

Designed by Peter Behrens and Karl Bernhard; completed 1910
Berlin, Germany
Largely misunderstood by the historians of the Modern movement who celebrated it as
the first major work of frank industrial architecture endowed with exceptional “functional
directness,” the AEG Turbine Factory—designed by Peter Behrens and Karl Bernhard
and completed 1910—remains the most admired and most influential of Behrens’s works.
Designed between 1908 and 1909 for the Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesesells (AEG)—
a German electrical concern founded by Emil Rathenau in 1883—the factory was placed
strategically at the southern edge of the factory complex along Huttenstrasse and
Berlichingenstrasse, facing Berlin and the world as a show front of the prosperous
industrial magnate. Complying with such expectations and following his own ideological
stance, Behrens built a magnificent iron and glass hybrid of two eminently classical
temple traditions—the Greek and the Egyptian—meant to glorify industrial might.
In accepting the challenge of designing his first industrial building, Behrens’s concern
was not to recast all of architecture in terms of industry and the machine, as was most
often the case with the next generation of modern architects. Rather, “his concern
was…levating so dominant a societal force as the factory to the level of established
cultural standard” (see Anderson, 1977).
As an adept of the Austrian art historian and critic Alois Riegel’s theory of Kunstwollen (literally,
“artistic will” or the evolutionary force of style) and of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s
aesthetic historicism, exemplified in the concept of the Zeitgeist, Behrens applied in the
design of the Turbine Factory the principles that he had evolved as the leader of the
Darmstadt artists’ colony after 1901. In direct opposition to Gottfried Semper’s
“materialism,” central to Behrens’s approach was belief in the force of the artist, and art,
to transform brute everyday life into a dignified existence. Akin to the carbon
transformed under extreme conditions into a praised diamond, everyday life—and in this
case raw industry, the factory, and the machine—could be transformed under the artist’s
Kunstwollen into an entity of high culture. Such an ideological position, applied to industry, spread
into a number of aesthetic and symbolic themes clearly reflected in the Turbine Factory.
Far from depending on primary concerns for material, technical, and functional purposes,
the factory was, in Behrens’s mind, the result of a specific concretization of selected
industrial features, filtered through the artist’s transcendental will to form. The result was
a vast crystal symbolizing the victory of art over the banality of life in an emerging
machine society. If the industrial fact at hand could not be ignored, it was not the role of
the artist to succumb to it helplessly, either. It is largely because of this position that
Behrens’s first industrial building was unprecedented in industrial architecture and
design.
Entries A–F 31
In aesthetic terms, the central conflict that Behrens faced in the design of the Turbine
Factory was the tectonic character of the ferro-vitreous wide span offered by his engineer,
Karl Bernhard, as the necessary solution for mastering the vastness of the structure and
Behrens’s adherence to the concept of Stereotom ie since his 1905 pavilions at the Oldenburg
Northwest German Art Exhibition. The challenge was, therefore, to find a solution that
would be flexible enough to accommodate the dictates of a particular technology—
including the use of given industrial materials—while preserving architecture as the
eminent symbol of established cultural values of a modern capitalist state. The
culmination of this synthetic process was expressed in the factory’s triumphal templelike
facade with its crystalline central window of staggering dimensions that only advanced
technology could have brought about.
With his limited knowledge of any kind of building technology, Behrens had to rely
on the support of an engineer for such a vast and technically complex building. The
shifting priorities between ideology and technology in the conception of the building
necessarily resulted in a series of ambiguities and concealments that Behrens provoked
rather than avoided in a strained collaboration with Bernhard.
The structural makeup of the factory consists of an asymmetrical three-hinged arch
reinforced by a transversal tie-rod. The longer half of the arch springs vertically up to the
second hinge and then breaks in three facets before reaching the third hinge at the apex of
the arch. In properly structural terms, there was no reason for breaking the second arm
into segments. The decision was a willful intervention in the engineer’s work by Behrens
the artist. Historically, a variety of reasons have been advanced as an explanation for such
a move. Whereas Kenneth Frampton, for example, refers to a rather improbable desire to
create the shape of a farmer’s barn with its typical polygonal gable, Reyner Banham
offers a technological explanation: the need for clearance for the huge internal traveling
crane—even though the section shows that the tying rods forced the crane to run much
lower.
The chiseled gable was, in fact, the result of two specific exigencies of Behrens’s Kunstwollen: the
urge for enforced Stereotom ie and the evocation of Zeichen (sign), the crystalline symbol of life as art.
Indeed, the comparison between Behrens’s earlier representation of the priestess of
Darmstadt carrying the redemptive crystal high above her head, as well as the majestic
front of the temple-factory, reinforces the idea of a crystalshaped gable springing high
above the ground in delicate balance over the equally crystalline abstracted robe of a
priestess.
Furthermore, using the given technology for more ambitious aims, Behrens concealed
the fact that the actual structural system of the factory was made up of a series of hinged
arches by capping the building with a voluminous cornice cutting the arch at the top of its
vertical member. In so doing, Behrens created the visual impression of a trabeated system
in which the vertical members of the arches represented so many columns of a classical
temple. By the same token, the somewhat inwardly inclined glazed surfaces between the
structural members of the side elevation, along with the blown-up roofline and the
massive concrete nonbearing “corner stones” wrapping around a streamlined trapezoidal
silhouette, created a convincing case of a perfectly “stereotomic” volume inflated with
space. Thus undermining the iron framing, Behrens prevented the construction from
dematerializing into a dispersed tectonic grid—as would have been the case with the
Dutert-Contamin Gallerie des Machines—and clearly subverted any engineering
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 32
directness. The formulation of a symbolic structure, however, did not preclude Behrens
from addressing forcefully the nature and purpose of the building.

AEG Turbine Factory, Berlin,
designed by Peter Behrens with Karl
Bernhard (1910)
Still remaining in the realm of powerful symbolism, Behrens allowed the function of the
building to express itself allegorically not only through the exclusive use of industrial
materials on a large scale but also by evoking forcefully the dominant societal role of the
machine in the most memorable details of the building, such as the giant base hinges of
the arches set on high concrete pedestals. As has been noted, what makes the significance
and the importance of the AEG Turbine Factory, aside from actual achievement, “is that
Behrens understood that the established cultural standards must be transformed in the
process of assimilating modern industry.”

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