EXPRESSIONISM

The postimpressionist revolution in late 19th-century painting eventually brought the
opposite of figurative representation, namely, Expressionism. If representation was no
longer the main goal of art, the expression of one’s inner spiritual self offered itself as an
alternative. In the first decade of the 20th century, this direction was taken primarily by
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German artists, most successfully by the two movements Der Blaue Reiter and Die
Brücke. Painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner used art to
express the soul and their emotional reactions to the modern era. Their paintings
introduced a cryptic, abbreviated style to art. The origin of a design in the creator’s self
and a drawing technique that was not concerned with exact figural representation were
among the main impulses for Expressionist architecture.
Centered primarily in Germany and the Netherlands, Expressionist architects, just like
their mainstream International Style colleagues, tried above all to cope with the industrial
age. However, like their namesakes in painting, they attempted to express this age instead
of representing it. Apart from this artistic goal, Expressionist architecture also dealt with
communal concepts. Immediately after World War I, the massive physical and human
destruction that had been caused by the first large-scale mechanical warfare engendered
an anti-industrial feeling. Industry had excelled in manufacturing death machines that
resulted in utter destruction. Such a common enemy brought forth thoughts about
fraternization, community, and democracy. Especially in Germany, the postwar reality
was difficult to bear. The shock of having lost the war brought with it the feeling that an
era had passed and that it was time to orchestrate the rebirth of communal life and the
arts. With its propagation of exactly such goals, Expressionism offered a feasible way to
cope with the problems of the early 1920s in Europe. Expressionism rejected the machine
age as the foundation of artistic creation. In architecture, this came out as the opposition
to design as conditioned only by utility, materials, construction, and economics. Instead,
Expressionism advocated that political and artistic revolution were the same by
transposing the social uprising into artistic activity.
Apart from the origin in painting, immediate stylistic sources of Expressionism in
architecture are found in Art Nouveau and other late 19th-century attempts at renewal,
especially in the work of Hendrik Petrus Berlage, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Otto Wagner.
Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) was particularly favored because it had rejected industrial
construction methods and displayed a rather romantic longing in its naturalistic
decorative structures. However, Expressionist architects had quite an open attitude
toward the past. The styles in which all the arts had combined to produce decorated forms
were preferred sources for inspiration. From Egypt came the concepts of cave and tower.
Gothic architecture provided examples for the social and communal purposes of
architecture and showed the triumph of expression over function. Far Eastern architecture
was an important source because it combined architectural and sculptural forms and
because of the mystical doctrines that informed this architecture.
The particular mind-set of Expressionist architects was also influenced by literary and
philosophical sources, found primarily in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. From Nietzsche
came the admonition to let primitive instincts, not conscious self-control, determine
artistic creations, whereas Kierkegaard emphasized the psychological background for this
style in the spiritual searching and feeling of despair that were produced through the
material instability.
The most significant heritage of Expressionism is that it attempted to solve the
problems of the world through mainly symbolic architecture. Architects felt that they had
to act on behalf of society and believed that they had to force people to realize their
happiness through building. In those years, the spiritual realm was very far removed from
reality. Expressionist architecture had a strong Utopian urge. It was the search for a new
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reality, a new sense of life, and a new ethics of humanity. Many of the projects are indeed
on a cosmic scale. This stemmed primarily from architects aiming to create their designs
directly from their own visions. They let their hands draw the designs automatically and
tried to exclude the mind from participating in the sketching. Their designs came out of
an uncontrollable inner necessity and an inner spiritual life. The architects felt themselves
to be the instruments of an absolute, metaphysical will and saw their task as transforming
this spirit into reality. They wanted to achieve the direct transformation of consciousness
into pure activity and did not pay much consideration to the objects that resulted from
this. Theirs was an architecture that appealed to the intellect through feeling. With such
practices, Expressionist architects found their modernity independently, unlike the
International Style, which found its modernity through representation. Like the
International Style, Expressionism avoided the literal imitation of traditional styles, but it
also focused on expressing ideas. The Expressionist conception of the building was that
of a total work of art that would present an aesthetic unity and thus become communal
art. In this sense, architecture was spiritual.
In terms of form, Expressionist architects had a preference for cavelike interiors and
towerlike exteriors. Inside their buildings, one felt enveloped not by walls and ceiling but
by an encompassing membrane. Interiors felt physically oppressing on the inhabitant,
who had to use sight, touch, and other synesthetic senses to understand his or her
whereabouts. The theme of the cave was articulated in the exterior through a tectonic
treatment of the building surfaces. The tower shape was articulated mostly by fashioning
buildings as crowns, be they in the city or on the top of mountains.
In Germany, Paul Scheerbart instigated the preference for glass and crystals among
Expressionist architects. Scheerbart can best be described as one of the fathers of science
fiction in Germany. Apart from providing technical information in his book Glasarchitekt ur (1914),
Scheerbart also promoted glass building for its generation of a new morality. Glass stood
for brighter awareness, clearer determination, and utter gentleness. It represented the
search for light and higher truth—the clarification of the soul—and can generally serve as
a social catalyst. Glass buildings can function as shelter as well as extend garden
architecture. This transparent material forces the users to continually relate to their
environment, both the natural and the cosmic one. Glass buildings resemble states of
emotion and suggest infinite space. In its mineral form, as crystal, glass became a symbol
for the new life. Thus, glass and crystal forms presented the milieu that would give birth
to the new culture.
Many Expressionist architects gave glass a special role in their designs. Bruno Taut,
the organizer and indefatigable theoretician of Expressionism, was particularly taken with
Scheerbart’s ideas. He accepted the purifying potential of glass and crystal in his designs.
These were especially notable in the Glass Pavilion he designed in 1914 for the glass
industry at the Cologne Werkbund exhibition. There, Taut added a cosmological
component. Glass was used as the material that enabled the reconciliation of mind and
matter. The Glass Pavilion created primarily an experience for the user in the form of a
purification ritual. It was intended to introduce a lighter building method and high-light
the effects of glass to architecture. It is assembled from a centralized building with an
addition at the back. The pavilion consists of a geodesic dome on a concrete base. Prism
glass in reinforced-concrete frames was used for both the walls and the stair treads
leading up to the glass hall. This is covered by a crystal-shaped dome assembled from
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reinforced-concrete ribs and colored-glass panels resting on prism glass. Visitors took a
predetermined path that ultimately led them to the cascade room on the lower level.
Water flowed down glass steps and terminated in a recess in which pictures from a
kaleidoscope were projected. The procession through this pavilion was characterized by
seductive anticipation and an increasingly intense experience of space. In Taut’s later Alpine Architecture
(1919), glass was used on an increased scale by designing glass pavilions on
mountaintops.
As such endeavors suggest, Expressionism was a romantic movement. It can rightfully
be criticized for not having been able to resist the seduction from formal aspects of
architecture at the expense of all other concerns. Many Expressionist designs look like
they are ready to depart. This notion of mobile architecture was aimed to symbolize
metamorphosis and transcendence. Taut’s early apartment buildings of the 1910s
exemplify these goals. In these large structures, he attempted to engender a communal
impression through color and facade articulation. Similarly, Erich Mendelsohn’s early
sketches express a dynamic feeling. These designs show forms that are derived from
structure and the expression of the purpose of the building. They are rather abstract
renderings of these intentions. The essence of the projects is artistic, not architectural, as
they are not primarily meant to be realized. Mendelsohn wanted to formulate a new style
based on industrial forms and materials. The gesture of drawing coincides with
aerodynamic lines, producing a formal expression of “industrial” energy. Following the
contour of a form with one’s eyes is the only thing needed to understand the design. In
his Einstein Tower (1924) in Potsdam, Germany he attempted to represent energy
through mass. The form of the tower wants to show the movement that is immanent in
the building mass. Thus, there is a melding of technical function and monumentality. The
building implies the potential to leap forward, as if it contained energy.
Concerns with materials and meaning produced other variations. Fritz Höger’s Chile
House (1923) in Hamburg, for example, was a speculative office building in the tradition
of the Hamburg Kontorhaus (commercial office building). The structure is a frame built
entirely of brick. Thus, it became a counterpart to the other Expressionist material: glass.
Brick alluded to a craft tradition and was better suited to Hamburg’s damp climate. The
bricks were vitrified. In its form, the Chile House evokes the image of a ship. Its sharp
corners parallel the crystalline forms of other Expressionist architects. In general, the
form alludes to many images, such as a fish or a flag.
A group of younger architects formed the Crystal Chain under Taut’s leadership. This
was mostly a group of solitary criers in the wilderness of the industrial world who formed
a magic circle of mystery among themselves. Most of the members shared the wish for
large-scale buildings that would bring all the arts together. The letters they wrote to one
another document their attempts to go back to the roots, the origins, of creative
architectural activity. Among the most charismatic members was Hermann Finsterlin,
who had studied natural sciences and considered himself to be the Darwin of architecture.
His conception of architecture was almost biological, dealing primarily with form and
showing an evolution that dealt with biological urges and species, not with style.
Similarly, he considered his visionary designs to be natural living organisms assembled
from basic shapes. His sketches show strong anthropomorphic similarities.
In Dutch Expressionism, designing was seen primarily as an individual struggle of the
architect’s vision against materials and the construction reality. Unlike the ideological
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emphasis of German Expressionism, the Dutch School’s buildings are characterized by a
tendency toward composition and construction. Their architecture is distinguished by an
emphasis on the plastic force of the building form. Buildings were designed and
constructed according to the principles of organic growth found in nature. This was an
architecture that looked like sculpture, in which materials were molded to enclose space.
The architects used hand-formed bricks and tiles in various colors and shaped chimneys,
balconies, towers, and ornamentation as sculptural additions to the building form. In this
manner, purely functional parts were transfigured into symbolic aspects expressing the
joy of everyday life. This merger between architecture and sculpture successfully
expressed the inner aspirations of the architect and his clients. Building outlines are
simple and firm and articulated in sinuous rhythms. This allowed architects to display
emotion in their designs by endowing the building materials with their spirit and gave
their buildings a unique character that allowed the inhabitants to identify with their
homes. Architecture as art could be created only through an inward struggle. Through all
of this, the architects expressed the essential character of society as a communal whole.
In their buildings, architects tried to anticipate a better future, which also reflected a
nostalgic longing for the social fabric symbolized in medieval architecture.
Consequently, most Dutch Expressionist work is found in the area of communal, lowincome
workers’ housing. Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer attempted to renew the
existing Dutch communal housing traditions rather than inventing something completely
novel. They generally used traditional materials and construction systems rather than the
new industrial materials and structures. De Klerk’s buildings excel at making
conventional forms more piquant, primarily by presenting truncated shapes. He linked the
individual elements and units of his forms in a dynamic manner. Masses rise and fall
rhythmically, and large wall expanses are broken by terraces. His Eigen Haard Housing
Estate (1913–21) in Amsterdam is a masterpiece in sculptural modeling. De Klerk
wanted to make people happy through forms. Here, he created a fantastic environment.
The overall forms follow closely the requirements of urban architecture—namely, those
of articulating the traffic flow of the street—whereas individual details and facade
articulations are Expressionist. There are many references to the sea and the nautical
world in the forms and facades. Tile work and polychromatic brickwork are used to
provide these impressions. Cylindrical forms further emphasize the corners of the
buildings and are used to articulate communal entrances. Tower forms are also meant to
express the village nature of this estate. The entire building complex and its details allude
hypothetically to remnants from past, medieval cultures.
Rudolf Steiner represents the theosophical wing of Expressionism. His work may also
serve as an example for the innovative use of new materials of this movement. In his
Goetheanum (1927) in Dornach, he exploited reinforced concrete to achieve an
imaginative shape. This produced a unique design that has no sources or progeny. Its
form and details repeat a basic motif that Steiner had determined at the outset of the
design. Nothing in the building exists in isolation: every part and detail strives toward the
next one. Steiner’s purpose was simply to find the way to the spirit through architecture.
In this, he also showcases the mood of ideological and religious awakening of
Expressionism. He was above all interested in alluding to the spiritual states that loom
behind physical reality. For him, architecture was the medium that stimulates forms of
thought that lead to spiritual rejuvenation.
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With the German economic recovery of 1923, Expressionism ceded to a more sober,
pragmatic approach to architecture. Constructing cheaply and abundantly became more
pressing needs than spiritual rejuvenation. In Amsterdam, for example, architects were
forced to use prefabricated building elements to reduce construction costs. A craftoriented
look was replaced by industrial forms, and individualistic designs lost out
against the representation of a sober objectivity. Ultimately, the International Style
mainstream prevailed. Expressionist architecture was given a bad reputation as the
scapegoat for the adverse political reality in Germany after 1933. Siegfried Giedion
denigrated its designs as “Faustian outbursts against an inimical world,” “fairy castles to
stand on the peak of Monte Rosa,” or “concrete towers as flaccid as jellyfish.” The early
chroniclers of the International Style accused it of having reversed the push for a new
architecture that the signs of the year 1914 announced. These evaluations continued the
denunciation of Expressionism at the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich,
organized by the National Socialists. It was this event that prompted Marxist critics to
proclaim that the same forces that had led to Expressionism also had led to Fascism.
Expressionism was not even accepted as a style; it was accorded value only as the
manifestation of the revolutionary fervor that existed in Germany after World War I.
Although the movement was credited with tearing down the cultural heritage of the 19th
century, it was accepted only as a synonym for opposition and lost out against the
International Style.
The view of Expressionism as simply a revolt has in the meantime ceded to one that
appreciates it as a style favoring personal creative liberty over the scientific rationality of
the International Style. Beginning in the 1950s with the Englishman Reyner Banham,
architectural critics began to reevaluate functionalism. Ultimately, this development
resulted in the postmodern dismissal of the International Style. It was also felt that
Expressionism could not satisfactorily be dealt with from only a purely formal, stylistic
perspective. Expressionism is instead seen as a broad cultural phenomenon that
encompassed a variety of artistic methods. Concurrent with this scholarly reevaluation
came a resurgence of typically Expressionist forms in architecture. Acclaimed
modernists, such as Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, created designs in which human
activity and existence were seen as the central architectural metaphors. Architects such as
Eero Saarinen and Jørn Utzon spearheaded the neo-Expressionist movement. The
material innovations that were produced in the American war industry finally allowed
architects to build expressive formal fantasies. Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (1962) at
Kennedy Airport in New York and Utzon’s Opera House (1973) in Sydney testify to this
situation. Original Expressionists, such as Hans Scharoun and Mendelsohn, realized their
earlier visions in such designs as the Philharmonic Hall (1963) in Berlin and Park
Synagogue (1953) in Cleveland. Another significant part of neo-Expressionism is
centered around the Waldorf Schools, which had been founded by Rudolf Steiner and
which continue to imbue its school buildings, especially in England, with values identical
to those that informed Steiner’s Goetheanum.

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