The medieval masons' lodge as paradigm in Peter Behrens's Dombauhutte in Munich, 1922.

Author:Anderson, Ross
Position:Munich, Germany - Critical essay

It is my dearest wish no longer to speak of art, rather, that we, those of us who concern ourselves with the field, had the right to call ourselves craftsmen.

It is therefore understandable that we came to give our building the name Dombauhutte. Our work should once again make us proud to take part in activity previously considered the craftsman's honor. The fervency of such productivity was at its strongest in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Bauhutten, the working communities of the builders and stonemasons, united in a common spirit. Their life and their creations were founded on regulations, whose rules they guarded as strict secrets ... .--Peter Behrens, "Die Dombauhutte," 1923 (1)

Something of an enigma, Peter Behrens's temporary exhibition building the Dombauhutte at the Deutsche Gewerbeschau Munchen 1922 (1922 German Exhibition of Applied Arts in Munich) has resisted convincing interpretation. (2) It is eccentric both on the level of visual appearance and in respect to the architecture of modernism, which Behrens (1868-1940) is generally ascribed a central role in establishing. A small rectangular masonry pavilion with walls executed in polychromatic brick patterns of interpenetrating chevrons, it exhibits a built durability contrary to the transience of its purpose (Fig. 1}. It is immediately apparent that the architectural paradigm drawn on is the Late Gothic chapel. Of a similar scale, it is longitudinally symmetrical running east to west and has a single centered entry, an abstract apse, and a regularly divided facade mirroring an internal nave-bay composition. The Dombauhutte. is complete with buttresses, abstract gargoyles, and stained-glass windows. This impression of a Gothic chapel is further amplified in the interior (Fig. 2). Exposed brick walls and rustic timber rafters are dimly lit by the narrow stained-glass side windows, with the exception of the rendered apse, its smooth white plaster illuminated by skylights out of view from the nave (Fig. 3). It is endowed with carefully placed Expressionist exhibits with the character of church furnishings, including" an altar, pulpit, baptismal basin, and devotional sculptures. An array of three large floor mosaics occupies the nave. Though there is much that is symbolically explicit, a great deal has remained either implicit or hidden.




Once the architectural sources that attend the motif of the medieval Bauhutte are investigated, a more complete picture of Behrens's intentions reveals itself. The Bauhutte has an extensive history in German architecture. Originally the medieval German masons' lodge, it enjoyed a rebirth in the context of a progressively more secular and scientific culture, acquiring a quasi-mythical status in German Romanticism. (3) It became a vehicle of aspirations for cultural renewal, embodying a vision of "creative making" that stood up against industrialization. As such, it contributes to an understanding of the dilemma of "creative culture" that is the ongoing Romantic legacy: the coupling of remorse at current conditions with the confidence to do something about them.

In 1928, Joseph Cremers produced the first critical writing on Behrens's Dombauhutte. (4) He is enthusiastically supportive of the enterprise, labeling the building an ark of post-World War I religious art. He applauds Behrens's rejection of objectivity (Sachlichheit) in favor of returning to the emotive realm of primal Christianity (Ur-Christentum) as a more profound reflection of the times, as well as his turning away from the contemporary tendency to exhibit exemplary individual works in favor of the collective product of a working community.

The building has received remarkably little attention from recent architectural scholarship, where it is mostly treated as an adjunct to the much larger Hochst AG Technical Administration Building, alongside which it stands chronologically and thematically. (5) The grounds for neglect are manifold. As a temporary building, in existence only from May to October 1922, it offers comparatively little documentary material on which to base an interpretation. False conclusions derived from insufficient evidence have been passed from one author to the next. Alan Windsor writes of the wooden beams of the roof structure protruding thrugh the wall to the exterior and being supported by corbels and buttresses. (6) Wolfgang Pehnt repeats this assertion. (7) In photographs, tiiis appears to be true, as the beams and "gargoyles" are horizontally aligned. However, Behrens's drawings clearly reveal them to be two distinct elements (Fig. 4). Stanford Anderson provides a concise rendering of the general concerns involving the Dombauhutte in the context of Behrens's work in the interwar period. (8) As his goal is to explicate the meaning of the building within the framework of Behrens's work as a whole, he has little interest in portraying the building comprehensively.


The Dombauhutte indeed proves difficult to convincingly situate within the rest of Behrens's work, appearing much darker and unfamiliar. This is partly owing to the general reading of modern architecture as a teleological progression toward Sachlichkeit, marginalizing apparently uncomfortably regressive projects, among which the Dombauhutte is exemplary. In all, it has remained largely opaque to architectural investigation.

Ultimately, the Dombauhutte is neither as insignificant as recent scholarship implies nor as radically innovative as Cremers suggests. Behrens himself evaluated the building as a "modest attempt." (9) Its study serves to clarify certain aspects of the problematic and only partially understood legacy of aes-theticism and historicism that arise out of the Romantic ferment, in particular, the paradoxical claim of modern aesthetics to be simultaneously autonomous and culturally all-encompassing.

Behrens enlists the cultural and architectural legacy of the Middle Ages in his ambition to revive cultural continuity, viewing it as a time of sophisticated mediation in the manifestation of the highest values. To this end, he effects a decantation of religious experience into aesthetic experience, illuminating the problem of meaning in secular culture. As the receptacle for values initially attached to the Gothic cathedral, the architectural motif of the Bauhutte is particularly helpful in pinpointing how architecture stands in respect to attempts to create or reground a culture as meaningful and comprehensive as the medieval society in which the original Bauhutte was situated.

Formally, the Dombauhutte is unique in Behrens's oeuvre, and viewed in isolation there appears little to warrant intensive study. Yet, when it is explored thematically, one realizes that actually far from being a radically willful one-off building, it raises issues more central both to Behrens's architecture and to modernism more generally.

There are very few sources to aid interpretation, making the building even more enigmatic. The contract stipulated that the building was to be demolished prior to handing back the site to the city of Munich on January 31, 1923, and recent aerial photographs testify to the lack of physical remains. Sources therefore consist solely of photographs, drawings, and contemporary testimonies. Only two exterior photographs have ever been in circulation. One of them has been reproduced particularly often, presumably because of its dramatic perspective (Fig. 1). The original was published in Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration in 1923, accompanying an extract from Behrens's speech at the official opening of the building. Since then the image has been poorly reproduced a number of times, tightly cropped with high contrast and significant loss of detail. (10) The dappled shadows cast by the foliage, which subtly textures the facade of the original, appear to consume the building in the latter generations of the image. The Dombauhutte has become progressively more rudimentary and mysterious through historiographical study, as contrast has increased at the expense of clarity.

An interpretation of the genesis and architectural content of the Dombauhutte must be situated in respect to other responses in the arts to the terrible physical destruction and cultural turmoil caused by World War I. Some artists and architects sought a fundamental reevaluation of the trajectory of modern technology, promoting a collective return to craft that was often modeled on religious working communities. In 1929, Behrens himself revealed in a letter to August Hoff that in the church he recognized "a counterweight for our modern times against the materialism, the all too pervasive neue Sachlichkeit of the new age." (11)The Dombauhutte furnished Behrens with an opportunity to unite his conviction that craft is the basis for good architecture, outlined in Uber die Beziehungen der kunstlerischen und technischen Problem (Concerning the Relationship of Artistic and Technical Problems), 1917, and Reform der kunstlerischen Erziehung (Reform of Artistic Education), 1919, with the spiritual unity of a religious working community.

The primary source for the concrete historical background of the exhibition used here is the Amtlicher Verwaltungsbericht der Ausstellungsleitung (Official Administrative Report of the Exhibition Executive), authored by Edwin Redslob. This summary document chronicles the events leading to the exhibition, noting that from 1919 there had, been repeated calls for a German exhibition of applied arts, especially through articles in the journal Munchner Bund. Munich was selected over other interested cities once its two mayors declared themselves willing to provide substantial financial assistance as well as the grounds for the exhibition, and the Deutscher Werk-bund and the Verband Deutscher Kunstgewerbevereine (Federation of German Applied Arts Societies) pledged their full cooperation. The...

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