Industrialism, Functionalism and the New Objectivity in Europe: Social Housing and Social Consciousness.
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Industrialism, Functionalism and the New Objectivity in Europe: Social Housing and Social Consciousness
The early years of the 20th century saw the development of ferro- concrete structural systems. Among the leaders of ferro-concrete research and experimentation were Gustave and Auguste Perret in France. Their designs were bold, innovative, and limited to no particular building type. The Franco-Swiss architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret, who took the pseudonym “LeCorbusier,” worked in the Perret studio in the years before World War I. He must have been very familiar with the apartment dwelling block at 25 bis Rue Franklin which Auguste Perret built in 1902. From its lessons, Le Corbusier developed an even more radical approach to reinforced concrete, a material he continued to use throughout his career.
Paris, Auguste Perret, 25 bis Rue Franklin, 1902
The important structural innovation here is the elimination of heavy masonry bearing walls in favor of reinforced concrete columns of small cross-section that support concrete slab floor planes. This liberates the arrangement of space: thin partitions enclose rooms without concern for load.
For Le Corbusier, the implications of this remarkable design were quite vast. He proposed a simple concrete structural paradigm that took the Perret idea further. In his “Dom-ino” house, the slab of the first floor is lifted off the ground to eliminate a basement or to provide outdoor space for various needs. The second floor and roof slabs are supported by slender columns that are set back from the edges of the slabs. This frees both the design of the envelope as well as the arrangement of interior space The roof becomes an additional outdoor space, accessible by stairs, just as the first and second floors.
Le Corbusier, “Dom-ino” House, c1914, and possible housing community based on the “Dom-ino” system
In Berlin, one of the most active and innovative designers prior to World War I was Peter Behrens who was retained by AEG (the Allgemeine Elektrizitaets Gesellschaft or the “General Electric Company” of Germany) as head of design. Behrens designed not only architecture for AEG but exhibits, events, graphics, and virtually everything else that affected the public image of the company. During the period when Behrens designed the AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin, his office was a hot bed of new talent that included several designers who would soon emerge as leading talents: Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Berlin, Peter Behrens, AEG Turbine Factory, 1908-09
Just before World War I, Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer won the commission to renovate and remodel the Faguswerke in the little town of Alfeld on the river Leine. The Fagus company produced shoelasts and wanted to have a modern plant for its production. This was Gropius and Meyer’s most important opportunity to implement ideas and inspirations that they had begun to develop. It is easy to see the influence of Peter Behrens on this early work.
Alfeld-an-der-Leine, Walter Gropius & Adolf Meyer, Fagus Shoelast Factory, 1911-12
Just after World War I, Holland became an important contributor to architectural ideas about social housing that were also important to Germany architects like Gropius, Meyer, Mies van der Rohe, and Behrens. Additionally, an important movement called “de Stijl” (named after a magazine that reviewed important developments in contemporary art currents) brought new ideas about abstraction to fruition in architecture, especially by such designers as Gerrit Rietveld. His Schroeder House in Utrecht is an excellent example of the marriage of the new concrete technology with the notion of formal abstraction.
Just after World War I, during the period of the Weimar Republic, Walter Gropius accepted the appointment as head of the Academy of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, an amalgamation of two previously existing state art schools. He reorganized its curriculum along very avant-garde lines pedagogically, administratively, and artistically and renamed it “Bauhaus.” This name recalls the German word “Bauhuette” used to designate the headquarters and the culture of medieval cathedral construction. The fundamental idea was that the Bauhaus would not teach separate disciplines only but would expect cross-fertilization between the arts. The extremely conservative Weimar Government in Weimar was threatened by this idea that sounded like something close to communism to them. They refused to fund the school, so Gropius moved the institution to Dessau where the local city government was eager to support new ideas.
Affordable housing was one of the biggest human social issues in post-World War I (1914-1918) Germany. Private funding of housing was reduced to a minimum because the economy was in severe depression. The only major sources of private funding were large corporations who sometimes built housing projects for their workers. The Siemens Company is an example. The only other solution for the development of much needed shelter, especially for the lower and middle classes was to create social housing projects, funded by local or regional govenments. In 1927, the city of Stuttgart, capital of Baden-Wuerttenberg in southwest Germany, decided to create a model social housing project. They invited Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to manage an international competition to select designers for a variety of housing types from two-family structures, rowhouses, to apartment buildlings. Some of the most famous architects of Europe built in the Weissenhofsiedlung (Weissenhof Settlement).