German architect Hans Scharoun’s compelling story, as both a man and an artist navigating perilous times, has been neglected (aside from architectural historians and seriously informed students) until relatively recently.
Hans Scharoun: Architect and Visionary, organized in collaboration with the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin, and supported by the MIT School of Architecture + Planning and the Goethe-Institut Boston. At MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA, through August 15.
By Mark Favermann
When it comes to the popular history of the visual arts, the contributions of architects tend to be pushed into the background. A case in point is an important leader of the modern movement, the German architect and city planner Hans Scharoun (1893–1972). He was a visionary architect, a spectacular expressionistic watercolorist, and a master draftsman. Yet his compelling story, as both a man and an artist navigating perilous times, has been neglected (aside from architectural historians and seriously informed students) until relatively recently.
That situation is in the midst of change, partly because of a traveling exhibit curated by Eva Maria Barkhofen, director of the Scharoun Archive at the Akademie der Kuenste in Berlin. Thanks to Gary Van Zante, curator of architecture, design, and photography at the MIT Museum, that show has come here. It is a superb, densely packed homage to a very early exponent of organic design who is now considered one of the most significant architectural modernists of the 1920s. A contemporary of such icons as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe, Scharoun made inspired use of nonrectilinear geometry in the creation of his expressive and flowing spaces.
Bernhard Hans Henry Scharoun was born in 1893 in Bremen (in what was then known as the German Empire). After passing his final exams in Bremerhaven in 1912, Scharoun studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin until 1914. But he did not complete his studies. At 18, he entered an architectural competition for the modernization of a church in Bremerhaven. He did not win, but the experience confirmed that he was going to be an architect.
In 1914, he volunteered and served during the First World War and, with Paul Kruchen, his architectural mentor from his time in Berlin, assisted with a reconstruction program for East Prussia. In 1919, after the war, Scharoun initially worked as a freelance draftsman/architect, eventually setting up his own practice in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). There and in Insterburg (now Chernyakhovsk, Russia), he worked on numerous projects and organized art exhibitions, such as the first show of the group of expressionist artists Die Brücke in East Prussia. Their paintings clearly influenced Scharoun’s later artwork.
Scharoun first achieved international recognition with his controversial design for a house in Stuttgart’s Weissenhofsiedlung, which was the site for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition of 1927. His experiments with open planning and dynamic interior spaces continued for the next several decades, reaching their zenith in his highly acclaimed Berlin Philharmonic Hall in 1963.
1927’s Weissenhofsiedlung was part of a full-sized building exhibition presented by Deutsche Werkbund on the Weissenhof Estate. The buildings on the estate (33 houses with 63 apartments) reflect the social, aesthetic and technological changes that followed the end of World War I. A total of 17 architects from Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, and Austria formulated their solutions for designing living arrangements for the modern urban dweller. The participating architects, then considered part of the avant-garde, are now seen as masters of 20th- century building, including Scharoun, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. The majority of the participants were under 45, though senior statesman and pioneer of modern movement architecture Peter Behrens also participated. Using new building materials and efficient construction methods, the buildings were not only designed for cost-effective mass production, but offered a provocative architectural variety.
With Walter Gropius, Hugo Häring, Ernst May, and others, Scharoun was a member of the architects’ association Der Ring, a collective founded in 1926 in Berlin. Der Ring was formed with the objective of promoting modernist architecture, buildings whose expressionist design embraced a functionalist agenda. It took a position against the prevailing architecture of the time, an extremely heavy-handed historicism.
Unlike other groups dedicated to renovating design, the members of Der Ring did not have a detailed program or strict ideology. Hugo Häring and Scharoun were interested in “organic functionalism,” while Mies and Gropius explored possibilities of industrial building via new forms and materials. Häring strongly believed that each building should be developed according to the specific demands of its site and client. He was more of a “paper” architect than a bricks and mortar designer; few of Häring’s designs were ever built. But he was a strong influence on his good friend and colleague Scharoun. A notable Häring design that was constructed is his contribution to the Siemensstadt housing project in Berlin (1929–1931); it was master-planned by Scharoun.
Due to the rise of National Socialism and the emigration of many of its members, Der Ring lasted only seven years, dissolving in 1933. But the group influenced Scharoun’s approach throughout the rest of his architectural career.
Unlike scores of his most prominent colleagues and many of his friends, Scharoun stayed in Germany from 1933 through WWII. By then he was too old to serve in the military. Decades later, his decision raises a number of uncomfortable (and perhaps unanswerable) questions. Why did he choose to remain in Germany? His modernist aesthetic was obviously anathema to the overblown classicism and monumentalism favored by the Nazis. How did he survive? He received a number of new residential commissions during the middle and late 1930s. But for whom? Wealthy Nazi Party members, higher ranking military staff, or prominent bureaucrats? How was he classified? As a good German, a Nazi sympathizer, or just a gifted architect?
To make a living, Scharoun probably taught architecture during this period. But that would have meant that he would have at least had to give lip service to National Socialism. During the war years, his official job was to review, analyze, measure, and evaluate bombing damage to buildings. This meant that even though he kept a low profile, his skills were recognized and utilized by the Nazi regime.
During this grim and almost daily task of reviewing bombed-out rubble, at night and on weekends Scharoun painted many of his visionary, wonderfully expressionistic watercolors. Perhaps the truest expression of his imagination, Scharoun’s paintings are bold and powerfully gestural. In these pictures, the artist explored a brightly-colored subjectivity, forgoing external reality in order to meld his sense of graphic structure and vibrant emotional experiences.
Even today, in the wonderful digital prints in the MIT display from the collection of the Akademie der Künste Berlin, the freshness and accessibility of the watercolors are visually startling. These works are Scharoun’s greatest creative legacy from the war years. The exhibition focuses on Scharoun’s beautifully executed graphic art, from his earliest preserved drawings of 1908 to graphics for posthumous projects. Included are facsimiles of 25 of his rarely seen watercolor renderings from the 1940s.
Apparently, the Allies did not consider Scharoun a social or political threat after the war, so he was appointed Berlin’s City Architect in 1946, a position in which he proved instrumental in shaping the preliminary postwar reconstruction of Berlin. His modest approach emphasized designing buildings that fit in with their surroundings, becoming parts of a decentralized urban landscape. This was in sharp contrast to the monumentally overscaled environments that had dominated Berlin planning and buildings under Albert Speer and the Nazis.
Completed in 1959, Stuttgart’s Romeo and Julia Apartments are the first buildings Scharoun completed after World War II. He designed organic floor plans to open the buildings, like a spread fan, toward the sun. There are almost no right angles, which means that the rooms in the buildings are not easy for its residents to furnish. Despite this geometric (even eccentric) drawback, the buildings have been financially successful.
Scharoun’s most famous building is one of the world’s finest concert halls, the Berlin Philharmonic. Constructed between 1960 and 1963, it opened on October 15th, 1963. Built to replace the old Philharmonie, which was destroyed by British bombers in early 1944, the hall is a singular building, asymmetrical and somewhat tentlike in appearance. The main concert hall is in the shape of a pentagon. It is distinguished by an unconventional geometry, immersive acoustics, and a fluid interplay of space that breaks down traditional barriers between listeners and performers. Built at the same time as the Berlin Wall, the building and its unhierarchical plan symbolized humanistic and democratizing ideals in West Berlin.
The Berlin Philharmonic Hall’s seating offers excellent views of the stage because of the irregularly increasing height of the rows. Seats surround the center stage on all sides. The hall is highly regarded for the quality of its acoustics. The so-called vineyard-style seating arrangement, with terraces rising around a central orchestral platform, became a model for other concert halls around the world, including the Sydney Opera House (1973), Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall (1978), the Gewandhaus in Leipzig (1981), Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003), and the Philharmonie de Paris (to open in 2015).
Hans Scharoun was a modernist master, and his art and career raises a swarm of aesthetic and moral issues, particularly questions generated by the exact nature of his association with Nazism. But the show at MIT proves that his imaginative genius survived the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s, generating memorable architectural forms that are now an indelible part of the history of 20th-century architecture.
An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002.