2.4 The “Modern” factory and thoughts from Europe.

We cannot leave this period without mentioning relevant events in Europe. The factories and warehouses of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were on the whole the work of practical men and engineers. Architects as such had not availed themselves of such mundane work[i]. Their work had often been limited to adorning an engineered building.

However, in the early part of the twentieth century, architects who were starting to react against the superficial historical revivals of this time were taking note of the potential of new materials, steel and concrete, and construction methods available in industrial building.  The two came together with the partnership between the German firm of AEG[ii] and the industrial designer/architect Peter Behrens.[iii] Industrialisation in Germany was barely thirty years old and the electrical industry spearheaded by AEG was particularly new and full of enthusiastic ideas. Herr P Jordan asked Behrens to design products for AEG, the packaging, the advertising and the buildings, in short a “corporate image”. The result, building wise was The AEG turbine factory in Berlin (1909), (figure 2.15) often claimed as the “first modern building”[iv].

2.15. AEG turbine Hall

2.15. AEG turbine Hall

It is of immense size, almost monumental proportions constructed of steel and concrete, its sides of glass slope inwards as they rise which gives it a heavy solid stance on the ground.

A young assistant in Behrens office at the time was Walter Gropius[v]. Other notable junior members at this time were Mies van der Rohe[vi] and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret later known as “Le Corbusier”[vii]. They held positions in the Deutsche Werkbund[viii] who promoted the AEG turbine hall to iconic status and published it in their yearbook of 1913 along with Kahn’s “daylight factories” built in reinforced concrete. The publication argues for a new architecture that reflected the spirit of the age, that of mass production.

Also involved with the Werkbund was Carl Benscheidt Sr., a client of Fagus, a shoe last company, in Alfeld an der Rhein. They had already had a reinforced “daylight” concrete factory built by the English agricultural engineer Ernest Ransome[ix] and had already started to design the main body of a new factory with the architect Eduard Werner[x]. They asked Gropius in the spring of 1911 to add modern exterior elevations to promote a progressive image. The result was that Gropius imbued a strong delineation to the facade, marked by an emphatic two-storey brick entrance with its apparently floating staircase (figure 2.16). Possibly the first use of glass in this way, Gropius emphasised the glazing and apparently structural innovation of the pier free corners seemingly throwing away all means of support.

2.16 Fagus works by Walter Gropius

2.16 Fagus works by Walter Gropius

Therefore, in some cases, a tradition of expressionist architecture had been able to develop in Germany before the war by virtue of patronage by industrialists. It was able to grow in the interwar years through the work of the Bauhaus[xi] and le Corbusier and later was to influence a generation of architects in Germany, USA and eventually Britain.


[i] “Within the hierarchy of decorum, industrial structures, warehouses, mills or foundries rated low. In effect they were the Third Estate of the architectural world; not for them the finery of the parliament house or the regal residence.” As Fairbairn recollected,” in this pioneering phase: mill architecture was out of the question … and the architecture of the country was confined to churches, public buildings and the mansions of the barons or lords of the soil.” ), Edgar Jones ,  Industrial Architecture in Britain 1750-1939, London, 1985, page23.

[ii] AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesellschaft) was established in Berlin in 1883 by Mr. Rathenau, who had obtained the Edison system patent for producing incandescent lamps in Germany. The first AEG factory therefore produced lamps, which meant that it entered the same sector as Siemens and the American company General Electric. The development of electronics and market requests pushed AEG to develop in other sectors such as small, and subsequently big, motors. Circuit Breakers Electro technical Devices Relays Aeg Electro technology Electrical Devices

[iii]  Peter Behrens (b. Hamburg, Germany 1868; d. Berlin, Germany 1940) Peter Behrens was born in Hamburg in 1868. Originally trained as a painter, Behrens eventually abandoned painting in favour of graphic and applied arts. In 1899, he was invited to the Artists’ Colony at Darmstadt where he maintained a leadership position. Afterwards he worked as the Director of the Kunstgewerkeschule in Dusseldorf. Behrens’s interim there stimulated a new geometric abstraction in his work. From 1907 to 1914, Behrens worked as an artistic adviser to the AEG in Berlin. While with AEG, he created the world’s first corporate image. Most of his architectural designs for the AEG borrowed from industry in terms of both form and material. The Turbine Factory in Berlin-Moabit most successfully displays the industrial nature of most of his buildings. Behrens can be considered a key figure in the transition from Jugendstil to Industrial Classicism. He played a central role in the evolution of German Modernism. Behrens died in Berlin in 1940 .Peter Behrens – Great Buildings Online

 [iv]   John Winter. Industrial Architecture, London, 1970, page69

[v] Walter Gropius (b. Berlin, Germany 1883; d. Boston, Massachusetts 1969) Walter Gropius was born in Berlin in 1883. The son of an architect, he studied at the Technical Universities in Munich and Berlin. He joined the office of Peter Behrens in 1910 and three years later established a practice with Adolph Meyer. For his early commissions he borrowed from the Industrial Classicism introduced by Behrens. After serving in the war, Gropius became involved with several groups of radical artists that sprang up in Berlin in the winter of 1918. In March 1919, he was elected chairman of the Working Council for Art and a month later was appointed Director of the Bauhaus. As war became eminent, Gropius left the Bauhaus and resumed private practice in Berlin. Eventually, he was forced to leave Germany for the United States, where he became a professor at Harvard University. From 1938 to 1941, he worked on a series of houses with Marcel Breuer and in 1945; he founded “The Architect’s Collaborative”, a design team that embodied his belief in the value of teamwork. Gropius created innovative designs that borrowed materials and methods of construction from modern technology. This advocacy of industrialized building carried with it a belief in teamwork and an acceptance of standardization and prefabrication. Using technology as a basis, he transformed building into a science of precise mathematical calculations. An important theorist and teacher, Gropius introduced a screen wall system that utilized a structural steel frame to support the floors and which allowed the external glass walls to continue without interruption. Gropius died in Boston, Massachusetts in 1969. Walter Gropius – Great Buildings Online

[vi]  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (b. Aachen, Germany 1886; d. Chicago, Illinois 1969) Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany in 1886. He worked in the family stone-carving business before he joined the office of Bruno Paul in Berlin. He entered the studio of Peter Behrens in 1908 and remained until 1912. Under Behrens’ influence, Mies developed a design approach based on advanced structural techniques and Prussian Classicism. He also developed sympathy for the aesthetic credos of both Russian Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl group. He borrowed from the post and lintel construction of Karl Friedrich Schinkel for his designs in steel and glass. Mies worked with the magazine G that started in July 1923. He made major contributions to the architectural philosophies of the late 1920s and 1930s as artistic director of the Werkbund-sponsored Weissenhof project and as Director of the Bauhaus. Famous for his dictum ‘Less is more’, Mies attempted to create contemplative, neutral spaces through an architecture based on material honesty and structural integrity. Over the last twenty years of his life, Mies achieved his vision of a monumental ‘skin and bone’ architecture. His later works provide a fitting denouement to a life dedicated to the idea of a universal, simplified architecture Mies died in Chicago, Illinois in 1969. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – Great Buildings Online

 [vii]  Le Corbusier (b. La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland; d. Cap Martin, France 1965) Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris was born in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, 1887. Trained as an artist, he travelled extensively through Germany and the East. In Paris, he studied under Auguste Perret and absorbed the cultural and artistic life of the city. During this period, he developed a keen interest in the synthesis of the various arts. Jeanneret-Gris adopted the name Le Corbusier in the early 1920s. Le Corbusier’s early work was related to nature, but as his ideas matured, he developed the Maison-Domino, a basic building prototype for mass production with freestanding pillars and rigid floors. In 1917 he settled in Paris where he issued his book Vers une architecture [Towards a New Architecture], based on his earlier articles in L’Esprit Nouveau. From 1922, Le Corbusier worked with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. During this time, Le Corbusier’s ideas began to take physical form, mainly as houses which he created as “a machine for living in” and which incorporated his trademark five points of architecture. During World War II, Le Corbusier produced little beyond some theories on his utopian ideals and on his modular building scale. In 1947, he started his Unite d’habitation. Although relieved with sculptural rooflines and highly coloured walls, these massive post-war dwelling blocks received justifiable criticism. Le Corbusier’s post-war buildings rejected his earlier industrial forms and utilized vernacular materials, brute concrete and articulated structure. Near the end of his career, he worked on several projects in India, which utilized brutal materials and sculptural forms. In these buildings, he readopted the recessed structural column, the expressive staircase, and the flat undecorated plane of his celebrated five points of architecture. Le Corbusier did not fare well in international competition, but he produced town-planning schemes for many parts of the world, often as an adjunct to a lecture tour. In these schemes, the vehicular and pedestrian zones and the functional zones of the settlements were always emphasized. Le Corbusier – Great Buildings Online

[viii]  Deutsche Werkbund. German association of architects, designers and industrialists. It was active from 1907 to 1934 and then from 1950. It was founded in Munich, prompted by the artistic success of the third Deutsche Kunstgewerbeausstellung, held in Dresden in 1906, and by the then current, very acrimonious debate about the goals of applied art in Germany. Its founder members included Hermann Muthesius, Peter Behrens, Heinrich Tessenow, Fritz Schumacher and Theodor Fischer, who served as its first president.. Deutscher Werkbund

[ix] Ransomes agricultural engineers. Originally from Ipswich Suffolk often known for their lawn mowers. OASI – The Ransomes connection

[x] Eduard Werner (1847-1923), was a colleague of Carl Benscheidt Sr., a client for Fagus whom Gropius knew from an earlier renovation of the Behrens’s factory. Fagus Factory –

[xi] BAUHAUS 1919-1933 || The Bauhaus occupies a place of its own in the history of 20th century culture, architecture, design, art and new media. One of the first colleges of design, it brought together a number of the most outstanding contemporary architects and artists and was not only an innovative training centre but also a place of production and a focus of international debate. At a time when industrial society was in the grip of a crisis, the Bauhaus stood almost alone in asking how the modernization process could be mastered by means of design. || Founded in Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus rallied masters and students who sought to reverse the split between art and production by returning to the crafts as the foundation of all artistic activity and developing exemplary designs for objects and spaces that were to form part of a more humane future society. bauhaus Dessau

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