Friday, 26 April 2013

Viewing Van de Velde/Analyzing Behrens

The exhibition at Weimar’s New Museum celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Belgian genius who has blessed this city’s with its greatest architecture. The Art school he designed in the early twentieth century (currently Bauhaus University’s HQ) makes me feel that I’m reentering my favorite building in the entire world, Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. It’s Jugendstil curves are irresistible. But you have to look at its private history to explain the thrills.

Start with the first industrial world’s fair, London, 1851. What I call the Crystal Palace Syndrome , inappropriate use of energy wasting glass, patinophobic concrete, and rustable iron led to modern architecture’s first errors. At the turn of the 20th century, Germany felt way behind in this global race to be modern. So much that the Prussian HQ sent a famous architect, Hermann Muthesius, to their London Embassy to spy, esthetically!

And so for nine years he scouted about to pocket ideas that would help Germany catch up in the race to be best in industrial and architecture. Alas, he fell in love with the Arts and Crafts movement that followed William Morris fear of mass production. Instead of reporting the breakthrough of the first industrial designer, a former Victorian decorater Christopher Dresser, he came home and wrote a series of books touting Morris’s villas!

Meanwhile, Jena University (the city next to Weimar) had given Dresser an honorary doctorate in 1858 for his book on Victorian design just after he graduated from Glasgow University. Actually Dresser’s real breakthrough, to be hailed retroactively as the first industrial designer, took place Philadelphia in 1976 at the World’s Fair celebrating the U.S, Centennial. He gave a series of four lectures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Then he made an astonishing sweep through Japan looking at their popular art. Upon his return, he declared, “I went to Japan a mere decorator; I returned a designer!” And How!

I read about his book 13 years ago. But I had never seen his “famous” industrial designs, in metal and glass—until this exhibition. Van de Velde was on to it! He was a late designer, relishing his first loves of painting and music until he was 34. But then he lived to be 94! Designing everything in sight! A train’s interior, a men’s barber shop, furniture for every need, and of course buildings, large, medium and small. All over Weimar. All over the state of Thuringia. In fact, the tourist agencies here have created handy, colorful maps to make it easy to relish his visual charms. There are many diverse guides to be Googled.

Now, unlike Multhesius’s blowing it in his assignment to scout Germany’s design competitors, Weimar’s Duke William Ernst’s program to bring Weimar up to date was extremely successful! Harry Graf Kessler was an early Euro cultural diplomat. He wandered the continent bringing fresh ideas back to the capital of Thuringia. Van de Velde was one of his great finds. Indeed, if there had been no World War I, he wouldn’t have become an an enemy alien asked to leave in 1916. And No Gropius and his Bauhaus. Because the Belgian nominated Gropius to follow him as direct of the extant Art School when he was banished.

The second great exhibition this spring is about another self-taught architect, Peter Behrens. He came from a wealthy Hamburg family and they supported his whim to become a painter. (Unlike Van de Velde, whose father was a successful druggist and wanted his son to follow his career.) It happened that another Duke, Ludwig of Hesse, wanted his dukedom to do better than its competitors. So he founded in 1998, an Artists Colony, in Darmstadt, the state capital. Behrens accepted his invitation and built a completely original house and furnished it entirely with his own designs. It’s the visual treat still enticing crowds to Darmstadt.

But Behrens was on another tack of originality. And in 1908 he founded an architectural office out-side Berlin. My eyes blink every time I remember who his four young aides were: Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius—and the man who would become his secret partner, Adolf Meyer.The most fatal thing for German architecture that developed there was bluecollar mason’s son Mies having to report to upperclass Gropius. It crippled Mies into always striving for functionless forms so he could become famous and first class!

Fate had it that AEG, the electricity corporation, asked Peter if he would become artistic advisor. Did he ever. He designed first one of the great buildings of modern Germany, the Turbine Factory. Then he proceeded to design everything connected with the new domestic electricity business: fans, heaters, advertisements for their sale.

And the clever director of Erfurt’s Art Hall had devised a small handheld numbered guide to every part of the exhibition. I’ve never been so satisfied in comprehending the significance of highly diverse creations. Ask for it before you take one look! There’s also a brilliant pictorial catalog in English and German.

May I suggest a long weekend to see the two? Together, they make even more sense of a crucial episode in architectural development. Public transportation is so simple, it’s better than renting a car. Both architects would be impressed!

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