Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2001
Stanford Anderson Peter Behrens and a New Architecture for the Twentieth Century MIT Press, 2000. 429 pp.; 251 b/w ills. Cloth $59.95 (026201176X)

During his lifetime, Peter Behrens was able to enjoy a great deal of press—thanks to his extensive activity in typography, design, and architecture. In addition to the numerous articles that accompanied his published projects, Behrens became the subject of a monograph by Fritz Hoeber in 1913, while still in the midst of his career. Behrens died in 1940, but remained respected even after World War II, although his achievement was considered to be the work of an early proponent of modernism, rather than that of a designer independent of any group. Not until the sixties, when a more thorough investigation of the preconditions for the emergence of modernism took place, did Behrens’s architectural work become, once again, the object of interpretations that either illuminated his multi-faceted roles as designer, theoretician, and architect, or that differentiated his contributions to Jugendstil, the Deutsche Werkbund, industrial design, and modernism. A short monograph by Hans-Joachim Kadatz appeared in 1977 in Leipzig, and in 1979, Tilman Buddensieg and Henning Rogge published a large study on Behrens in cooperation with the Allgemeine Electrische Gesellschaft (AEG), the giant German industrial corporation, from 1907 to 1914. With an exhaustive review of the sources in the AEG archives, and a thorough analysis, their book became a standard text for this phase of Behrens’s work. A number of in-depth studies followed, such as those on Behrens’s projects in Düsseldorf and Nuremberg, as well as on his position in the Third Reich, but there has been no truly comprehensive assessment of his total body of work.

In 1968, Stanford Anderson completed his doctoral dissertation in architectural history on Behrens’s development between 1900 and 1917. In it he presented the broad outlines of a cultural history of the early work of Behrens, from the Jugendstil to his work for the AEG. Anderson later published several of the chapters as separate contributions in academic journals. However, the whole dissertation was never published as a book, and in subsequent research, he has continued to revisit the theory and practice of Behrens and his contemporaries. Although a new monograph on Behrens from such an established expert might raise the expectation that well-known gaps in scholarship would now be closed, for the most part, Anderson’s recently published volume, Peter Behrens and a New Architecture for the Twentieth Century, is, as he states in the preface, an updated publication of his dissertation, supplemented with materials from his other research, some of which have been published in essay form elsewhere.

Leaving aside Behrens’s beginnings as a painter, Anderson starts by sketching Behrens’s early development against the background of Jugendstil. He distinguishes Behrens’s early theoretical basis from that of figures like August Endell and Henry van de Velde, or the Beuron school, by constructing a table of prevailing artistic attitudes, contrasting “patheticists,” who favor experiential, empathetic responses to art, with “idealists,” who view art as a more conceptual or intellectual matter. Behrens built work, which until 1908 consisted mainly of temporary structures for exhibition pavilions, reflected in rapid succession these different theoretical inspirations. For example, while a melancholic, sober “Zarathustra Style” made its debut in his vestibule at the 1902 Turin Trade Show, or Applied Arts Exhibition, reflecting his preoccupation with Nietzsche, the pavilion at the 1905 Oldenburg Exhibition of Art was a first example of the strongly geometric work that would follow. Returning to romantic precedents or buildings of the proto-Renaissance on the one hand, and influenced by the theories of Berlage and Lauweriks on the other, around 1910, Behrens was drawn toward a neoclassicism that also attracted a number of other architects. Mies van der Rohe, who worked in Behrens’s studio around 1911, was affected by these stylistic successions as well.

Anderson devotes a good deal of attention to the well-documented collaboration between Behrens and the AEG. Behrens’s involvement in the design of mass-produced goods, was intended to lend a clearly defined aesthetic to objects whose structure was largely determined by technological or manufacturing requirements. The AEG’s commercial success confirmed the wisdom of this strategy, although Behrens never approached strict notions of functionalism, or followed the design and manufacturing process from start to finish. The high point of this collaboration was Behrens’s design for the Turbine factory (1907-8), whose gabled façade was eventually elevated to the status of an architectural icon of modernist, industrial architecture. Anderson is critical, however, and with good reason, of the notion put forward by Tilmann Buddensieg and, recently, Mechthild Heuser that the turbine factory’s courtyard façade is an early work of Mies van der Rohe.

After a thorough evaluation of the other AEG buildings, as well as the German Embassy in St. Petersburg and a few private houses, Anderson devotes, in a new chapter, relatively little attention to the projects Behrens designed from 1914 to 1940. The expressionistic phase highlighted by the cathedral Bauhütte at the German Trade Show in Munich 1921-22 and the administration buildings for Hoechst dye works in Frankfurt-Hoechst are treated in brief, as are his participation in the Weissenhof Siedlung, his buildings on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, and the last unrealized project, a building for the AEG headquarters on the north-south axis designed by Albert Speer, which had received approval from Adolf Hitler.

Anderson does attempt to bring the text up to date by taking current scholarship into account, and he balances out some structural irregularities by means of numerous postscripts for each of the book chapters, as well as providing generous footnotes, although these tend to slow one’s reading of the primary text. An appendix listing 218 architectural works and projects, offers a kind of index of projects or catalogue raisonné, though its usefulness is limited without accompanying explanations. While it remains more of a collection of essays and not the closely-constructed monograph still needed, the book has merit in uniting Anderson’s varied researches on Behrens in one volume.

Andres Lepik
Assistant Director General, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Note: A version of this review appeared originally in the Neue Zuericher Zeitung, July 22, 2000. This text was translated by Francesca Rogier from the German manuscript provided by the author.