Hamburg in the 1920s – Modernism with a Local Edge
The beginning of Modernism in Germany was very much a personal thing of individuals, such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Berlin or Otto Haesler in Celle. Hamburg, the second largest German City after Berlin, was dominated by the supreme city architect and urban designer Fritz Schumacher, who was part of a more conservative wing of the reformist movement. Under his aegis (1909-1933) the intellectual discourse amongst the local architects blossomed and the design competitions that he held became powerful tools to progress architecture.
Whereas the early 1920s were coined by expressionist ideas, in which Fritz Hoger built the Chile House , from 1925 the clarified forms of Modernism appeared. In Hamburg, however, those forms materialised in brick and clinker. Thus the Hamburg Modernism became heavier and slightly less elegant than its companion in white plaster but much more resistant against weathering and the air polluted by hundreds of steamship plumes. Since brick had always been the predominant construction material of the city, Modernism corresponded well with the pre-industrial architecture and – by this – emphasised rather evolution than revolution. This particular aspect made the Modernism of Hamburg almost forgotten, although it was very successful. After Modernism became the International Style, Siegfried Gideon and others created its own legacy which was more interested in evidencing that a genuine revolutionary new architecture had emerged; continuity was seen as opportunistic.
There were a few architects dominating the Hamburg Modernism:
- Karl Schneider (1892-1945), who began as early as 1923 in his House Michaelsen to apply pure volumes into domestic architecture. As Jew he was forced out of work and finished his life as graphic designer for Sears advertisements, forgotten and unsupported by his successful German fellow emigrants.
- Hans and Oskar Gerson (1881-1931; 1886-1966), who transformed the New York metropolitan office building into the Hamburg context. Aldo Rossi told me that their Ballinhof (1924) was the building that impressed him most in the city. Oskar – also a Jew could continue his career after emigrating in California.
- Gustav Oelsner (1879-1956), the city architect and planner of the neighbour city of Altona (incorporated to Hamburg 1937) chose third tier yellowish bricks to shape the most modern German metropolis between the wars. He – being Jew as well - emigrated to the Turkey and later lead the reconstruction of Hamburg.
After WW2 the north of Germany oriented to Denmark where a local Modernism had survived the German occupation. Clear volumes and crafty details characterise this phase, which ended when prosperity drove to adopt international favours. I was part of a movement that attempted to continue the Hamburg School of architecture of the pre-war period in the 1980s. For a decade the city re-invigorated its architectural legacy until globalisation took over. I still believe that architecture should be contemporary in its attitude but rooted into the local spirit as well. The world is tired of global sameness.
Images from Karl Schneider's "Bauten: Neue Werk Kunst" ©1929
- Posted Aug. 12, 2011