Completion of the AEG Turbine Factory Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peter Behrens’s design for a modern factory building proved that functionalism and creativity could coexist in the architecture of the industrial age.

Summary of Event

The relation between industry and creative design was a troubling issue in European culture at the start of the twentieth century. The huge scale and utilitarian motives of the age’s new structures—steel bridges, railroad sheds, factories—mocked the idea that applying traditional ornamentation to them would humanize them. Beyond that, the mysterious processes of industry itself met no standard model for humanistic culture. Traditional designs were out of sync with the new machine world, but that world seemed too given over to utility and exploitation to be worth celebrating with new forms. The Deutscher Werkbund, Deutscher Werkbund an organization of craftsmen founded in 1907, declared that the problem had to be fought at its source: Workers, managers, and consumers should have their spirits elevated through factories and products designed by great artists. Peter Behrens’s designs for the AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft, or German General Electric Company) gave stylistic expression to the Werkbund’s ambition. Architecture;AEG turbine factory AEG turbine factory Industrial design [kw]Completion of the AEG Turbine Factory (Oct., 1909) [kw]AEG Turbine Factory, Completion of the (Oct., 1909) [kw]Turbine Factory, Completion of the AEG (Oct., 1909) [kw]Factory, Completion of the AEG Turbine (Oct., 1909) Architecture;AEG turbine factory AEG turbine factory Industrial design [g]Germany;Oct., 1909: Completion of the AEG Turbine Factory[02480] [c]Architecture;Oct., 1909: Completion of the AEG Turbine Factory[02480] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Oct., 1909: Completion of the AEG Turbine Factory[02480] Behrens, Peter Jordan, Paul Bernhard, Karl Lasche, Oskar

At first, Behrens thought that industrial standardization had to be fought through the bizarre, individualistic forms of Art Nouveau Art Nouveau (called Jugendstil Jugendstil in Germany). He soon decided, however, that Art Nouveau’s extremism betrayed the nature of architecture, which is based on utility, geometry, solidity, and rhythm. He also decided (based on his reading of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche) that it was his responsibility as an artist to seek out, embrace, and transform the most powerful force of the age. For Behrens, as for the Werkbund, that force was technology; he believed, therefore, that the great modern architect must design in accordance with industry’s characteristics—matter-of-factness, forcefulness, monumental scale, standardization, and repetition—without losing his identity to the machine.

The directors of the electrical conglomerate AEG accepted the Werkbund’s ideas about art and industry. The corporation was so successful and powerful that its leaders felt a responsibility to make it a cultural force for good commensurate with its economic might. Paul Jordan, AEG’s director of factories, thought the corporation should do this by making AEG’s products and factories works of art, spreading aesthetic awareness to their users. In 1907, AEG hired Behrens as its artistic adviser.

Behrens first brought his new simple, geometric style to AEG’s brochures and casings for its small appliances. Their simplicity and unity of style, he said, were analogies for the functionalism and mass-produced repetition of the products themselves. In 1908, AEG factory director Oskar Lasche invited Behrens to take part in the design of a new turbine factory on Huttenstrasse in Berlin. This marked the first time that Behrens had the opportunity to shape an AEG product from its inception. His ambition was to create a factory that would be an artistic statement without hiding its functionalism behind ornament.

The heart of the building was a pair of fifty-ton cranes, designed by civil engineer Karl Bernhard, that carried turbine components down the center of the factory. The 660-foot-long double line of supports for the cranes determined the shape of the building. Behrens incorporated the supporting frame into the exterior surface of the building, a row of load-bearing columns designed on the principle of the Greek temple. Where the row stopped at Huttenstrasse, the box shape suggested by the frame required symmetrical, monumental expression. Behrens shaped this end to suggest both the force and the smoothness of machine operations, giving it a plain, six-sided gable over a huge central window.

The barrel-vaulted roof required for the gable was Behrens’s only interference in Bernhard’s functional plans. The steel frame, its concrete footing, and the glass window infill determined all visible materials for the building. There would be no decorative brick or stone disguise on this factory.

Behrens’s design—built in six months and completed in October, 1909—was a huge, stark-looking, but perfectly balanced expression of industrial forces. On the side elevation, exposed steel columns set thirty feet apart, resting on austerely crafted hinges on concrete bases, marched inexorably down the building’s length. Their finely tuned proportions turned Behrens’s image of industry—endless repetition creating a standardized world—into a dignified colonnade. The inner faces of the steel frame sloped inward to meet the crane’s stresses, which Behrens expressed by setting the great windows between the columns at a slant as well. This threw the colonnade into even greater prominence, making clear that it was the building’s essential structure, and brought out the horizontal sweep of the overhanging roof.

Behrens’s imagery changed on the Huttenstrasse front, which was eighty-two feet square. He accentuated the templelike appearance of the gable end by making the building’s corners into massive, rounded concrete pylons, which were grooved with horizontal steel bands to carry the side elevation’s impression of endless length around the corner. The concrete was only a curtain wall between the steel beams, and Behrens revealed this by sloping the pylons inward at the top, as he did with the side windows. Nevertheless, the pillars and the concrete gable gave a weighty dignity to the building’s most visible side. The gable end was Behrens’s metaphor for modern industry, transforming brutal utility into a simple, dignified shrine to humanity’s powers.

Significance

The AEG turbine factory created a sensation among architects, business leaders, and the public. For the first time, a famous architect had combined forces with the machine age instead of trying to hide from it. For architects and critics, the lesson was of enormous importance. Behrens had applied personal creativity to the impersonal demands of functionalism; he had created a building that was a servant of modern industry but was shaped by the values of the artist.

The success of the AEG turbine factory fulfilled the company directors’ hopes for bringing art into industry. Behrens became director of all the corporation’s design projects, and his work for AEG, which lasted through World War I and continued intermittently afterward until his death in 1940, extended beyond factories and consumer products to housing for company employees. Other German companies hired avant-garde architects, notably Werkbund member Hans Poelzig and Behrens’s former assistant Walter Gropius, to design objects, shops, and factories. For the first time, radical architecture was solidly identified with the machine age.

Behrens’s prestige meant that his work for AEG added sales value to the company’s products. AEG benefited from the increased attractiveness of the items he designed, and the reputation for cultural sensitivity that his factory designs brought to AEG made for excellent public relations. The turbine factory’s fame only reinforced the idea that hiring an advanced artist or architect to apply “industrial design” to products paid off. Behrens’s faithful, inspired application of Werkbund goals for the AEG brought the concept of product styling, and the notion that avant-gardism could be a lifestyle accessory, into the marketplace.

The other part of Behrens’s success made the architect a major participant in social and cultural policy. Behrens designed employee housing because Jordan’s goal in hiring him was to improve the quality of life for all who came in contact with AEG. Putting workers’ living space under the direction of a sensitive artist would, in theory, make employees more spiritually healthy, in the same way that turning the factory into a work of art would make them more in harmony with their labor. The idealistic notion of architecture behind this hope had implications beyond the simple fostering of good employee relations. It implied that the avant-garde architect should be the master coordinator of the new industrial world, rebuilding both its public and private sides, physically and spiritually. Behrens himself constantly referred to the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, with their claims that the artist gives form to the deepest impulses of the age, as his sources. Such theories combined with German architectural critics’ obsession with the deeper purpose of art to encourage a messianic vision of architecture.

Behrens’s example pushed Werkbund-inspired architects to test his ideas still further. The major question raised by the turbine factory was whether its success owed more to obedience to function and standardization or to personal artistic vision. Debate on the topic split the Werkbund in 1914 between the antistandardization, Jugendstil individualists and the profunctionalist backers of the anonymous “type” in architecture. The very success of Behrens’s design forced the issue of how completely the architect could surrender to industry’s needs and remain an artist. The question was revived at the end of World War I in the battles between “expressionists” and “functionalists” in modern architecture. In the end, the hope of being useful to society in a chaotic time led most radical architects to embrace functionalism; however, Behrens’s initial goal of transforming function into a symbolic representation of the machine age never fully disappeared. In addition, in the 1920’s, few avant-gardists wanted to serve big business as Behrens had; it was necessary to find some more democratic purpose for utilitarianism, such as public housing.

Some architects viewed the AEG turbine factory as old-fashioned and dishonest in the way it placed art before function. The gabled roof was unnecessary, the concrete corners created a false image of a massive stone building, and the building sides not visible to the public had been left ugly and inharmonious. Behrens’s former employee Walter Gropius Gropius, Walter applied the idea of a simple, cubic architecture based on industrial materials even more ruthlessly. Gropius’s 1911 Fagus shoe-last factory Fagus shoe-last factory[Fagus shoe last] Architecture;Fagus shoe-last factory[Fagus shoe last] was an asymmetrical complex with a flat roof and, instead of concrete pillars, sheets of glass wrapping around the corners of a light steel-frame box. The rigid, heavy industrial aesthetic discovered by Behrens became gravity-defying and free, a reflection of human potential in the new age.

The deepest lessons of Behrens’s architecture came out after World War I, when the old world had been swept away. Gropius brought his vision of a new world of basic industrial shapes, directed by Behrens’s vision of the architect redesigning the entire world, into the founding of the Bauhaus Bauhaus school in 1919. In 1926, Gropius transformed the vision of a dematerialized, abstract, steel-and-glass architecture into one of the masterpieces of the 1920’s, the Bauhaus building in Dessau. Two other former Behrens employees, Le Corbusier Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig pushed Behrens’s discoveries even further to create a new style. Mies van der Rohe refined industrial building down to the classically simple steel frame; Le Corbusier applied an artist’s eye to functionalist “types” to create pure forms.

The idealism behind Behrens’s decision to serve industry created the sense of purpose with which the modern movement of the 1920’s transformed architecture. Although modern architecture’s shapes and immediate ends became different from Behrens’s, the goal—to comprehend, control, and ennoble the forces of modernity—continued the lesson of the AEG factory. Architecture;AEG turbine factory AEG turbine factory Industrial design

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Stanford. Peter Behrens and a New Architecture for the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. Places Behrens and his work in architecture within the cultural context of the times. Includes illustrations, a list of Behrens’s architectural works, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buddensieg, Tilmann. Industriekultur: Peter Behrens and the AEG. Translated by Iain Boyd Whyte. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984. The essential source on the subject and an invaluable guide to debate on art and industry after 1900 in Germany. Excellent photos of Behrens’s buildings, products, and illustrations. Includes catalog of designs, appendixes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Campbell, Joan. The German Werkbund: The Politics of Reform in the Applied Arts. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. History of the Werkbund’s ideas, organization, and influence. Gives little attention to specific works of architecture or to architects except as they participated in Werkbund leadership. Clarifies the different influences on architectural avant-gardism in Germany. Includes chronological summary and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, William. Modern Architecture Since 1900. 3d ed. London: Phaidon Press, 1996. Textbook history includes a chapter on the Werkbund and follows its and Behrens’s later influence on Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe. A good balance of art history and the history of architectural theory. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. The author’s sensitivity to the impact of industrial capitalism on architecture makes the chapter on the Werkbund outstanding. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pevsner, Nikolaus. Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Revision and enlargement of a work first published in 1936 as Pioneers of the Modern Movement. Treats architectural and design history after 1850 as the background to Gropius’s Bauhaus concepts. Dated and biased on that account, but unity of argument and attention to the applied arts help clarify Behrens’s context. Includes index.

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