The Industrial Cathedrals of Peter Behrens

John Peck on the local architectural legacy of Peter Behrens…

Considered by some to be the world’s first industrial designer, Peter Behrens (1868-1940) is also one of the giants of modern German architecture. His legacy looms especially large in Berlin, where his two most famous building complexes, Moabit’s Turbinenfabrik and Wedding’s AEG Humboldthain campus, tower monumentally over their respective neighborhoods.

Numerous other buildings by Behrens have made their mark on the city, and despite nearly all being built prior to WWII, a surprising number—either through sheer luck or their colossal scale—have survived into the modern era. The greatest of Behrens’ buildings combine a nascent modernism with minimalist neoclassicism, and project power and strength while retaining a workmanlike simplicity.

Though his legacy is inextricably linked to Berlin, Behrens’ connection to the city was never a sure thing. Born in Hamburg into considerable wealth, Behrens was orphaned at a young age and raised by the Sievekings, a family in the upper echelons of Hamburg society. He showed an early interest in painting, and after studying in Hamburg, Karlsruhe, and Düsseldorf, he settled in Munich in 1889, where he began creating work in earnest.

He became involved with the Munich Secession, producing numerous paintings and woodcuts that were often large in scale and featured elements of symbolism, realism, and Art Nouveau. In 1896, Behrens visited Italy for the first time, and the country’s art and culture, and in particular its architecture, had a profound effect on him and became a core influence in his work.

Der Kuss / The Kiss, a 6-colour woodcut from 1898

Behrens also began to branch out into product design and interior decoration, creating porcelain tea sets, silverware, furniture…even clothing. This shift from fine art to handicraft brought him to the attention of Grossherzog Ludwig von Hessen, who invited him to be part of the Darmstadt Künstlerkolonie, a showcase of art, architecture, and performance that the grand duke sought to build and curate via a hand-picked team of creators. It was as part of the Darmstadt Kolonie that Behrens made the transition from interior design and decoration to architecture, designing and overseeing the construction of a house on the Mathindenhöhe. 

Behrens House, Darmstadt

Though it was his first attempt at a full construction, the end result was highly successful, merging a traditional, almost Tudor-style house with curves that hinted at Art Nouveau arabesques, and an overall synergy between elements both within and without.

Over the next several years, Behrens parlayed the overall success of his work at the Kunstlerkolonie into further architectural projects. He also began developing his own typefaces, including the elegant Behrens-Schrift, a Fraktur-adjacent script with Art Nouveau flourishes similar to Eckmann, as well as Kursivs, Antiquas, and sans-serifs. The period from 1900 to 1907 was one of exponential development for Behrens, in which he began to cultivate a cohesive style that would ultimately help shape the Berlin landscape.

1907: The Werkbund and AEG

1907 was a pivotal year for Behrens. It was the year in which the Deutscher Werkbund was formed, and Behrens was selected, along with a formidable group of artists, designers and architects, to be one of its founding members. The organisation was helmed by the influential diplomat and architect Hermann Muthesius, and its overarching goal was to unite the various disciplines that broadly fell under the categories of handicraft, design, industrial production, and the arts.

While the Werkbund, like the Arts & Crafts Movement which served as its basis, was ostensibly based on a valorisation of aesthetics, decorative arts, and craft as noble goals in their own right, it was also a capitalistic (and to some degree nationalistic) attempt to increase the profile of German products worldwide, with significant backing from government and industry leaders.

Over the following decades,  Behrens’ projects served as prime examples of Werkbund principles in action, but it was another event of 1907 would have an even greater effect on the trajectory of his career and life: the beginning of his relationship with Berlin’s AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft). Though Behrens never became a full employee of AEG and remained an independent contractor throughout their decades-long relationship, he was nonetheless a major force behind the company’s identity and aesthetics, an achievement that has led many to consider him the world’s first industrial designer.

One of Behrens’ iconic advertisements for AEG, using his own script

Behrens’ first major project for the company was to update their line of arc lamps. These intensely bright bulbs had a necessarily tubelike shape that was dictated by the long, fast-burning filaments they required, and as such had a fairly limited range of possibility from a design perspective. Nonetheless, Behrens’ iterations of the lamps’ designs were highly successful from both a stylistic and practical standpoint: the aesthetically pleasing designs were popular with AEG’s customers, while his use of mass-producible components meant the production costs were reduced.

In addition to redesigning the arc lamp and re-envisioning AEG’s corporate identity, Behrens also designed and realised several small standalone buildings for AEG at various exhibitions throughout Germany. Perhaps the most notable of these—as well as Behrens’ first Berlin structure—was the AEG Pavilion at the German Shipbuilding Exposition of 1907.

The striking construction used an octagonal shape as its basis, which it embellished upwards and outwards in a beautifully restrained geometry that combined minimalism with neoclassicism. The building shared substantial design traits with several of Behrens’ earlier architectural endeavours (in particular a Protestant church designed for the congregation of Hagen-Wehringhausen that was ultimately rejected), and demonstrated an ability to successfully mine his own work for inspiration.

The AEG Pavilion at the German Shipbuilding Exhibition

His relationship with AEG well established, Behrens settled in Neubabelsberg and built the atelier that would serve as his base of operations. Over the following years, he assembled a staff of promising young architects to assist him, including the impressive trifecta of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier.

It was with the support of this team and the confidence from his early successes with AEG—as well as an urgent need for increased production capacity necessitated by the company’s immense growth—that Behrens was able to make the extraordinary leap from small-scale exhibition buildings to the monumental structures that would form the basis of his architectural legacy. 

Temple of the Turbine: Moabit’s Turbinenfabrik

Completed in 1909, the Turbinenfabrik remains a stunning example of proto-modernism, as well as of early 20th century architecture overall. In early black-and-white photos, with no structures of comparable size near it, the building takes on the mythical scale of an ancient temple, and stands crisply against the grey sky. 

The Turbinenfabrik in the early 20th century

Despite more than a century having passed since it was first built, the hall remains truly impressive in scale. The exterior facade towers over Huttenstraße, with massive, steel-paned windows and carved lettering (the quadruple-hexagon AEG logo above the word “Turbinenfabrik” in Roman script) placed at such a height that it’s best viewed from across the street.

The full length of the hall can be seen at its east-facing side on Berlichingenstraße, where massive, green-painted metal columns alternate with walls of concrete and glass. (The colour scheme was a more recent addition, with both the yellowed concrete and green steel added during renovations in 1978.) 

Walking down the length of Berlichingenstraße reveals the full experience of the structure; its massive steel supports rise pillar-like into the sky, and its tall, vertical-paned windows curve inward to create the illusion that the structure increases in size as it ascends from the ground. The pillars themselves are jointed at roughly chest-height, a decision thought necessary at the time to allow the building to shift under extreme weather conditions, as well as with the shake and sway of trains and the massive machinery within.

Interestingly, as the original train tracks that brought immense machine parts to the hall were in the back of the building and are now enclosed within the greater walled-off complex, the Turbinenhalle lacks any sort of street-facing entrance. This only increases its monumental feeling, with the wall along Berlichingenstraße stretching hundreds of meters as a continuous surface. These unbroken lines, particularly when viewed from the corner, give the building the timeless feel of an ancient Greek or Egyptian temple, enhanced by the regular rhythm of the evenly spaced columns. 

The massive steel columns on the Berlichingenstraße side of the Turbinenfabrik. Photo © Oana Popa via Wikimedia Commons

The final effect is a perfect amalgam of monumentality and minimalism; as Alan Windsor writes in Peter Behrens: Architect and Designer: 

The Turbine Hall, although still to be considered as a landmark in the development of modern architecture, was, of course, by no means a novelty in the sense of being a factory designed as ‘architecture’, nor in that it was invested with a dramatic, temple-like air… Its particular genius lay in the expressive power of steel and glass used on a very large scale, without decorations of any kind; in the carefully related proportions of the building; in the consideration given to each structural feature.

The Electric Factory: AEG at Humboldthain

To the northeast of the Turbinenfabrik, across the canal in Wedding, lies Behrens’ largest Berlin project: The AEG Humboldthain complex. Unlike the Turbinenfabrik, which is currently owned and run by a single company (Siemens), Humboldthain houses dozens of different businesses, ranging from industrial production to broadcast media, as well as several satellite departments from Berlin’s Technical University. This means that the grounds are broadly accessible to the public, allowing for close-up views of Behrens’ buildings alongside those built both before and after his tenure with AEG.

Facade of the Large Machine Assembly Hall

Behrens’ single largest structure at Humboldthain is the Montagehalle für Großmaschinen (Large Machine Assembly Hall) from 1912, which rivals the Turbinenfabrik in scope and design. Unlike its Moabit counterpart, however, its longer side faces Hussitenstraße, which is much broader and more open than the narrow Berlichingenstraße and allows for an impressive wide view of the building as it towers over the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the building’s gabled facade on Voltastraße is much worse for wear, with the incongruous GSG property management logo tacked onto its left side, and a much more straightforward “AEG” sign with worn-looking letters at its centre. Overall, the gable lacks the dynamic tension between vertical and horizontal of the Moabit hall, and ultimately presents a panorama that is more standard and less likely to invoke monumental comparisons.

The massive steel-paned windows on the northern (interior) side of the hall

The major advantage of the Humboldthain site, however, is its accessibility. In addition to the impressive and nuanced northern facade of the Montagehalle, with its massive windows offering views of the expansive interior, there are other Behrens buildings onsite that can be explored, including the angular brick Hochspannungsfabrik (High Tension Materials Factory) and the northern side of the immense Kleinmotorenfabrik (Small Motors Factory).

The complex has several charming smaller details as well, including a circular railroad switching platform near the entrance with its hand-operated crank partially consumed by a tree that has grown over it for decades, a wild array of overhead tracks, a beautifully stylised clock tower, and what appears to be original AEG arc lights of the kind designed by Behrens jutting from the brick buildings at severe angles.

However, the building at Humboldthain that gives the most breathtaking sense of scale is not the airy Montagehalle, but rather the massive, street-facing side of the Kleinmotorenfabrik. Its immense brick columns convey an arguably even more monumental feel than the steel pillars of the Turbinenfabrik, with a walk along the facade’s full length providing an analogously meditative experience, as each massive pillar rises from its graffiti-covered base into the sky.

Further Afield: Haus Wiegand and the Behrensbau

Haus Wiegand (1911-1912) was built for the archaeologist Theodor Wiegand on his Dahlem property. By far the most aggressively neoclassical of Behrens’ surviving works—all the more surprising for a private residence—the building features a columned peristyle in a blend of styles and eras that reflected the owner’s wide-ranging interest in the ancient world. The ridge at the base of the roof that runs around the entirety of the structure serves as a sort of blank frieze, conveying the classical theme while remaining modern. Today the building appropriately houses the German Archaeological Institute.

Classical details of Haus Wiegand. Photo © Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons

In 1917, Behrens designed a building for AEG founder Emil Rathenau’s Nationale Automobil-Gesellschaft in Oberschöneweide. The NAG Building, retroactively named the Behrensbau, was Behrens’ last major industrial project in Berlin, and while its location makes it a less convenient destination than the Turbinenfabrik or the Humboldthain complex, its scale and monumentality are on par with those more famous projects.

At the time it was built, the 58-meter tower made it the tallest building (as differentiated from tallest structures such as church and communications towers) in Germany, breaking the centuries-long record held by the Augsburger Rathaus. Ironically, it would be overtaken the following year by the Siemensturm, which stood in the heart of the Siemensstadt settlement a mere 20 kilometres to the northwest.

Behrensbau Oberschöneweide. Photo © A. Savin via Wikimedia Commons

The tower retains its proto-skyscraper feel today, as the area immediately around it has not been extensively developed. While the building’s surface has become a bit mottled and chipped over the past century, it remains an impressive sight, particularly when viewed from the travertine gate at the foot of the tower. And while AEG’s Kabelwerk Oberspree complex a few hundred meters to the northwest does not include any of Behrens’ buildings, the overall area tends toward the massive scale of the Moabit and Wedding structures.

Alexanderplatz: Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus

The Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus, twin buildings on the northern plaza of Alexanderplatz, were late entries in Behrens’ career, built in 1931 and ’32 respectively. While not as impressive as his massive brick factories, and characterised by a much more straight-laced and conservative feel, the buildings nonetheless retain elements of Behrens’ unique style. Each has a central raised “spine” covered in white panels that bisects the centre and provides continuity between the structures, while also serving as a sort of gateway when looking from north to south. 

Southern view of the Alexanderhaus (right) and Berolinahaus (left) from Alexanderplatz station platform

In appearance, the buildings were neoclassical enough to survive the Nazi years, while simultaneously socialist-modernist enough to survive the DDR era that followed. As is the fate of most of Alexanderplatz’s buildings, their lower floors bear the indignity of countless chain-store logos, but their upper floors have retained enough minimal grandeur to offset the overloaded colour palette and chaotic tourist-focused energy of the surrounding area.

Weighty Words: The Reichstag Portico

Behrens’ final mark on the cityscape is hidden in plain sight on a building that is one of the most important not just in Berlin, but in Germany and perhaps even Europe: the Reichstag. The inscription on the building’s pediment, “Dem Deutschen Volke“, was designed by Behrens and his student Anna Simons in 1909. Originally rejected by the Kaiser as an unfitting addition to the seat of national power, the letters were finally commissioned and installed in 1917 at the urging of then-chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Behrens’ lettering on the Reichstag pediment. Photo © Norbert Aepli via Wikimedia Commons

While the typeface was a meticulously constructed amalgam of numerous styles and eras, including Uncial, Fraktur, and Bastarda, the letters themselves had an almost unbelievably burly and Prussian backstory: they were made, quite literally, from French cannons seized in the Franco-Prussian War of 1813-1815, which had been melted down into raw bronze and reforged.

The massive letters surpass the scale of a mere typographical feature and become as monumental as the relief above them and the columns below. Having survived traumas from the fire of 1933 to the Battle of Berlin to decades of postwar neglect and slow reconstruction, the inscription has proven even stronger than the cannons from which it was made.

Rebuilding a Legacy

During his lifetime, Behrens’ work had a profound influence on the principles of later institutions—most notably the Bauhaus—via both the clout of the Werkbund and his direct tutelage of Gropius, Mies Van Der Rohe, and Le Corbusier during their younger years. Unlike the Bauhaus, though, which was suppressed and eventually closed by the Nazis, both the Werkbund and Behrens himself enjoyed privileged positions, for whatever they were worth and as long as they would last, within the Third Reich.

Albert Speer gained the approval of Hitler himself for Behrens’ work, with the architect’s sharp geometric style and embrace of Greek and Roman forms allowing the Nazi high command to overlook any potential lack of exuberance for its ideals. By the late 1930s, the new Berlin (“Germania“) was in its planning stages, and Behrens was tapped to design a new AEG headquarters on the megacity’s massive north-south axis, which would be created in Speer’s decidedly more fascist-leaning classicism. 

By this point, Behrens’ health was fading quickly, and in 1940 he died of a heart attack in a Berlin hotel room. In a regime preoccupied with war and conquest, his death was barely noticed, and it was only in the decades that followed, as the country rebuilt in the aftermath of the war, that his legacy was rebuilt as well.

While several of his buildings throughout Germany, like so many architectural treasures, were completely destroyed by bombs, a surprising number survived. With the division of the city into East and West, his major industrial centres in Moabit and Wedding ended up on the western side of the wall along with Haus Wiegand, while the buildings at Alexanderplatz and Schöneweide became part of the DDR. 

Alexanderhaus (upper left) and Berolinahaus during the 1979 National Youth Festival. Photo via Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-U0603-0056 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Driven by the functional needs of a massive industrial concern, Behrens’ AEG buildings remained intact throughout the Cold War and reunification, and remain impressive in scale even by today’s standards. The combination of their size and functionality has kept them standing for over a century: solid construction (and a bit of luck) allowed both to survive World War II, while the sheer scale and effectiveness of their design has kept them actively in use through the present day. His Berlin factories remain proto-modernist masterpieces and are a lasting manifestation of his own interpretation of the word architecture as a merging of form with function, as quoted by Windsor: 

Architecture is the art of building, and comprises in its name two ideas; the mastery of the practical, and the art of the beautiful. There is something exhilarating in being able to combine in one word the two ideas–that of practical utility and that of abstract beauty—which unfortunately have too often been opposed to each other.

Locations

Turbinenfabrik: Huttenstraße at Berlichingenstraße, Moabit. U9 Turmstr. or U7 Mierendorfplatz, then catch the M27 bus to Wiebestr./Huttenstr. (westbound from the former, eastbound from the latter). NOTE: The facade of the building is currently under construction, which is expected to continue into late 2021.

AEG Humboldthain: bordered by Brunnenstraße, Gustav-Meyer-Allee, Hussitenstraße and Voltastraße, just south of Volkspark Humboldthain in Wedding (U8 Voltastraße). The monumental brickwork of the Small Motors Factory runs for nearly half a kilometre along Voltastraße, and the facade of the Large Machine Assembly Hall sits at the southwest corner of the block. The entrance to the complex’s interior (generally accessible to the public during standard business hours) is on Gustav-Meyer-Allee at the northwestern corner. The ornate brick-and-tile AEG gate, built in 1896 prior to Behrens’ association with the company, is also worth a visit on Brunnenstraße. (Note: the gate is currently under maintenance and is expected to be obscured by scaffolding through at least summer 2021).

Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus sit directly north of Alexanderplatz station; both can be viewed from the east end of the S-Bahn platform or the northern plaza of Alexanderplatz. The DDR-era Weltzeituhr sits roughly within the L-shape of the Alexanderhaus, and also offers a good vantage point for both buildings.

Haus Wiegand: Peter-Lenné-Straße 28 in Dahlem (U-Podbielskiallee). 

Behrensbau / NAG Building: Wilhelminenhofstraße in Oberschöneweide (Tram M27, M60, M61, or M67 to Rathenaustraße/HTW). The interior is currently closed due to pandemic measures, but the main tower and exterior are best viewed from Wilhelminenhofstraße.

Reichstag: U-Bundestag, on Platz der Republik just north of Brandenburger Tor. The inscription appears on the main pediment above the six columns, best viewed from the lawn in front of the building.

All colour photos by the author unless otherwise indicated

Sources and Further Reading

Alan Windsor, Peter Behrens: Architect and Designer. London: The Architectural Press, 1981.

Stanford Anderson, Peter Behrens and a New Architecture for the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

Stephen Sennott, ed., Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Architecture. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2004.

Brian Ladd, The Companion Guide to Berlin. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2004.

 

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