A sprawling and little-known masterpiece of 1920s-modernist architecture deep in Germany’s rust belt narrowly escaped demolition – and still looks like it came from the future. A must-see for Bauhaus fans.
My birthday present this year was a surprise trip to a disused coal mine. Which was perfect because I’d been dying to go and that’s because this particular mine is not only located in a former rust belt with a fascinating history of environmental destruction and recovery, it’s also the world’s largest assemblage of architecture in the 1920s- and 30s-modernist style (often inaccurately called Bauhaus) outside of – oddly enough – Tel-Aviv. Continue reading “High modernism at the coal mine”
Another short digression from the environment. The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri (video here) is one of the most extraordinary places for culture and fun in the world. Occupying a ten-story shoe factory from the early 1900s, it seems to be the result of a mad self-taught tinkerer, the set designers of Blade Runner and Brazil, and the fantasy-art-nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí trying to make an all-ages playground and museum of 20th-century culture at the same time, out of scrap metal and discarded airplanes and factory machines.
It has twisting multi-story slides and climbing cages indoors and out which lead to buses and airplanes and a ferris wheel perched several stories above the ground, tunnels between floors, antique natural history exhibits and carnival game stalls, free-form mosaic-covered art nouveau/science fiction-inspired arches and staircases, collections of parts of historic buildings, a working antique shoelace-making machine, an indoor skate park, the world’s largest pair of underwear, vintage jukeboxes, and a 19th-century log cabin – to name just a few of its many, gloriously incongruous parts.
The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm is a breathtaking and absolutely unique series of parks and gardens from around 1770 with villas, pavilions and other structures scattered around these two towns in a remote part of eastern Germany, forming what is probably the world’s intact largest assemblage of neoclassical structures, gardens, and designed landscapes. Further, it was an early progenitor of what we now call environmental education and public access to green space. Sadly, it is little known even by Germans and almost not all outside Germany although the name Dessau is world-renowned as the home of the Bauhaus design school after it moved there from the town of Weimar.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the Garden Realm is considered to be one of the earliest and most extensive introductions of Enlightenment thinking, values and neoclassical aesthetics into Germany from their origins in France and England. This seismic shift embraced humanistic reasoning, scholarly curiosity, and open-minded exploration. In terms of art and aesthetics, it marked a shift away from the baroque flamboyance and rococo excess of the 17th and early 18th centuries and towards restrained interpretations of classical Greek and Roman styles.
The Garden Realm was just one of a remarkable range of Enlightenment-related endeavors of the duke of Anhalt-Dessau, Leopold III, more commonly known as Fürst Franz (Prince Franz) or Friedrich Franz. He wanted to bring Enlightenment values and education to the general public, and so the parks were open to the public and included demonstration gardens and farms for agricultural education and research.
One of the biggest surprises awaiting the visitor to Berlin is the startling number of shopping malls. It can seem as though you’re never more than ten minutes from one. There are so many that I felt compelled to count and map them and see how New York, for example, compares. Short answer: Berlin has 67 malls and New York City has 16. Proportionally, Berlin has ten times as many per capita and four times as many per square mile. If New York had the same mall density it would have 156.
But in the real world the difference is greater, since most of New York’s are in remote outer-borough locations so millions of New Yorkers have rarely seen or even heard of them: Manhattan has three; Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens each have only one that is accessible by subway.. Click on the images below for the full interactive maps.
Just a few words about a fascinating little corner of the arboriculture world known as tree shaping or arborisculpture, the training of living trees into sculptures, furniture, buildings and other structures. Tree shaping has seldom implemented although the principle is the same as the far more common practice of espalier, which is a tree or shrub trained to grow flat against a frame or wall in a garden, often for increasing fruit production. Tree shaping has little practical application but it is nonetheless interesting as a creative expression of the wonder, strength and beauty of trees and how humans can engage with them and the broader natural world.
The field’s greatest visionary was Arthur Wiechula (German, 1867 – 1941) who envisioned growing entire buildings and researched the physiology of the necessary grafting.
Smaller works such as chairs and individual sculpted trees are documented since at least the 19th century, with Germany perhaps the chief center of activity, followed by the UK and US. Germany has most of the world’s living buildings – a couple of churches and a four story pavilion built with the aid of metal scaffold. India, however, has largest, oldest and most functional living structures. In the state of Meghalaya are footbridges, formed of living roots of Ficus trees, that reportedly are centuries old and able to support 50 people.
I recently learned that virtually nothing in English has been written on the man who was arguably the most important German architect since World War II. And so I wrote what is only the second English-language article (and only Wikipedia entry) on Wilfried Stallknecht*. By “important” I mean “had the greatest influence on buildings in Germany”. He didn’t redefine architecture as we know it or create a revolutionary visual language, and his buildings are neither beautiful nor dramatic, but he may have had the most influence on the largest number of buildings. The wide influence stems from two innovations dating from 1958: prefabricated apartment buildings that went on to house millions, and a single-family house design of which 500,000 were built.
The world’s longest building is a 3-mile-long resort built by the Nazis that never opened and lay vacant for 72 years following its completion in 1939, apart from some uses by the military. Its first tenant as a resort was a youth hostel that opened in 2011, occupying an eighth of the structure. Soon after that the German state sold off half of the remainder to real estate investors, who in turn began selling it off as million-dollar vacation apartments. This follows a established pattern of intentional wealth redistribution from the middle- and lower classes to the ultra-rich, as the former social-democratic state sells its assets at below-market value to speculators. (A typical example is Berlin, which has sold off 80% of its public housing stock to investors who routinely turn 1,000-percent profits in the deals.)
It’s called Prora, it’s on the Baltic sea, and in a straight line it would stretch the entire width of Manhattan and across the Hudson River to New Jersey. It’s nearly impossible depict the whole building in photographs because in any view that shows it in its entirely, all that’s visible is nondescript grey line.Prora resort is highlighted
I forgot to take a picture of the one where I didn’t realize I was in the women’s room because the irregular curved mark on the door that I figured was just scuffed paint was in fact a scribbled “D”, meaning “Damen”. A woman walked in – I was just washing my hands – and let out a bemused but jolly sort of “mm-HM!”-type sound which I figured must be Cologne dialect for “Hi!”, so naturally I cheerfully said “Hallo” back, still thinking the bathroom was unisex. It wasn’t until later that I pieced it all together.
The chicks were at a Japanese restaurant in Berlin.
St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park is said to have the largest intact collection of Victorian-era park pavilions – a dozen or so – outside of London’s Kew Gardens. Also, there is abundant evidence of St. Louis’ once-large German population, long since dispersed and assimilated nearly without a trace. The zinc stag came from Berlin; there are statues of Alexander von Humboldt and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (sometimes called “father of the American military” for his essential service in the American Revolution and who was trailed by rumors and public accusations of homosexuality), and others by a German sculptor.
The glass box is VW’s Transparent Factory, 10 minutes from the baroque palaces and churches that most people associate with Dresden and earned it the name ‘Florence on the Elbe’. A literary-philosphical talk show called ‘The Philsophical Quartet’ was sometimes filmed there during its 10-year run, because Germany is the kind of place that has literary-philophical talk shows. To prevent birds from hitting the glass, outdoor loudspeakers play ‘territory taken’ bird sounds.
2. Revolutionary bi-level train station with unusual configuration of terminal tracks in the central hall flanked by raised through-tracks on either side, 1898. Renovations c.2006 by Sir Norman Foster including teflon-fabric roofs which won countless architecture awards yet have had ongoing leak problems.
3-6. Adorable interconnected courtyards with shops and housing known as the Kunsthof. Everyone raves about Berlin’s Hackescher Hoefe but this is great too.
Nearly sixty years of rebuilding erased almost every example of the massive damage Dresden experienced in its much-debated bombing. However, informed locals can identify which buildings have been restored or amended – and in some cases rebuilt from the ground up as historical copies – at various times from 1945 to the present – architectural palimpsests. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a tour guide like my friend Roland who can read the buildings and urban forms like a paleontologist digging through layers of fossils.
These are rare examples of remaining visible damage.
1. Intact ground floor of five-story building c.1910 (now one of the country’s many non-shame-attached sex stores)
2. In almost all cases, new construction has filled in gaps; this is an exception.
3-4. Destroyed church, now a lapidarium where statues, monuments and stone building elements are stored, such as this DDR-era monument.
5. Dormers at the top are post-unification (1990) additions to the original 1920s building. The center section is most likely a signifcant alteration from the 1990s that kept the original 20s stone window surrounds.