Flat White: incipient Modernist architecture in late Wilhelmine Germany

Organised and hosted by Marina Lathouri

Series: HCT / PhD Debates
Date: 3/3/2017
Time: 11:00:00
Venue: 33 FFF

HCT/PHD Debates

The HCT Debates provide a venue for exchange of ideas and arguments. External speakers are invited every week to present and engage with tutors and students. The aim is to position the multiple voices making possible a process of thinking in common, by definition a pedagogical practice different from the seminar or the lecture. The sessions are open to the public.

Flat White: incipient Modernist architecture in late Wilhelmine Germany

Image: Heinrich Tessenow, Alexander von Salzmann, Festspielhaus, Dresden-Hellerau, Germany. Views of interior of the Festival Hall, looking towards the stage (north) and towards the audience (south), (1913). Source: ‘Das junge Hellerau’, in Bildunsanstalt Jaques-Dalcroze (ed.) Der Rhythmus. Ein Jahrbuch (Jena, 1913).

The early years of the twentieth century witnessed remarkable advances in architecture emanating from Germany in matters technical, aesthetic and functional. The hiatus of the First World War interrupted this flowering of the art of building, which nonetheless resumed during the years of ferment of the Weimar Republic. On the northern outskirts of Dresden a settlement was founded, taking inspiration from English Arts and Crafts endeavours in Reform design and living culture, but with a pronounced Nietzschean ‘will to form’ all-encompassing in its reach. Here was a garden city with real industry at its heart (the progressive furniture factory of the Deutsche Werkstätten) and a magnificent performance space at its periphery, to which the great and the good of European society would come on pilgrimage.
The spare, unadorned houses designed by the quiet Mecklenburg architect Heinrich Tessenow (1876-1950) gave way to the spiritual and artistic centre of the settlement, his great festival theatre and School of Eurhythmy. A building which at first glance seems a correct and prim exercise in understated Neoclassicism turns out to be nothing short of revolutionary in its concision of internal planning, purity and simplicity of surface, and manipulation of light. It is an inspiring example of a building as product of a variety of artistic and social impulses, orchestrated by the tactful skill of its young architect, one which presages the collaborative work of the Bauhaus in Dessau some 15 years later. Its main performance space has qualities that would not make it unusual to find in the twenty-first century: its surfaces are smooth and pale, and emit light, shimmering like a reversed lampshade.
Between the economy of sachlich, functional terraced and paired houses and the stately Festspielhaus, designed to accommodate and give shape to emerging Reform ideas of pedagogy, dance and music (such as the eurhythmy dabbled in by D. H. Lawrence’s heroines), key traits of Modernist aesthetics were born, uniting the various arts and paving the way for the prevailing look of the twentieth century, one that is arguably still with us in the twenty-first: flat white.


Gerald Adler, ‘The German Reform Theatre: Heinrich Tessenow and Eurhythmic Performance Space at Dresden-Hellerau’, in Alistair Fair (ed.), Setting the Scene: perspectives on twentieth-century theatre architecture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), pp. 35-59

Kathleen James-Chakraborty, ‘Spectacle’, in Kathleen James-Chakraborty, German Architecture for a Mass Audience (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 70-94

Heinrich Tessenow, Hausbau und dergleichen (Berlin, 1916). Extracts from House-building and such Things in Richard Burdett and Wilfried Wang (eds), On Rigour (London: 9H, 1990), ‘Order’, pp17-19; ‘Ornament, pp. 27-30

Gerald Adler runs the Masters in Architecture and Urban Design programme at the University of Kent, where he is Deputy Head of School. His practice experience has been with Kammerer and Belz in Stuttgart, Georg Heinrichs in Berlin, Burkard Meyer Steiger in Baden, Switzerland, Hampshire County Architects in Winchester, Koichi Nagashima in Tokyo, and Ted Cullinan in London. His PhD was on the early twentieth-century German architect Heinrich Tessenow, and his monograph on the mid-twentieth-century British architectural practice Maguire & Murray was published in 2012.  He has written on the ‘Bauhaus bioconstructivist’ Siegfried Ebeling and co-edited the AHRA (Architectural Humanities Research Association) book Scale: imagination, perception and practice in architecture (2012). His chapter ‘The German Reform Theatre: Heinrich Tessenow and Eurhythmic Performance Space at Dresden-Hellerau’ was published in Alistair Fair (ed.), Setting the Scene: Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Theatre Architecture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2015). Most recently, he has published ‘Pragmatics: towards a theory of things’ in This Thing Called Theory (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016) and is working on an account of the Berlin architect Myra Warhaftig for the AHRA Architecture and Feminisms book.