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Pioneers of perception

review Fagus: Industrial Culture from Werkbund to Bauhaus by Annemarie Jaeggi. Princeton Architectural Press, 2000. 152pp. £24.95

Designed by Walter Gropius and his partner, Adolf Meyer, for the manufacture of shoe lasts, the Fagus factory at Alfeld an der Leine (begun 1911) has long been regarded as one of the seminal works of the Modern Movement. This reputation has largely rested on the perceived pioneering nature of the main building's glass curtain wall construction and its consequently ethereal character.

Drawing on previously untapped material in the Fagus archives, this fascinating and well-produced book convincingly demonstrates, however, that this critical evaluation is not only at odds w ith how contemporaries initially viewed the factory but also with the architects' original intentions. Taking the factory complex as a whole, Gropius and Meyer's work embraced many different elements, drawing especially on the monumentality of antique architecture and the powerful but simple forms of North American grain silos.Throughout, Gropius emphasised solidity and the containment of space, writing in 1911: 'Modern building materials such as iron and glass seem to be incompatible with architecture's need for corporeality because they reveal their insubstantiality.'

It was only in the late 1920s that critical attention focused on the lightness and seeming weightlessness of the main building - a process encouraged by Gropius' desire to present his work as a logical continuum whereby the Fagus factory could retrospectively be judged as an early instance of what, in reality, was his new-found concern for space, in which dissolution and transparency were the governing factors. Aiding this transformation were the photographs specially commissioned in 1928 from the high priest of New Objectivity photography, Albert Renger-Patzsch.

These photographs reinterpreted the building in a Modernist vein, being artfully composed to highlight the similarities to Gropius' Bauhaus building at Dessau (1926) and to emphasise the use of glass while diminishing the role of the brickwork piers. They thus fuelled the misapprehension that the factory was an early example of glass curtain walling when, as the chapter contributed by its present structural engineer shows, its construction was in fact largely traditional albeit with daring touches such as the trussless south corner.

Gropius was quick to realise the significance of these photographs, and to seek to ensure that his favourite views were the ones reproduced in the professional press. Jaeggi thus provides another reminder of photography's power to influence architectural discourse, a power recognised by other Modern Movement pioneers such as Le Corbusier and Richard Neutra, who similarly sought to control the published images of their work.

Besides exploring the creation of such myths, the main virtue of this book lies in the way it looks beyond the factory as an architectural tour de force to set it firmly in the industrial culture of its period. It details how the enlightened owners, the Benscheidt family, set about establishing a corporate identity for the firm which embraced not only its architecture but also the design of its products and its advertising.

For 15 years Gropius and Meyer masterminded this collaborative effort, employing young avantgarde artists and charging the Bauhaus workshops with the design of the interiors and the office furniture down to the smallest item. The result was a carefully orchestrated, seamless image of a socially progressive firm steeped in the ideals of the Deutscher Werkbund which triumphantly realised the Bauhaus maxim coined in 1923: 'Art and Technology - a New Unity'.

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA Library photographic collection

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