Transcending his flaws
Peter Behrens emerged in the Second Reich and enjoyed a twilight in the Third; his relatively early membership of the Nazi party was almost as helpful as his stripped Neo-Classical pre-First World War German embassy in St Petersburg for winning official favour. In between he employed Gropius, Mies and the pre-Corbusian Charles Edouard Jeanneret while, in his work for AEG which includes the great turbine hall, he virtually created the concept of corporate identity. A couple of generations after his death in 1940, sheltering from his chilly country estate at Berlin's Hotel Bristol, his oeuvre still raises serious questions.
Stanford Anderson's book finds a niche within the expanding patchwork of Behrens-scholarship, although occasionally it betrays it origins as a doctoral thesis completed more than 30 years ago. His first chapter, on the context of Behrens' early work, shows its strengths and weaknesses. At one level it is a percept ive and coherent account of the artistic crisis of Art Nouveau, split between subjectivity of emotion and objectivity of the 'ideal', or between 'line' and 'form'. But its categorisation of participants and their work has the flavour of a research seminar and leaves questions of Behrens' personal development hanging in the air.
In the 1890s, we are left to conclude for ourselves, Behrens worked as a painter and designer of decorative patterns, but we know nothing of his background or education until, in a later chapter, we learn that he was an autodidact as an architect.
Biographical details are available elsewhere, but some must also have a bearing on his development, which would have made their presence helpful here.
As Behrens absorbed Nietzsche's doctrine that 'Life itself is a kind of handicraft', his work acquired a quality which plays to Anderson's analytical strengths. Having an affinity with gesamtkunstwerk as it ties artistic production together under one heading, this doctrine and Behrens' broader appreciation of Nietzsche informed his attempts to generate a kultursymbol combining plastic and decorative arts - and, in the Darmstadt theatre (circa 1900), performance as well.
Whereas with the context from which Behrens emerged Anderson had to assume some implicit connection between the diverse cross-currents, at Darmstadt the connections between different media and projects become explicit, making fecund ground for broad cultural interpretation.
Anderson suggests that the retreat into an intensely 'artistic' world-view trapped Jugendstil in the terms of nineteenth century positivistic science against which it was superficially a reaction.
Behrens focused on the intellectual debates around space and form.While head of the Kunstgewerbeschule in Dusseldorf from 1903-07, argues Anderson, he 'fulfilled the desire for a sensible intellectualization of space', attempting to synthesise the conflicting demands of a belief in a priori forms and the pragmatics of construction and function. His next phase, as design director for AEG, tested this to the extreme and generated his most notable achievements. The turbine factory is supreme, but Anderson shows how it fits with his overall intellectual development.
Even while designing kettles and factories, however, Behrens was also designing the grimly Neo-Classical embassy.And here Anderson's opinion of Behrens as an architect begins to become apparent. Another austerely Neo-Classical design, the Wiegand house, calls forth the comment that 'it is no surprise that the house serves well. . . virtually undisturbed, in institutional use', a comment that elides the formality of bourgeois life in Wilhelminian Germany.
On surer ground he takes Behrens to task for the failures of several of his domestic designs in the villa colony at Hagen, suggesting that 'the residents of such a house [for the Cuno family] may well have wondered if the retreat to the suburbs brought them any real advantages'. And with the 1925 house for Bassett-Lowke in Northampton, 'New Ways', these opinions lose any ambiguity - 'the house is a hopeless compromise'.
But Anderson does not back himself into a blind alley. His conclusion sympathetically helps to identify Behrens' significance. Comparing Behrens' Scholar's Study of 1923 with Durer's engraving Melancolia, he suggests that Behrens' theoretical position led him to doubt that either handicraft or idealised forms could truly address modern life, leading to melancholy and pessimism.
In assessing Behrens' failings as an architect, despite the extraordinary and transitory equipoise of the turbine hall, Anderson is able to place him in the mainstream of German intellectual life.
Melancholy and irony, as much as a finely wrought appreciation of artistic form, could equally apply to Behrens' great contemporary Thomas Mann, another artist whose achievements transcend his flaws.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher