I didn’t know that much about Hans Poelzig – he’s less well known to the public at large than the ‘big names’ of modernism – Mies, Gropius and others. So I got a lot out of the recent exhibition at the Akademie der Kunst (ADK), a really extensive show covering the full breadth of his work as architect, film & theatre set designer, teacher and painter.
Poelzig’s output was prodigious, and his career spanned that fascinating period from turn-of-the-century Expressionism through to the white walls and strip windows of so-called International Modernism. He’s categorised as an expressionist, but his work was entirely original. His designs have no ‘house style’, but Poelzig was at the forefront of the search for a ‘new’ architecture, one capable of expressing the new buildings of the early 20th century; factories, cinemas and office buildings.
Poelzig died in 1936, just as the National Socialists were turning firmly against modernism in favour of a dull stripped neo-classism (I note this is described in several Berlin guides as ‘anti-modernism’). Like many of his contemporaries, Poelzig had no desire to reach an accomodation with the Nazi regime, and had made plans to relocate to the more enlightened atmosphere of Istanbul.
As with so much in Berlin, WWII bombing was responsible for the loss of many buildings, but some very significant Poelzig projects have survived. To my knowledge, these are the key ones.
The Haus des Rundfunk (House of Radio) – frequently and incorrectly decribed as art deco – is Poelzig’s largest extant building in the capital. A 1987 renovation restored the building to its former glory and revealed some very impressive interiors (in stark comparison with Poelzig’s Großes Schauspielhaus on the eastern side of the wall – see below). The building is vast, with a long low frontage built in a gorgeous dark brick, which I’m very drawn to (a similar brick is used to impressive effect in a building virtually next door to me in Kreuzberg – more on this another day). Like the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, it’s still in use by a broadcaster, RBB (Radio Brandenburg Berlin), although the Rundfunk predated Broadcasting House by a couple of years as the first purpose built radio broadcasting facility.
The cinema forms one of two surviving blocks from Poelzig’s original masterplan for the whole area, which included the Volksbühne (People’s Theatre). The impressively severe version of the Volksbühne now standing was rebuilt by Hans Richter between 1950-54, replacing the heavily bombed original 1914 design by Oscar Kaufman. The Poelzig blocks themselves also suffered from bomb damage and have been altered, but retain a real sense of the originals – the cinema is still in operation as an important art house venue; there’s also a very cool music store at ground floor. On a trivia note, this is the theatre that features in both pre and post Stasi-era Berlin in Das Leben der Anderen (‘The Lives of Others’), as well as several other notable Berlin locations.
According to the AKD exhibition, Poelzig’s own house in Grunewald (a pleasant Berlin suburb) was in fact almost entirely designed by his wife Marlene. Apparently Hans had a lesser interest in housing than some of his contemporaries. I’ve not had a chance to see this yet, and don’t know about access/ownership. Maybe a follow-on spot for this one, on the theme of modernist family homes in Grunewald and neighbouring Dahlem…
Maddeningly, one Poelzig work in Berlin which you won’t be able to see is his spectacular Großes Schauspielhaus (Grand Theatre).
The Nazis remodelled the main space, then the GDR allowed it to fall derelict, then tore it down in the late 1980s. The exhibition includes some heartbreaking shots of the demolition, including the destruction of the beautiful plant-frond-like structures of the foyer.
Poelzig adapted the existing building to form a huge theatre space with the overall effect of a guilded cavern, with stalactite-like structures descending from a central dome.
On a really arcanely trivial note, the expressionist design appears to have heavily influenced the sets in David Lynch’s otherwise terrible sci-fi film Dune, although this fits in a sort of logical loop, given that Poelzig designed film sets, most notably an entire village for the film The Golem.
Post-blog note: It’s not just me; someone else had the same thought, and has tracked down some images to prove the point, including this one by way of comparison:
(bizarrely this is sourced from a blog about bulldogs)
Its influence is clear…