The Usual: Forms of an Expressionist

  • Samantha Brooks

Germany in the years leading up to and during World War II was hardly a nurturing environment for the creative pursuits of Expressionist architect Hans Scharoun, and because of the political climate, most of his projects were never built. Unlike his contemporaries who fled their homeland during the war—including Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius—Scharoun chose to remain in Germany, where, despite the acclaim he received for his entries in architectural competitions, his work typically was limited to the design of interiors. Thus he would not achieve great success until late in his career.
 
Born in Bremen, Germany, in 1893, Scharoun was drafting spaces far more revolutionary for their time than any designed by Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano—while confronting greater obstacles. His Expressionistic style and use of non-rectilinear geometric forms—perhaps a bit avant-garde for their day—are exemplified in his 1963 masterwork, the Berlin Philharmonie (shown here). This 2,200-seat theater features cascading terraces that merge the musicians with the audience. Scharoun also designed the neighboring Staatsbibliothek, located near the Berlin Wall, envisioning that the site would one day be the center of a reunited city. Although his later designs are dominated by characteristics of the International Style—flat roofs, glass curtain walls, and the absence of nonessential decoration—Expressionism continued to influence his work, distinguishing him from his peers whose modern aesthetic often was punctuated with abundant linearity. 

In addition to Galerie Bremer, his postwar projects included an overall reconstruction plan for Berlin and designs for private homes, schools, and museums throughout Germany. Scharoun is revered for his careful study of interior spaces and the purposes for which they are designed; for example, his detailed plans for a school in Darmstadt even specified which grades should be taught in the different classrooms.

While his postwar government position in urban planning largely contributed to the city’s recovery, including the reconstruction of the Academy of Arts, nothing left his mark on the city quite like the Philharmonie, which he completed nine years before his death in 1972.

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