by Alexandra-Elena Anghel
Elektropolis – this was Berlin’s nickname at the end of the nineteenth century. Responsible for this name were the two big companies that established the electrical energy industry: Siemens and AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft). AEG bought the patent for electrical bulbs from Thomas Edison in New York and worked at improving them, but it also produced household appliances. Emil Rathenau, the founder of AEG recognized the artist Peter Behrens’ genius and employed him as an artistic consultant. His job was not just to create the products’ design, but also the logo of the company and he was in charge of its whole corporate identity.
Peter Behrens was one of the founders of the German Werkbund, an organization that was very much influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement, but brought a more modern view to its principles. Its aim was to provide industrial made products that were as good as the handcrafted goods. Behrens is considered to be the father of industrial design and for him “design is not about decorating functional forms – it is about creating forms that accord with the character of the object and that show new technologies to advantage.”
In 1908 he was asked to design the turbine factory which was to be located in the Berlin district of Moabit. Although he did not study architecture, but painting, he designed a building from materials that have not been used before in industrial architecture: steel, glass and concrete. Steel frames were used before in other types of buildings, but never before were they left uncovered.
It is a shame that today the building cannot be visited inside, but the reason why is that after more than 100 years since it was built it is still being used as a factory. Behrens design was so good and so visionary that after a century it is still functioning for its designed purpose. Today the building is owned by Siemens, but because the building has been classified in 1956 as a protected monument, the AEG logo, that was also designed by Behrens, still lays on top of the building. Right next to Peter Behrens’s Turbinenhalle is a newer building with a big Siemens logo, probably trying to state its dominance. The contrast between the beautifully carved AEG logo in the shape of a honeycomb graphic and the plastic Siemens logo at the top of the buildings entrance makes me appreciate even more a design that the time did not make irrelevant.
The Turbinenhalle’s design features a neo-classical look with steel pillars that have no decoration. The frontispiece of the building reminds me of a pediment in a classical Greek temple, where beautiful carved statues of Greek Gods and Goddesses were usually placed, but in Behrens design the AEG logo replaces the Gods. On either side of the building the walls are made of glass and steel, 100 meters long and 15 meters tall. The building was extended in 1939 by Jacob Schallberger and Paul Schmidt to a total length of 200 meters. Today one can see very clearly the different extensions of the building, the latest one did not even try to copy the original design, but it is totally different than the first two.
AEG built a factory that was representative for the innovative work they were doing that was in itself an innovation. I believe that AEG wanted to make a statement by building this factory and found the perfect architect to render the principles that it stands for and to make that statement through his design.
All photos by the author