by Ode Windels
Coming from the north and turning the corner of Berlichingen- and Huttenstrasse, the unsuspecting passer-by suddenly stumbles across the striking appearance of a giant industrial hall, located in the southeast corner of a factory site in the otherwise modest surroundings of Moabit, Berlin.
The glass-and-stone colossus is better known as the AEG Turbinenfabrik, designed between 1908 and 1909 by architect Peter Behrens and engineer Karl Bernhardt for the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, a German electrical concern and industrial magnate that played a leading role in the industrialization of Germany at the turn of the century.
In 1907, Behrens was appointed design consultant for AEG and commissioned with the task of shaping the entire image of the company, from the products to the premises to the promotional campaigns. The building in Moabit was to function as a production site for steam turbines. This specific purpose dictated a number of functional requirements for the manufacturing process, like e.g. the need for vast, column-free spaces, high ceilings and large windows to provide a sufficient amount of light. Rather than limiting himself to a purely functional vocabulary for a plain engineering exercise, however, Behrens treated these functional needs as principal design elements, which he set in a powerful and expressive architecture.
The hall is made up by an enormous hybrid structure of glass and steel, along the typology of the glass-and-steel hangar as it had been developed through the 19th century for train stations and world exhibition halls. At the same time, however, a striking rupture with this historical architectural convention presents itself.
In the 19th century, this architectural phenotype would have found its formal expression either in a full-scale glass structure − as e.g. in Sir Joseph Paxton’s ‘Crystal Palace’ for the world exhibition in 1851 − or, in the case of an industrial hall, it would have been covered with a kind of historicizing ‘garment’, as shown in most of the train stations designed at that time. This obscuring of technology with a veil of historicist design is something we see in the other AEG factories that were being designed at that time as well.
In the radical yet elusive design of the AEG turbine hall, on the other hand, we see none of those two familiar styles.
The building consists of two parallel and interdependent volumes, forming a coherent unity. The steel frame that provides the support for the three-hinged arch structure that spans the main building shows itself to the outside without any ornamental or historicizing structure to act as a cover for the coarse, industrial materials used in the façade. The front façade is defined by a large-scale glazed surface seemingly supporting a heavy, polygonal gable portraying the AEG logo − also designed by Behrens − and the inscription ‘Turbinenfabrik’.
In the corners of the façade, large stone monoliths act as anchors to the building by providing a solid horizontal counterbalance to the verticality and transparency of the glass surface. At the same time, the sides are characterized by a rhythm of alternating steel columns − bolts and joints clearly exposed − and high-rise windows, slightly bending inwards as they gain height. The corner posts show a significant tilt inwards
as well, creating a tension with the steel columns of the building frame − for these are positioned at a slight inclination towards the outside (as are the trusses and the glazed surface in front). This creates a dynamic play of surfaces in the overall impression of the building.
Despite the loaded gesture of innovative aesthetics conform to the new, industrial age that is the Turbinenfabrik, Behrens nevertheless achieves in creating a noble architectural monument that is full of historical resonance − without being historicizing.
Through a combination of elements and forms from historical architectural traditions with modern aesthetics, Behrens conceives the glass-and-steel industrial hall as a classical temple − molded into a modern form. While the gable in front evokes the image of a Greek tympanon, the corner pylons that consist of a stacking of heavy blocks of stone seem to articulate the architectonic language and the simple yet massive masonry of ancient Egypt. The pattern of windows and cantilever beams on the side, then again, provides a subtle reference to Greek temple architecture.
Alongside the distinct architectonic elements, the presence of architectural history also clearly resounds in the strong impression of monumentality and archaic
dignity that radiates from the building. In the Turbinenfabrik, Behrens
created a new kind of architecture that tears down the historicistic façades and thus becomes a self-confident statement of innovative industrial design.
It is exactly this search for a balance between modernity and classical solemnity that has always been the determining factor in Behrens’ architecture, leaving a durable impact on the development of modern architecture in the twentieth century and having found one of it’s boldest and most sophisticated expressions in the AEG Turbinenfabrik.
All photos by Alexandra-Elena Anghel