The exhibition Berlin/Los Angeles: Space for Music (April 25–July 30, 2017, at the Getty Research Institute) explores two iconic buildings, Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Here, art historian Kathleen James-Chakraborty provides an introduction to Scharoun’s work and some of his most significant buildings. —Ed.
Across the course of his long career, the German architect Hans Scharoun (1893–1972) remained dedicated to experimentation. The most important of the architects linked to Expressionism and then the International Style to remain in Germany during the Third Reich, Scharoun spent the postwar decades developing an eccentric if influential vision of a specifically democratic architecture, becoming the grand old man of West German architecture in the process.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, Scharoun was one of the many architects who developed utopian visions of a new architecture intended to be uniquely suited to the new socialist-led republic. The youngest member of the Crystal Chain, a group led by Bruno Taut that exchanged letters and sketches, he, like Taut, proposed faceted towers erected out of glass. By the middle of the 1920s, however, he joined most of the rest of this group in adopting a more pragmatic stance.
Scharoun’s personal variant of the International Style was distinctive: it encompassed the expressive curves popularized by Erich Mendelsohn, but incorporated an approach to space that was all his own. This style first manifested itself in his contribution to the Weissenhof Siedlung, a housing exhibition held in Stuttgart in 1927 that included work by other alumni of the Crystal Chain, now joined by most of the leading German and indeed European advocates of modernism. Scharoun’s project featured a series of vivid flourishes, all of which could be justified on pragmatic grounds. Amongst such flourishes were a rounded corner façade and boundary wall that chimed with the unusual expression of the stair as it wrapped around the upper story, as well as jaunty horizontal and vertical projections that defined an upstairs terrace.
The architect’s early masterpiece was the Schminke House, completed in 1933 on the outskirts of the small Saxon city of Löbau for the owner of a local pasta factory and his wife. In comparison with the cool lines of other modernist villas, the Schminke house has a fairly gawky entrance façade. Anchored on one end by a projecting entrance pavilion and dissolving on the other into a conservatory on the ground floor and a covered balcony above, there is a complete absence of the serene proportions that were the goal of many of Scharoun’s contemporaries. But this is just the beginning. Whether you enter the house and turn to the right or simply walk around the exterior toward the garden, one of the most original spatial sequences in interwar European architecture immediately confronts you. Here a glazed conservatory, a combination of stair and balcony, and an overhanging roof burst out into the garden with a sculptural vigor far more engaging than the taut volumes out of which the rest of the house is composed.
Scharoun stayed in Germany during the Nazi years, during which he built houses that appeared conventional from the front but dissolved towards the back into faint echoes of what he had achieved in Löbau. He also returned to the practice, which he began as part of the Crystal Chain, of producing watercolor sketches of visionary architectural designs. When the war ended, he was placed in charge of the reconstruction of Berlin, a job he forsook when it became clear that he could not work with the communist authorities in charge of the Soviet-controlled sector of the city.
The first glimmer of how original Scharoun could be when working on a large scale came in the magnificent Romeo and Juliet apartments completed in Stuttgart in 1958. The deftly sited pair of apartment blocks, one a tall tower, and the other stepping downwards as it curved away from its mate, prickled with balconies that emphasized the jagged angles of the eccentric plan. Boldly colored as well as shaped, the pair defy the banality of most postwar housing and were, despite the unusually shaped rooms, an immediate hit with the public as well as with other architects.
The success of Romeo and Juliet blocks paled, however, before the acclaim immediately awarded the Philharmonie, the concert hall completed just inside West Berlin (the Berlin Wall went up while it was under construction) in 1963 for the Berlin Philharmonic, then under the direction of the legendary Herbert von Karajan. Unlike the Romeo and Juliet blocks, which Scharoun clearly designed to be seen from the outside as well as inhabited, the Philharmonie was conceived from the inside out. Although its gold-anodized aluminum skin is not original, the eccentric form it encases, with roof crests that echo the faceted forms of his early visions of city crowns, certainly is. Part of the originally ochre mass of the building is encased in white blocks that contain the circulation and the necessary support spaces, but these are clearly ancillary.
The heart of the building is the concert hall, in which the orchestra sits at the bottom, with the audience rising around it on all sides in an arrangement Scharoun compared to a vineyard. By binding the musicians and their audience together into a single space, he redefined the conditions in which classical music was performed and heard. To do so he drew upon two generations of German experiments in theatre design, especially Hans Poelzig’s Grosse Schauspielhaus, a 1919 renovation of an existing circus whose arrangement foreshadowed theater in the round.
The success of the Philharmonie spawned a pair of other commissions in the immediate environs, both of which were completed after Scharoun’s death with the able assistance of his former associate Edgar Wisniewski. The Kammermusiksaal, which opened only in 1987, did for chamber music what its big sibling accomplished for orchestral music. The Staatsbibliothek, dedicated nine years earlier, plays a star role in Wim Wenders’s celebrated film Wings of Desire (1987), which captures its urban position in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall that ran just behind it.
Scharoun’s architecture is often considered outside the mainstream of modern architecture. Such an interpretation is less than convincing if one diverges from a focus on Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Many architects from northern Europe, including Hugo Häring, Erich Mendelsohn, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinn, Jørn Utzon, Gottfried Böhm, and Günter Behnisch, whose careers all overlapped with Scharoun’s, joined him in celebrating the plasticity of form. This group excelled as well at creating spaces designed to enhance human experiences in ways that transcended narrow definitions of functionalism while remaining relentlessly abstract. The Philharmonie’s progeny include Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Herzog and de Meuron’s recently opened Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Focusing on such monumental structures does not do justice, however, to Scharoun’s talent for thinking at the scale of a school child or to the quality of the light that almost magically turns students into scholars in the Staatsbibliothek.