30 January 2015 in Marlowe Lecture Theatre 1 at 6pm
When academics are promoted to a chair (that is, they receive the title ‘Professor’) it is customary for them to give an inaugural lecture on a topic of their choice. ‘Flat white’ takes me back to my PhD on the German architect Heinrich Tessenow, but this represents current work for me, too, as my chapter ‘The German reform theatre: Heinrich Tessenow and eurhythmic performance space at Dresden-Hellerau’ in Alistair Fair (ed.) Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Theatre Architecture (Ashgate, 2015) makes clear. Past and present students of mine in the KSA culture modules will recognise key themes of Modernism articulated one hundred years ago, and still with us today, in current attitudes to form, function, and construction.
Flat White: incipient Modernist architecture in late Wilhelmine Germany
The early years of the twentieth century witnessed remarkable advances in architecture emanating from Germany in matters technical, aesthetic and functional. The hiatus of the First World War interrupted this flowering of the art of building, which nonetheless resumed during the years of ferment of the Weimar Republic. On the northern outskirts of Dresden a settlement was founded, taking inspiration from English Arts and Crafts endeavours in Reform design and living culture, but with a pronounced Nietzschean ‘will to form’ all-encompassing in its reach. Here was a garden city with real industry at its heart (the progressive furniture factory of the Deutsche Werkstätten) and a magnificent performance space at its periphery, to which the great and the good of European society would come on pilgrimage.
The spare, unadorned houses designed by the quiet Mecklenburg architect Heinrich Tessenow (1876-1950) gave way to the spiritual and artistic centre of the settlement, his great festival theatre and School of Eurhythmy. A building which at first glance seems a correct and prim exercise in understated Neoclassicism turns out to be nothing short of revolutionary in its concision of internal planning, purity and simplicity of surface, and manipulation of light. It is an inspiring example of a building as product of a variety of artistic and social impulses, orchestrated by the tactful skill of its young architect, one which presages the collaborative work of the Bauhaus in Dessau some 15 years later. Its main performance space has qualities that would not make it unusual to find in the twenty-first century: its surfaces are smooth and pale, and emit light, shimmering like a reversed lampshade.
Between the economy of sachlich, functional terraced and paired houses and the stately Festspielhaus, designed to accommodate and give shape to emerging Reform ideas of pedagogy, dance and music (such as the eurhythmy dabbled in by D. H. Lawrence’s heroines), key traits of Modernist aesthetics were born, uniting the various arts and paving the way for the prevailing look of the twentieth century, one that is arguably still with us in the twenty-first: flat white.
Images – Heinrich Tessenow, Alexander von Salzmann, Festspielhaus, Dresden-Hellerau, Germany. Views of interior of the Festival Hall, looking towards the stage and to the audience (1913). Source: ‘Das junge Hellerau’, in Bildunsanstalt Jaques-Dalcroze (ed.) Der Rhythmus. Ein Jahrbuch (Jena, 1913).