Bruno Taut: colour pattern from "Ein Wohnhaus" (1927)
BRUNO TAUT: ARCHITECTURE AND COLOUR
Rationalism does not exclude ecstasy: no, it needs it. Ecstasy is the motor which sets the machinery of practical reason in motion and keeps it going - its heart
Kurt Hiller (1922)
Character is merely obstinacy, I move in all directions
The 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung housing exhibition in Stuttgart drew together a considerable number of the leading European modern architects. Amongst them were Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Gropius and Behrens. But, in the midst of the resulting examples of flat-roofed, white, concrete framed buildings, it was Bruno Taut’s Number 19 that stood out. Each surface of Taut’s house, including the internal walls and ceiling, were painted in a different primary colour. Its orgy of colour attracted incomprehension, derision, irritation and horror. It is recounted that the entire neighbouring apartment of Mies van der Rohe was often bathed in red as the sun reflected off Taut’s blood-red west wall. A number of Taut’s contemporaries are alleged to have turned up prepared to douse a fire which, it turned out, was nothing but a colourful melange of reflected light! Only a day before the exhibition opened, Mies, in his role as artistic director, expressed his severe doubts about the colour scheme. Taut's promptly replied that: "If it seems out of place in the present state of the project, this may well mean, not that the colors have been wrongly used, but that the surrounding buildings are unfinished"
This small house at the Weissenhofsiedlung was not an isolated example of Taut's application of surface colour to buildings. In 1919 he published a "Call for Colourful Building", co-signed by several leading contemporaries. As city architect for Magdeburg and for the Berlin GEHAG Building Society during the 1920's, he built several thousand workers apartments, finished using brightly coloured paint.
As one of the "most unfairly neglected of Modernist architects" Taut’s colourful contribution to the course of modern architecture seems to have been unduly neglected until recently. Painted surfaces were quick to fade. Neither did the dominance of black-and-white photography help keep a contemporaneous record, or popularise colour in international architectural circles. Modernist architecture of the 1920's was typified by the Purist's white facades and attempts to rediscover theories of colour seem to have only been possible and desirable during the last few years. Even less of the writings on this aspect of Taut are currently accessible in the English language. It becomes clear, from examples such as his house in Stuttgart, that Taut stood apart from those who are regarded as the leading luminaries of ‘Modernism’, in his attitude to colour and architecture, though it has to be emphasised that he was not alone in his interest in colour theory and the use of colour.
This essay will attempt to understand Taut’s profound interest in coloured architecture, comparing it with other contemporary ideas, using the small number of available English-language books and greater number of recent magazine articles on the subject. In 1980, thanks partly to improvements in colour reproduction technology, Arthur Rüegg began to repopularise the colour charts of Le Corbusier and since then has vividly illustrated the input of Le Corbusier, Taut and Theo van Doesburg to colour in architecture. A seminal book that touches the subject appears to be Whyte's "Bruno Taut and the Architecture of Activism" (1982), covering the years to 1921. During the last 20 years there have been some successful attempts to restore the coloured surfaces to Taut's surviving buildings. Interest seems to have revived after the centenary of Taut's birth. Following the destruction of the dividing wall in Berlin it also became possible to look again at the geographical context of Taut's workers' housing estates in the city.
Bruno Taut was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, in 1880. He became a proficient painter and pastel artist, but chose ultimately to pursue a career as an architect. Özer Bülent attempts to describe Taut’s architectural career as three distinct periods. Bülent's approach serves a purpose as an introduction here to Taut's life. The first phase is "characterized by progressive experimentation in modern materials and techniques" - this fills the period immediately before the Great War (1914-18), during which time Taut built his famous Monument des Eisens (Monument of Iron) and his even more famous Glashaus. The second "was an agitated period: Taut the visionary with utopian urges, turning acrobatically in the air with no thought for the ground" - coinciding with the years of war and revolution at the close of the 1910's. In 1919 Taut was foremost in launching the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst (Artists' Soviet). Thirdly, according to Bülent, there was a period "marked by severe realism, occasionally going beyond the limits of the International Style to show the fascination of a certain type of romantic Expressionism" - by the early 'twenties it became economically possible to start rebuilding workers' housing and Taut became heavily involved in this task.
Following the rapid rise to power of the National Socialists in the 1933, Taut left Germany, settling in Japan, before eventually moving to Istanbul, Turkey, where he died prematurely in 1938. Taut's final home was also a multicoloured house designed by himself.
It can be ascertained from this that Taut had a number of diverse interests, which managed not to conflict. Perhaps of greatest interest to this essay is his work as a practising paint and pastel artist. From this also came his ongoing interest in Japanese art and design - Taut's moniker on his earlier paintings was a combination of 'B' and 'T' and resembled Japanese script. Taut was similar to Le Corbusier in the respect that he continued to value and cultivate the practical relationships between his art and architecture, throughout his career.
by Bruno Taut (1903)
Pastel on paper
36 x 21.5cm
In a diary entry dated 17 March 1905, Taut indicated that he was "…increasingly preoccupied with the idea which has accompanied me now for two years: unifying my talent at using colour with my architectural abilities. Colourful spatial compositions and colourful architecture - these are areas which might allow me to say something personal. Precisely for the reason that painting…always brings me back to architecture and the latter, conversely, always brings me back to painting, so that I need not be afraid of dissipating my energies". On 23 December 1905 he wrote: "The painter in me subordinates itself to the architect - and that is quite in keeping with my nature. For me painting can never be an end in itself". His pastel drawings of forests and landscapes used predominantly soft, naturalistic colours, in greens, browns, yellows and grey.
In the New Year Taut obtained his first architectural contract and, until 1933, Taut's production in pastel, paint or ink slowed to a trickle. Taut's task, in 1906, was to design a refurbishment of a peasants' church at Unterriexingen. In this task, he set about applying the colours he had used in his landscapes - bright green pews, light blue walls, red-brown ceiling. Coloured stencils added to the affect of creating an "abstract peasant landscape". Unfortunately even these tones were too much for the congregation who had them covered up after only a few years!
Manfried Speidel suggests that Taut's colour scheme at Unterriexingen as successfully "covering up the constructional coherency of the building". In an even more vibrant treatment of the Church of Neiden, in 1911, Speidel alleges that Taut "fabricates…the fluctuation of colour tones which occur in the play of light"
In 1912 Taut was commissioned to design the Falkenberg housing estate in Berlin Grünau. It involved the construction of 128 basic houses and flats in long terraced rows. It became known as the "Paint-box Estate". In this instance, Taut's use of colour is variously described as 'bringing nature into the city' or creating social 'harmony in diversity'. However, the former seems more believable than the latter for two reasons - firstly, that Taut's statements about its successful social integration were made in retrospect, after the War. Secondly, the colours used by Taut were the greens, browns, blues and pinks of his earlier paintings of nature. Undoubtedly it does seem that the use of colour helped to make one similar dwelling distinctive from the next, giving an individual, architectural form. Taut also talks of the reaction to his colour scheme: "The coloured appearance initially provoked a lot of surprise, for the earlier and ubiquitous tradition of coloured architecture had been totally lost. Especially the Berliners, coming from the grey tenement quarters… repeatedly declared that the architect deserved to be locked up" It is not clear how important the revival of tradition was to Taut in 1912, though Whyte argues that he would have been concious of the vernacular tradition of coloured building.
Of Bülent’s phases, the first produced Taut’s most famous built works, the Monument des Eisens (Monument of Iron) and his Glashaus (Glass Pavillion). The Monument des Eisens, built in 1913 ostensibly as an advert for the iron industry, invited comparison to Tatlin’s Tower, being constructed of a vast octagonal iron pyramid, topped, on the fourth storey, with a massive gold sphere. Taut’s Glashaus (see left), opened at the Cologne Werkbund exhibition in May 1914. It explored the possibilities of fantasy coloured glass architecture. Comprising of a fourteen-sided prismatic dome of coloured glass, with glass-block stairs, it was set on a concrete plinth decorated with mosaic and a cascading waterfall. As part of the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition, it was sponsored by the glass industry. Taut's Glasshaus is lauded as being "a paradigm of Expressionism". Both projects are credited with combining function and fantasy (using a broad definition of the word 'function' in that they functioned as monuments, pavilions and advertisements). Maybe this statement can be seen as an attempt to link Taut's 'Expressionist' fantasy architecture with the 'Functionalist' Modernism of the 1920's and '30's, which tended to shun decoration.
Taut's Glashaus is the more relevant in terms of the development of his use of colour. In 1913 he had met architect and theorist Adolf Behne, and the "high-priest of Expressionism" Paul Scheerbart. Both were greatly influential in Taut's growing interest in glass architecture (he dedicated his Glashaus to Scheerbart). In 1914 Scheerbart published his book entitled Glass Architecture, in support of an architecture of coloured glass. He had a glorious utopian vision of the Earth "adorned with sparkling jewels and enamel" as glass architecture supplanted masonry.
It is not explained explicitly why Taut became so quickly enraptured with this vision. However, 1913 was also the year in which Max Berg's colossal Jahrhunderthalle (Centennial Hall) had been innaugurated, a fantastical concrete hall with a 67 metre dome. This had helped stimulate the minds of German architects and had, contrary to its stated intention, become a symbol of pacifism and democracy, counter to the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm. It is also clear that developments in technology now allowed buildings of this monumental size to be created, be they in concrete, or even in glass. However, it is evident that a mood was sweeping through the German intelligensia for social change and, together with the growth of Expressionism, for a spiritual unity across social classes. The Kaiser was not disposed of until after the 1914-18 Great War and the German Revolution of 1918, but the seeds of rebellion had existed well before the War. Expressionism could be equally attractive to those sections of society who did not share a belief in socialism, but were dissatisfied with the antagonisms of the status-quo.
In 1914 Taut therefore saw great shimmering glass monuments as a means of spiritual renewal. Shortly before the Glashaus was completed, Taut invited Scheerbart to write fourteen aphorisms celebrating glass architecture, to be inscribed on the pavillion. These were to include:
Glass in tints: Hate relents. A colourful future Only in the glass culture Wax ecstatic! Glass is prismatic! Flight from colour? All the duller!
In August 1914 the British government declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. There followed four years of the worst destruction, carnage and human suffering ever seen. During this period, it is evident that the socio-political outlook of Taut and many of his contemporaries was altered. Certainly Taut became a pacifist - in 1915 he deliberately starved himself in order to avoid being conscripted! There is a path that can be charted showing Taut's development treading between a raw Expressionism and practical social reform. Iain Whyte describes in his book how Taut's initial laments were for the "many fine intellects" that were dying at the front. This developed towards a firm belief that architects, artists and intellectuals should actively intervene to draw lessons from, and provide alternatives to state-sponsored war. Architects such as himself should perform the social role of rebuilding communities for the injured soldiers and their families. And, as was the case with an entire generation of young artists and designers, War came to be seen for Taut as a seminal break from the "misfortunes of the past". It heralded the beginning of a new era, represented by the new outlook of Expressionism.
Taut had been and was still both a leading member of the Expressionist Der Sturm Group and architectural advisor to the German Gartenstadtgesellschaft (Garden City Movement). This had put him in a unique position of combining the spiritual leadership of the former with the practical social reformism of the latter. Whyte describes this as a root of Taut's Activism, a term coined by the writer Kurt Hiller, and defined as "intending to reduce the individualistic and anarchistic impulses in Expressionism… by elevating psychological revolt to the level of practical and social reform". Experience of the War encouraged Taut to bring the two diverse threads together. But it was clearly a gulf he found difficult to bridge. He is quoted as saying about his Glashaus in 1914 "Every thought of social purpose should be avoided". Then, in an article the following month, on the proposed new Berlin Opera House, Taut stated "The new architecture will not be given to us by the Court Opera House, but by the Peoples' Theatres, the new garden cities, and by all the buildings which stem from social engagement".
War meant that young German architects had no opportunities to build. Taut turned to more theoretic written work and unrealised architectural designs on paper. He developed increasingly fantastical projects to respiritualize and transform the war-torn society. His 1917 book Alpine Architecture painted a picture of great crystaline forms constructed across the Alps, creating a wonderful new enlivening environment to populate. Similarly, but far more in line with Ebenezer Howard's Garden City ideals, he published The City Crown, which envisaged super cities, with green spaces, but centred around fantastic crystaline buildings. He saw these as spiritual cathedrals that could accomplish a joyful social integration. Anna Teut prefers to describe Taut's vision more cynically, as "…the marxist-conservative dream of transforming the ugly cities into a true God's garden liberated and dominated by the proletariat…". She concludes by saying that "the urban visions of German expressionism appear to be formal reminiscences of a romanticism which [is] torn between a (Wagnerian) missionary zeal and paranoia".
This period, from 1917 to 1921 is undoubtedly what Bülent likes to describe as the "agitated period… with utopian urges". Taut launches the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst (AFK) in 1919 in the wake of the November Revolution, expressly to lobby the new Weimar government and place architects at the head of a grand restructuring plan. He had no luck in convincing any institution to create a 'city crown', but drew many important artists and architects into the AFK (including Walter Gropius, who transferred its ethos to the Bauhaus). Taut also became a member of the radical Novembergruppe, formed after the November Revolution by the artists of Der Sturm. He also continued to operate within the Werkbund Committee, with Gropius, Poelzig, van der Velde and others.
The new left wing governments expressed sympathy and support for the desires of the AFK but did not have the finances to make a difference. Inflation in Germany was rampant and a severe economic crisis gripped the new Weimar regime. Taut had no opportunities to build until until the early 1920's. The economic ruin of the country seems to have been the inspiration behind Taut's "Call for Coloured Architecture", which was published by him in 1919. Earlier in the year Gropius had also wrote of the cheapness and cost-effectiveness of coloured decoration. Taut's manifesto declared:
We do not want to build any more joyless houses, or see them built… Colour is not expensive like moulded decorations and sculptures, but colour means a joyful existence. As it can be provided with limited resources, we should, in the present time of need, particularly urge its use on all buildings which must now be constructed.
And to dispel any doubts that he had forgotten the days of his landscape pastels:
We categorically denounce the absence of colour even if the house is in the midst of nature. There are not only the lush landscapes of spring and summer, but the snow-covered scenes of winter, which cry out for colour. Let blue, red, yellow, green, black and white radiate in crisp, bright shades to replace the dirty grey of houses".
Taut's declaration (which was co-signed by Gropius, Peter Behrens, Hans Scharoun, Max Taut, Adolf Behne and many others) is undoubtedly tinged with the pragmatism designed to make the grand rebuilding projects of the AFK and the Werkbund economically attractive and possible.
Gropius goes further in his writing, to offer colour as a protest against the austere, grey, economic situation. He also draws comparisons with the exhuberant use of colour by the Russian peasantry, a topical and attractive allusion amongst some circles in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Taut apparently visited Lithuania in 1919, discovering that 'taut' meant 'folk' in the native language! He enthused about the 'orgies of colour' in the vernacular buildings: "Now look at the colourful, glowing ultramarine, red, brown, green, yellow painted shutters on windows and doors… The fable that bright colours are justified only in the sunny south must finally be abandoned"
From 1921 to 1923, Taut became the director of municipal construction for the city of Magdeburg. He not only found himself in a position to practise large scale urban planning, but also to implement the ideas of his 1919 'manifesto'. Under his directorship the city, which many people described as 'grey' and 'depressing', had its façades brightly painted. Magdeburg city centre became a splendidly coloured area, polarising debate and spawning humerous postcards. Taut stated that his aims were "not aesthetic, but ethical, since the aim was to give the inhabitants of the most sordid tenement and the most sinister rear court a spark of joie de vivre, however modest" Taut's activities here are described today as unique, as he applied surface colour so boldly on pre-existing buildings, on such a grand polemical scale. Hans Poelzig, in an apt pun on Taut's surname, said: "Architektur ist gefrorene Musik, und in Magdeburg tauts [Architecture is frozen music, but in Magdeburg thaws/is Taut's]."
A similar theme befell Berlin during the period from 1924, where Taut cooperated with the city's Building Planner, Martin Wagner, to create over 10,000 flats in large new housing estates and garden cities. These included his apparently famous Hufeisensiedlung (Horse Shoe Estate) and Onkel Toms Hütte Estate. He used colour to embrace the surrounding nature, forested landscape and climate, combining it with texture, materials, symmetry, functional window design to create his architectonic effect. A journalist, writing in 1930, described one of Taut's suburban estates as "exemplary, of a most simple modernity… Each street has a face and its colour behind the veil of pine trees. That one over there has been given various nuances of yellow, whilst this one here displays but a single pink; one can see some in a wistful sky blue and others whose fine, warm, red tone has an almost Bordeaux-like quality. Although these houses alone do not, of course, bring happiness, they nevertheless do invite one to be happy" It is clear from photographs of the restored façades in Berlin that Taut used a variety of colour palettes. While some were evidently subtle, others wore broad horizontal bands, while the Hufeisen Siedlung wore the brash primary colours associated with the Dutch De Stijl movement. Brenne acknowledges that Taut "never had recourse to a set system… but always looked at the situation in hand, the concrete project and the surrounds before elaborating a specific concept".
It was not just a socio-spiritual joie de vivre that motivated his use of colour. Bruno Taut's later houses began to use colour to examine spatial perception, light, and also environmental, energy-saving and other functional considerations. His own family home, built at Dahlewitz in 1926-27, was the prime example. His writing, Ein Wohnhaus (i.e. 'A House to live in'), was published on completion of this project. In it Taut wrote "The form of the house corresponds to a crystallization of atmospheric conditions. It is supported by colour". Most striking is Taut's use of black and white - the sweeping curved east wall is painted entirely black to absorb the rays of the sun, while the westerly façades are entirely white, reflecting the heat of the afternoon. He used blue detail which, according to Brenne, "delimits surfaces and increases the tension created by the curved wall surfaces". Paolo Melis, in his article on Taut's house, ventures to say that the black and white were "founded on what in symbolic tradition are the colours associated with ideas". Whether this is true or not, it seems unlikely, considering Taut's previously stated intentions in his use of colour. But Melis makes an interesting assertion that Taut "intended to assert [colour's] full nature as a construction material, thereby indicating a precise difference in the skin of the architecture".
So we return, eventually, to Taut's controversial dwelling no.19, in Bruckmannweg, Stuttgart. Different again from all of the above, it shocked and annoyed the white Purist architects of the 'International Style', particularly in its location amidst seminal examples of housing by such illustrious contemporaries. There is evidence that Mies van der Rohe did not want Bruno to exhibit at all, preferring the other Taut, Bruno's brother Max! In fact the four late additions to the Weissenhofsiedlung participants were all associated with Taut's "Call for Coloured Architecture" - Poelzig, Sharoun, Behrens and himself. Mies successfully persuaded Scharoun to toe-the-line and use predominantly an off-white!
The house at Bruckmannweg was intended to be mass producable. It also took account of environment, was functional and flexible. However, it also had a vibrant red external wall, another in deep blue, another in bright yellow and another, green. The floors were pitch black, the ceilings yellow and the internal walls also of red, green and blue. Taut explains his reasons for using the external colour - these included the appropriate reflection of natural light and also the psychological reduction, or increase of perceived distance. It can be understood that, internally, a yellow ceiling would reflect light, while a black floor would absorb heat. He used the red, yellow and white of the window details to further increase the intensity of the surrounding colours.
Bruno Taut never relinquished his fascination with the physical and psychological use of colour in architecture. As can be gathered from this investigation, there were many contemporary architects, now regarded as great Modernists, who also extended their range well beyond the white walls popularised by the buildings of Gropius, or Le Corbusier. But as has been alluded to, until the 1950's it was a standard practise to publish architectural photographs in monochrome. Popular polemical manifestos, such as Le Corbusier's 1923 Vers une Architecture, did not mention colour at all. Instead they glorified the new age of machinery, of form, and the modern spirit. Niklaus Pevsner obstinately ignored the contribution of Expressionism, or anything that deviated from the zeitgeist of the 'International Style", in his influential historical writings.
Surprisingly, considering Gropius's close association with Taut, the AFK, and the 'Call for Coloured Architecture', he seems to have produced no brightly coloured buildings of note, apart from internally coloured apartments (1925-26). But certainly, in his leadership role of the Bauhaus, he would have been influential in the direction of research there. For the duration of its existence the Bauhaus held wall-painting workshops. Their work was initially confined to painting the rooms and corridors of the Bauhaus school itself, in a 'free improvised fashion' (at one point involved throwing paint-filled sponges at the walls). Expressionist painting was influential. Rooms were no longer to be seen as merely housing people, but becoming architectonic creations. The workshops also explored the psychological effect of colour on perception of space. However, there seems to have been a highly decorative element to some of the designs and, at one point, the school turned to producing wallpapers of its work.
The Dutch De Stijl movement was also seminal in propagating colour theory in painting and architecture. They were influenced by the abstract, primary coloured paintings of Piet Mondrian. Both Dutch De Stijl, and French Purist Le Corbusier, were seeking to distance design from tradition and the past, using colour. So much so was the competition in this respect, that when De Stijl theorist and painter Theo van Doesberg submitted a manifesto in 1924, to be published in the avant-garde L'Esprit Nouveau, it was suppressed! Not coincidently, the editor of the magazine was Le Corbusier.
Doesberg contrasted architecture with modern painting and sought to link the two. In 1918, he had written "Architecture joins together and unites, painting dissolves and disunites. And precisely because the two fulfill different functions by their very nature, they can be linked harmoniously". Gerrit Rietveld's Schröder House (Utrecht, 1924), was a landmark of De Stijl. It attempted to dissolve the mass, of architecture, with 'floating' horizontal planes, and surfaces abstractly coloured in the primaries of red, blue, yellow, black and white.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty, experienced now, and even more so in the 1920's, was the accurate reproduction of colour. Le Corbusier tried to solve this problem by teaming-up with the Salubra Wallpaper Company, who had by far the most advanced colour reproduction technology for the late 1920's. He produced his 'Claviers de Couleurs[Colour Keyboards]' in 1931, with which to give clients an accurate choice of colour for their building scheme. Le Corbusier's buildings used colour extensively from an early period - his Studio Ozenfant (1924) was rich in interior colour. The two Le Corbusier dwellings at the Wiessenhofsiedlung were subtley coloured on the exterior, in pink, and green. Unlike De Stijl, who used colour to deny solidity, Le Corbusier insisted that there were 'architectural' and 'non-architectural' colours, and sought to identify them. These colours emphasised the tectonic nature of buildings, and he identified them as having been used in traditional architecture in times past!
By way of a conclusion and summary, colour in architecture has been a fundamental concern but neglected by architects and historians. Maybe there is a feeling evident that some authors wish to rehabilitate Taut into Modern architecture by emphasising the functional to the detriment of the sensual. Taut was keen to provide colour with a role in construction, using it for environmental, energy saving and spatial effect. But most fundamentally he began with a holistic belief that architecture comprised of more than a strictly functional role, but could change and enhance life. To quote Winfried Brenne, who rediscovered the colours of Taut's Berlin apartments:
Taut always used colour to enhance architecture and give it an extra dimension. He knew that colour developed plastic effect and conferred a specific character on urban space, which helped settle it into the surrounding landscape. In everything, he strove to use colour to broaden the notion of function in architecture, in view of creating form to produce a harmonious building enhanced by a human and artistic dimension.
And, to give Taut himself the final word:
Before the war I was denounced as a glass architect; In Magdeburg they called me the apostle of colour. The one is only a consequence of the other; for delight in light is the same as delight in colour.