Expressionism: an artistic movement originating in early twentieth century Germany – inspired by paintings like Edvard Munch’s The Scream – emphasising feeling and mood over objective reality.
Part one of our tour of five ultra modern museums starts near Frankfurt, at Peter Behrens’ literally awe inspiring Technical Administration Building.
Very few people have ever seen it because it’s only open for twelve hours each year.
Adding colour to Fritz Lang’s monochrome vision
Fritz Lang’s classic 1926 Expressionist film Metropolis was intended as a grim warning. It turned out to be an eerily accurate prophesy.
It showed a future where industrialists lived in magnificently sinister tower blocks while the workers slaved underground.
Peter Behrens’ 1924 Technical Administration Building could be a set from that film. Built for the Hoechst chemical company, ‘Behrensbau’ is a cathedral of bricks picked out in disquieting, odd colours. It unambiguously channels the overwhelming power of big business.
A year after its completion, Hoechst became part of IG Farben, the notorious chemical conglomerate that made the Zyklon B poison gas used in the Holocaust and employed slave labour, often in underground factories.
Highly Restricted Access
Hoechst had nothing to do with poison gas but according to the company history, 9,000 ‘forced workers’ were employed on the site which straddles the Rhine, seven miles west of Frankfurt.
The strange colours evoke Hoechst’s origins as an industrial dye manufacturer.
Demerged from IG Farben at the end of the war, Hoechst is now part of pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Avensis. The building, fully restored in the last decade, these days houses the management of the now 1,250 acre industrial park (which coincidentally celebrates its 150th anniversary this year).
Access is highly restricted. It’s only open four Friday afternoons a year, for three one hour guided tours (click here, German only). You cannot book in advance or take any photos. Just turn up at the east gate (Tor Ost) ten minutes before the off. It is however free to see.
We lucked in with a friend who worked there. It took a few days to get over the immediate shock. This year it opens March 22, June 28, September 27 and December 13.
A Complicated Legacy
Peter Behrens was the first industrial designer. In 1907 he conceived the entire corporate identity of electrical manufacturer AEG, from the logo to the factory buildings, pulling it all together into the first brand.
Behrensbau clocktower and bridge were also incorporated into the stylised ‘h’ in Hoechst’s own logo.
Behren’s employed some of the future greats of 20th century architecture including Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus), Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. As such he is seen as the early driving force behind the International Style, the starkly functionalist ‘machines for living’ using lavish, luxury materials.
His legacy though has been tarnished by a too close association with the Nazi Party. He joined in Austria in 1934 when it was still illegal – despite designing the Zilina Synagogue in Slovakia in 1928 – and was working on a monumental headquarters for AEG along Albert Speer’s infamous three mile long Berlin North-South Axis when he died in 1940.
Considering when and where they were built a spooky number of Behrens’ buildings are still standing. Behrensbau was only mildly damaged in an RAF raid in September 1944. The Zilina Synangogue is undergoing a protracted restoration. Incredibly, his 1907 AEG Turbine Hall in Moabit, a western suburb of Berlin, is still used for its original purpose – as is the only British example of his work, a 1926 family house on the A4500 Wellingborough Road in Northampton, ‘New Ways’.
Frankfurt has an impressive modern cityscape and some well restored parts of the old town but it’s not really a city break kind of place.
Not far outside, to the north and west, is the hilly Taunus district, one of the richest parts of Germany. It’s a haven for the healthy and wealthy with discreet, private clinics tucked away in the heavily wooded hillsides.
There are a few very grand hotels here too – the Schlosshotel Kronberg and the Kempinski Villa Rothschild – but the one with this view, and marginally cheaper, is the Falkenstein Grand Kempinski in Konigstein.
Rooms with the city view start at around €270 B&B weekends low season…
To – or, in this case, from – Frankfurt
Our friend insisted on a long, late, lavish breakfast while we shifted in our seats because we’ve got to drive to Calais. Don’t be silly he said, it’ll only take you a few hours.
It’s another reminder that our continental colleagues have a different conception of distance than we do.
For him, the 370 mile zig zag almost due west to Calais was a morning’s work, mainly conducted at 140mph with a frustrating latter half, through Belgium, where he’d have to peg it back to a hundred.
Crossing the low Eiffel Mountains the scenery is not amazing though you pass within a few miles of the Nurburgring race track. If you have the time, a great scenic drive is down the Rhine Valley from Cologne to Koblenz. The Ehrenbreitstein Fortress at Koblenz is a spectacular lunch spot, overlooking – from 120m – ‘Deutsches Eck’ (German Corner) the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle.
Even for us, more comfortable at 90mph+, the trip – via Koblenz, Aachen and Brussels – took an hour less than the five and a half hours it said on the trip planner. These days we’d save thirty miles by catching the boat from Dunkirk. It only takes an extra thirty minutes to cross back to Dover and the fare is the same (via DFDS).
Next: the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, a mercifully less imposing example of German corporate architecture, via the Odenwald and Heidelberg.