Bruno Taut’s Glass House and the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne
The compositional idea that the project intended to communicate was the result of a balanced combination of artisanal skills and mass-produced industrial components. In this instance Brunus Taut's intention was to celebrate glass, in its many forms, as an architectural material for the future.
In July 1914, the city of Cologne witnessed the inauguration of one of the most challenging cultural exchange events in the history of the Deutscher Werkbund: The First International Exhibition of the Werkbund.
The most noteworthy of the many pavilions were those designed by architects Peter Behrens, Alfred Fisker, Henry Van de Velde, Brunus Taut and Walter Gropius. Their work highlighted many different styles and cultural outlooks. From the outset, the approach followed by the conservatives was seen to be in clear contrast with that of the innovators.
A few days before the opening of the International Exhibition, Hermann Muthesius published his ten theses outlining the Werkbund's future objectives: the pursuit of standardised forms, teamwork, serial production, the rejection of artistic research as an antagonist of standard canons of mass production, the optimisation of existing models, and the elimination of references that belonged to the past.
Opposed to Muthesius was the artistic current led by Henry Van de Velde who saw types and seriality as the negation of artistic potential and quality crafts. Rather, one should seek a balance between crafts and industry that were to be considered as two complementary elements and not alternatives.
Figures such as Hans Poelzig and Walter Gropius also supported Van de Velde, as did Brunus Taut, whose ideas were to have a significant influence on architectural composition throughout the 20th century.
Consequently, the industrial faction attempted to find a compromise between art and industry; however, it was unable to strike the right balance.
The three leading figures of the creative approach, Van de Velde, Gropius and Taut, were present at the Exhibition respectively with a theatre, a factory that included office facilities, and a pavilion. The three buildings offered several themes for reflection on the future of figurative research, notably the dynamics of volumes in the theatre, the decomposition of levels in Gropius' offices, and transparency in the Glass Pavilion.
Compared to Van de Velde's previous architectural production, the Werkbund Theatre was a simplified structure, which however possessed expressionist relevance. The intention of the renowned architect was to shift from the principle of the continuous line to the rationality of volumes without losing tension but at the same time achieving monumentality.
Adolf Meyer collaborated with Walter Gropius in designing the office building in which the cantilevered floors interacted with repetitive compositional elements drawn from Peter Behrens' compositional model. The objective was to present an interpretation of the lightness and dematerialising capacity of glass. This attempt, which was perhaps partly undermined by a classic compositional approach, can be considered one of the first experiments towards achieving the remarkable results that Gropius attained with the Bauhaus building in Dessau.
Taut's Glass Pavilion, which was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, had an Oriental appearance in its lower part and an Ottoman style in the profile of the dome. The circular concrete plinth widened into a bell shape towards the base with a fourteen-sided support structure, or drum, and slender reinforced concrete columns.
Six panels facing the supporting ring of the cupola and the adjacent rear structure contained engraved poems by Paul Scheerbart, whose literary fantasies and practical experiments with glass had inspired Bruno Taut to build the pavilion.
An elliptical dome, reminiscent of the pointed arch, crowned the building. The cupola was a beamless grid vault, an experiment with a modular structural principle that anticipated bolder solutions that would only be built after the First World War.
The surfaces of the transparent cupola were large sheets of glass, while the ribs were thin reinforced concrete elements. Spheres of white glass hung from seven of the fourteen ribs in a radial pattern. Naturally Taut used colour as the third element to define the space of the Glass Pavilion: the colours began with midnight blue in the lower part, becoming moss green and rose and then golden yellow. The upper part of the space was a radiant light yellow. Large lamps flooded clear white light into the area inside the glass dome. At the centre hung a large, grape-like lamp with coloured bulbs.
The changes in the chromatic scale from the lower level to the top of the glass dome, together with the arrangement of the interior spaces, provided visitors with a sense of ascending from the darkness of the earth to the radiance of the sky. A wide concrete staircase led the visitor up to the level of the great dome that was held together in its upper part by two mighty concretepillars ? Diametrically opposite, at the rear of the building, steps led to the kaleidoscope room and its ventilation system. Glass stairs between glazed walls of prisms led the visitor to the upper floor. Despite the limited space, there was no sense of insecurity on the stairs. The lightly reinforced concrete ribbing on the glass walls articulated the bright space and gave it both consistency and direction. The floor of the cupola hall was made of prisms with diamond-shaped motifs (in reinforced glass blocks). These allowed the light from the dome to filter down to the area below. The light also passed through a circular opening surrounded by a copper parapet. Through this opening visitors could also see the water pool and the cascade.
The transparent structure of the cupola became liquid in the pool's reflecting surface located on the lower floor (ornamental space). The fixed elements of the upper part dissolved into a smooth play of lines that interacted with coloured fragments and necklaces of glass beads below the surface of the water.
The resulting architectural effect was forcefully anti-academic, and it abolished the traditional composition of elements of design and finished objects. This was replaced by unified, plastically inseparable images associated with the stylistic reinterpretation of complex natural forms (curves, spirals, crystallisations) and with techniques used for concrete and glass. The new materials became the expression of a personal and emotional interpretation of reality through design projects that arose from the need to go beyond mere functionalism, becoming an endless source of new ideas. The aim of uniting “all the arts under the great wing of architecture" was therefore achieved by including Scheerbart's poems on the outside of the building and the glasswork on the inside. This was the goal that the Novembergruppe leaders had set themselves as early as 1910, when they joined the socio-cultural group Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers' Council for the Arts), the first official manifestation of expressionist architecture that Taut himself joined together with other leading architects like Erich Mendelsohn, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van de Rohe.
Brunus Taut's involvement in the Werkbund movement was to increase in the years immediately following the end of the First World War. He, together with Walter Gropius, was to provide training for a new generation of designers and he became involved in studying major urban interventions in the private sector. Here he applied the principles of standardisation and used the advantages of the assembly line while also recognising the importance of architecture and landscapes as human environments.
The international exhibition in Cologne, which was inaugurated in July, was abruptly closed in early August when the German Empire entered the war. The spirit of cooperation among European nations over the future of industrial society and the quality of artisan production came to a standstill and it was only after the end of the conflict that these original positions and inspirations could be considered once again.