Mies Van der Rohe presents the Stuttgart Weissenhof at the Deutscher Werkbund
Housing was the theme of the second edition of the Exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund. The Die Wohnung exhibition was intended to showcase new housing solutions for the citizens of modern cities. From theoretical ideas to practical projects, the goal was to present town planning and architectural solutions that would provide people with decent and comfortable homes, regardless of their social status.
Architects Mies Van der Rohe and his assistant Lilly Reich were appointed as curators of the exhibition, and consequently as planners of the area granted by the Municipality of Stuttgart. Both were well-known personalities in the Deutscher Werkbund milieu in addition to being very active as teachers at the Bauhaus school in Dessau.
Van der Rohe drew up guidelines that all participating architects were required to follow. In an attempt to present the best solutions developed by the Modern Movement, the Weissenhof buildings were to be simple geometric volumes, based on a parallelepiped module, using flat roof technology and having, if possible, a terrace and roof garden. Load-bearing skeletal structures were used; transparent surfaces with large ribbon windows were to be preferred; the façade and the distribution of interior spaces were to be kept free of structural constraints; the use of pilotis structures at ground level was to be favoured. The above guidelines were consistent with the celebrated five points of modern architecture contained the manifesto by the French architect Le Corbusier, who was also active in the design of two of the Stuttgart housing estate buildings.
The other architects involved accepted the guidelines provided by Mies Van der Rohe without particular objections because they actually reflected the standard for the composition and design of residential buildings that were typical of the modern current.
From this perspective, the results achieved in building the model Weissenhof housing estate in Stuttgart anticipated by no more than a year the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (C.I.A.M.), an international event promoted by Countess Hélène Revilliod De Muralt de Mandrot at the La Sarraz Castle in Switzerland. Up to 1959, the Congrès was to encourage compositional research and legislative progress not only in architecture but also in urban planning and landscape design.
The model buildings in the housing estate followed an urban layout designed by Mies Van der Rohe. At first, the solution found for the composition of public spaces aroused little interest. Only time was to prove the relevance of the designer's focus on ensuring pedestrian safety and good vehicle driving conditions by having separate, diversified traffic routes.
Moreover, as a general rule, residential buildings were not to be built directly adjacent to public spaces, pedestrian pavements or vehicle routes. Garden areas were to be created as filters between private buildings and vehicular routes.
Concerning architectural composition, the requirements for the designers also focused specifically on the project’s management: it was to be completed quickly and at a low cost. The original plan provided a year for construction; in practice, the buildings were almost all completed within five months of the worksite opening.
The Weissenhofsiedlung featured buildings of varying composition and residential use. There were single and two-family houses, terraced houses and apartment buildings. The objective was to provide a sample of a city model that could be replicated at a larger scale.
During the design stage, considerable attention was dedicated to studying and adopting new building materials. For the construction of "house 16", which had been assigned to him, Walter Gropius experimented with prefabrication systems by incorporating pre-cast concrete wall panels mounted on dry assembly metallic frames. Conversely, in "house 17", he used panels with a cork finish on the inside, and Eternit on the outside, so as to assess differing thermal results in the living area.
In designing the project, Mies Van der Rohe kept the two most scenic lots for himself, ensuring he would be able to enjoy views of the city of Stuttgart from its most elevated vantage point.
To design the apartment buildings, he used a structural steel frame that characterised the geometry of their elevation. This framework ensured that the internal partitions could be laid out without any constraints and the twenty-four apartments were therefore designed with different geometries. Mies Van der Rohe's plan was simple and at the same time very functional. He intended to maximise the surface area of the areas used for daytime activities while minimising, or even eliminating, typically functional spaces such as storage areas, corridors and passageways.
The façade consisted of a homogeneous field of white plaster with black fixtures, while the presence of projecting balconies defined the entrances. The building was articulated over four levels and had a terraced roof designed for a variety of uses.
The group of designers involved in the design of the housing estate's many buildings were prominent members of the Werkbund Group, as well as distinguished guests from other cultural milieus that were closely related to the movement's ideas. They included: Peter Behrens, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Hans Poelzig, Hans Scharoun, the brothers Bruno and Max Taut, Josef Franck from Austria, Victor Bourgeois from Belgium, Le Corbusier from France, Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud and Mart Stam from the Netherlands.
Overall, Le Corbusier's buildings were the best examples of the principles of modernity. The two houses designed by Le Corbusier were to have different construction methods: one was developed following the theoretical model of the 1922 Maison Citrohan, and had a reinforced concrete structure; the other was a twin house with a steel structure.
Both rested on pilotis. The reinforced concrete house featured large glazed areas on the front elevation, giving light to a two-level space where the sleeping area opened onto the living room. It was intended to be a reinterpretation of a Mediterranean house, with the typical staircase outside the building. The kitchen and living room were on the upper floors, overlooked by a loft with a double bedroom and bathroom. The top floor was occupied by the children's bedroom that was designed to be autonomous with respect to parental activities.
Le Corbusier used his trademark ribbon windows, and the same compositional module was designed so as to create openings of different sizes according to their position on the
The steel house was intended to represent, perhaps even more clearly, a dwelling conceived as a machine à habiter. Inside it contained a narrow corridor, which Le Corbusier designed with the same dimensions as those of railway carriages, and which served as a space for circulation and interconnection. The furnishings, with foldaway beds, made it possible to create free space. On the top floor, the study and library spaces opened onto a roof-garden, one of the cornerstones of the concept of modern living.
While the external façades were a uniform white colour, hence complying with Van der Rohe's rules, Le Corbusier used red and blue for the interior, reflecting the natural exposure to sunlight.
For his five terraced houses, Pieter Oud, developed a duplex housing model on two floors, differentiating between daily living spaces on the first floor and night areas on the second. The kitchen area was arranged following the earliest experiments in practical spatial organisation, reducing surfaces and volumes to minimum living standards.
For the single-family house, Brunus Taut created a layout with ample space and terraces. The parallelepiped shape of the building was made less rigid by adding two loggias for the primary and service entrances. This housing model was intended to reflect the habits and needs of a superior social class compared to those in the housing estate’s terraced houses or apartment buildings. Hans Scharoun also designed a single-family dwelling for the same type of client, but, in contrast to all the other Weissenhof projects, he also included several spaces with curved walls.
Adopting the same model, Hans Poelzig presented a single-family house, focusing primarily on the alignment and insulation of its interior space.
Mart Stam's three terraced houses provided the perfect rationalist housing solution with ample open spaces and large windows that connected the house to its external environment. The only difference, compared to the other designs in the Werkbund exhibition area, was his choice of blue façades.
All the architects who took part in the event chose to design their housing solutions with innovative solutions. The only designer who decided to work traditionally was Peter Behrens, a well-known figure in the early Werkbund avant-gardes.
The model Weissenhofsiedlung estate was an outstanding success, and it remains one of the most significant examples of the unity of purpose that inspired the avant-garde architects of an entire era.