I tricked two friends to ride 15 kilometers from our hotel on rented bikes to check out the architect Peter Behrens’ 1909 turbine factory on a recent unseasonably freezing cold morning. Michael Graham and his partner Phil Leiderbach of Leiderbach and Graham Architects in Chicago were in Berlin with me for a design conference and they actually were planning on visiting the very same building, only they had the sensible idea of taking a car. Adventure won out over comfort however. I really can’t get a feel for a city unless I walk or bike through it. If I am driven or take the subway, I experience it as a series of disconnected points, and can’t stitch any of the geography together. Once we figured out we all had the same plan we pedaled away, with only a brief visit to a hardware store for an emergency purchase of gloves for frostbite mitigation. We saw this striking building along the way; a city jail, with this none-too-subtle sculpture on the façade.
Behrens’ AEG Turbine building was built for the manufacture of steam turbines. It was put up quickly, talking only a brief 8 months and made of mainly glass, steel and concrete. Its aesthetic power comes in large part from the expression of the dynamic forces in its engineering. Behrens treated those forces and the functional needs of the manufacturing process (for instance the need for large column-free spaces, high ceilings, and huge windows for illumination) as principal design elements. But this building is not a plain engineering exercise; Behrens manipulates the expression of the structure’s and the fabrication process’ needs as if they were a design tool set. Neither does Behrens limit himself to a purely functional vocabulary. I was struck by the essentially classical handling of the building. It’s anchored by large, rounded, rough-aggregate concrete corners, scored with horizontal channels. The scoring recalls massive, simple, masonry construction. These corner elements tilt inward significantly (reminding me of ancient near eastern or Cycladic architecture) and set up a tension with the steel column legs of the building frame. The long façade that stretches down Berlichengenstrasse has a strongly rhythmic feel. The masonry and glass modules seem in tension with the columns separating them.
I was completely prepared to be underwhelmed by a building I studied at length in college and was familiar with only in vintage black and white slides. My experience of much modern industrial architecture is that it holds up pretty poorly to both its bottom line driven requirements as well as the weather; the business side having no sympathy for aesthetics and history over productive use (and often changes uses) and (usually) poor quality, cheap, materials used in construction not wearing well over time. The Turbinenfabrik defied my expectations. First of all, it’s still standing (which I knew, of course, but…). If I was directing bombing raids over Germany in WW2 any prominent turbine factories would have been reduced to rubble. Secondly, it underwent a decent maintenance/restoration in the 1970s. It’s in pretty great shape from all external appearances. Thirdly, it’s beautiful and has a dramatic street presence. Set back on a wide sidewalk, on a corner lot, you can easily appreciate the classic base, body and gable/cornice arrangement as well as the play between massive concrete, tense steel, and sheer glass. The concrete is a pretty tawny color with big aggregate showing. The glass appears to be original and the steel is not rusting wildly, in fact it was painted a pretty olive green on the Huttenstrasse façade. Lastly, it’s still a turbine factory. You can hear the machinery humming as you walk around the building.
We all had the brilliant idea of trying to improvise a tour inside and walked into the office at the opening of the courtyard. Before we could open our mouths a guard met us with a friendly “NO”. I think perhaps he had seen pleading architectural enthusiasts before. Certainly he was immune to our charms.