Theodor Fischers – the Other Peter Behrens

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This year and next, a whole series of events are being planned across Germany to mark the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, not least in Oberhausen. The city in the Ruhr is currently hosting an exhibition on Peter Behrens, an architect whose influence was so profound that he has been labeled “the godfather of the modern movement.” One reason usually cited in reference to Behrens’ importance, often by first-year architecture students in the hope that a little of the glamour will rub off on them, are the people Behrens mentored, namely the imagined allure of Behrens’ studio in Berlin, where, between 1907 and 1912, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius were employed as assistants, working on buildings like the AEG Turbine Hall (1909) and squabbling over whose turn it was to sequester a fresh bottle of India ink from the basement.

Myths, however, beget counter-myths. The reverence in which Behrens’ studio is held has led a good many people working in and around architecture to want to challenge this depiction. They’ll tell you that the working environment was toxic. They’ll tell you that Gropius left after having a fight with Behrens. They’ll tell you that Mies barely remembers them spending any time as a trio. I am not sure this is quite right, either. In any given architectural movement, there are invariably a whole slew of “Peter Behrenses”, people who, for various reasons, come to be seen as seminal in the development of a new style. I want to tell you about one such person who was of importance to modernism.

Theodor Fischer (1862-1938) was a colossal figure, whose influence on twentieth-century architecture was considerable. Fritz Schumacher once said of Fischer that he was the “educator of an entire generation of architects.” It’s not difficult to see why. In his seven years as a professor at the University of Stuttgart (1901-08) and nineteen at the Technical University of Munich (1909-28), Fischer taught an extraordinary number of architectural luminaries, ranging from begetters of modernism such as Ernst May, Erich Mendelssohn, and JJP Oud to relative traditionalists including Paul Bonatz, German Bestelmeyer, and Paul Schmitthenner. With there being an evident ebb and flow of ideas and students between Fischer and the “Staatliches Bauhaus”, as well as to the German Werkbund (Fischer was a founder-member of the association aiming to unify art and industry), I am going to be looking at how Fischer influenced the Bauhaus in institutional terms at two key historical moments.

These are going to be, firstly, the school’s inception – Fischer’s 1917 manifesto, Für die deutsche Baukunst, calling for a renewal of architectural education through “eine Umwandlung der Schulen in produzierende Werkstätten” is credited with having inspired the Bauhaus manifesto – and, secondly, how Fischer's belief in the appropriateness of modernism for the twentieth century strengthened when it was under its most existential threat, i.e. the closure of the Bauhaus in Dessau. Fischer rallied hard against this act of pettiness by the local government, writing newspaper articles and giving speeches in support of the visionary design school. Even after the national socialists came to power, Fischer – at great personal risk – continued to advocate that modernism should be key to shaping Germany's cities in this changed and increasingly tumultuous political context.

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Fischer was a reassuring and kindly teacher, known to his students as “Großer Schweiger” or the “Zeus von Laim”. He commanded devotion among what was the most supremely gifted generation of architects to emerge in twentieth-century Germany, a cohort not exactly known for their deference. Of all his students, it was probably Bonatz, he of the “Autobahnbrücken” and Stuttgart Railway Station (1911-27), who had the closest relationship to Fischer, having worked for him in the Munich Architects’ Department in 1899 and then again as his assistant at the University of Stuttgart from 1902 to 1908. Bonatz, in his characteristically lucid prose, described that time period as like “falling under Fischer’s spell”. The appeal was thus.

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Fischer combined a forthright and jocular personality with tolerance of differing viewpoints, once saying, in a speech of 1934 “I am of no fixed opinion. I gladly listen to the next generation.” This was not mere architects’ bluster. It is a perception confirmed by the accounts of those who studied under him. Walther Schmidt, who was taught by Fischer at the Technical University of Munich and later responsible for the postwar rebuilding of Augsburg, recalls bringing something a little bit “out there” to an architecture critique, which Fischer was supervising. Fischer supposedly looked at Schmidt’s drawings for a moment and said, “whilst … I would never be able to draw something like that myself, it is, on the whole, correct.” “Fischer was not really akin to the kind of teacher that one usually finds in such institutions”, Schmidt concluded.

Bruno Taut, a prodigious architect who, in his work with GEHAG and Martin Wagner, went on to transform large swathes of Berlin in the 1920s. Taut, unlike Bonatz and Schmidt, had not been one of Fischer’s students, instead working at Fischer’s firm in Stuttgart from 1904 to 1908, with the older architect being instrumental to Taut winning his first architectural completion in 1905, the rebuilding of a village church in Unterriexingen. Fischer’s ideas were to have a profound effect on Taut. Taut’s “Architektur-Programm” (1919), a draft program for the “Arbeitsrat für Kunst”, an association of the German avant-garde – including Walter Gropius, Lyonel Feininger, and Bruno’s brother, Max –  formed in the ferment of the November Revolution in 1918 and disbanded in 1920, was clearly indebted to Fischer’s earlier writings on architectural education, works Taut referred to as “seminal”.

Fischer’s vision for the teaching of young architects, encompassing two years at university being followed by three in “workshops under the supervision of a master”, along the lines of how medieval craftspeople had been trained, and set out in Für die deutsche Baukunst, was one of the few things which Taut rescued from the pyre of established ideas. Its rusticity and return to first principles has been seen by historians such as Iain Boyd Whyte as being appropriate to the austerity prevailing in architectural practice and university education in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

Central to Taut’s proposals, a point taken up by the Deutscher Werkbund – an organisation which Taut was going to get increasingly involved in, after stepping down as leader of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst in February 1919 – was the notion of all of the other arts being in service of architecture. Or, as Hans Poelzig put it when addressing the Werkbund Conference of 1919, “[a] regeneration of our art is only possible in the spirit of medieval art … Architecture is the spiritual disposition of our nation.” Poelzig was referring to the building of gothic cathedrals, in which other craftspeople were subservient to a master-builder. Echoes of Fischer, the old medievalist, are unmistakable.  

This mantra was, of course, eerily similar to the opening salvo of the Bauhaus manifesto, “[t]he ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building!” Gropius’ great achievement was to take all of these ideas floating around in architectural discourse at the time, and to communicate them effectively, ensuring that the buildings which were being built were as much figurative as literal, the name, “Bauhaus,” almost becoming an imperative to “Build Buildings.” This was appropriate because, over the fourteen years of its existence, considerably more household objects were produced at the Bauhaus than actual buildings, it is always much easier to find buyers for things like lamps and chairs than to get new buildings commissioned. It was, however, an awfully good formulation, allowing the school building to almost transcend its physical form in the minds of contemporary commentators.

A school, not fixed to the ground, is destined to come adrift, and so it was for the Bauhaus. Fischer, having played a minor yet significant role in the development of the school’s curriculum, was devastated to learn the local (national socialist) government in Dessau were making things increasingly untenable for Mies van der Rohe, who, by 1932, had taken over as director of the Bauhaus. Fischer intervened, writing an article in Die Kunst lamenting the fact that people’s natural aversions to some architectural styles had here been twisted into something far more sinister, namely a prejudice against anything perceived to be “ungerman”. This prejudice was, for Fischer, based on false assumptions because, although for a number of right-wing commentators modernism had the whiff of “bolshevism” about it, it had actually been cultivated much closer to home, principally in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Fischer’s intervention, pledging his full support to Mies and disavowing architecture being oversimplified for political gain, went unheeded, yet there is something that strikes us as awfully contemporary about it. Over the last five years, architectural discourse has come to reject binary conceptions of style, e.g. modernism vs. classicism. Public debate around architecture, on the other hand, has never looked more politicised. Architects and commentators must take it upon themselves to write intelligibly for the broadest possible audience to ensure that their interventions have greater impact than Fischer’s.

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