“Mastering light requires an awareness of its absence.”
Darran Anderson on Expressionism
Expressionism often brings to mind the flickering light of silent movies; the angles of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the shadows of Nosferatu, the colossi of Metropolis. It would be a mistake to say that Expressionism in architecture does not share certain aesthetic traits with such film noir; after all, one of its finest practitioners Hans Poelzig worked on the set design of The Golem and became the model for a satanic magician in another, The Black Cat. The problem arises when this crossover is used as a means to dismiss Expressionist architecture as trivial (Kenneth Clark notably included Walt Disney as an Expressionist in Landscape into Art) or fantastical. All too often Expressionist architects are depicted as having been fantasists or madmen; their designs regarded as histrionic indulgences. They ideas were criticised as belonging to a mythic Germanic world from some time between the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and the Brothers Grimm; the death-rattle of a Gothic shadow-world before the sun-bathed International Style.
It is often assumed that Expressionism was a strictly Teutonic affair; “the tortured soul of contemporary Germany…” as Lotte Eisner put it “the reflection of its own grimacing image.” Yet Expressionism has substantial claim beyond the German borders, reaching out directly and indirectly. There was the Amsterdam School, which produced Michel de Klerk’s The Ship, the Czech Cubism of Gočár’s House of the Black Madonna, Jože Plečnik’s National and University Library of Slovenia, and, perhaps most impressively, Jensen-Klint’s Grundtvig’s Church, Copenhagen. Wherever its influence was felt, it encouraged the forging of a startlingly new vernacular architecture. Equally the German Expressionists absorbed influences from architecture around the world via photographs, travels, exhibitions and pavilions. Rather than orientalist pastiche, these were, by and large, attempts to create fresh forms. They were extraordinarily receptive to the outside world…