European Architecture Series
Peter Behrens

German Modernist Architect, Designed AEG Turbine Factory.

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AEG Turbine Factory (1908-9)
Berlin, Germany.

Peter Behrens (1868-1940)


Behrens's Architecture
Behrens's Work for AEG
Other Industrial Designs
Famous 19th Century European Architects

For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.

Behrens's Architecture

One of Germany's greatest architects during the first decade of the 20th century, Peter Behrens was a pioneer of corporate design as well as modernist architecture (buildings characterized by functionalist style and new materials). Noted for his modern-style factories and office buildings - his most famous work is the AEG Turbine Factory (1909) - he is seen by most art critics as a link between Art Nouveau - known in Germany as Jugendstil - and 20th century industrial design. But perhaps his greatest contribution to modern architecture lies in his choice of assistants, who included future giants like Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). Deeply influenced by Behrens, these immensely gifted designers propagated his ideas around the world, and had a huge impact (in particular) on 20th century American skyscraper architecture, with the development of the International Style and the Second Chicago school (1940-75). In addition to his designwork, Behrens helped to establish the German Work Federation (Deutscher Werkbund) - loosely modelled on the English Arts and Crafts movement - in order to streamline the production of high quality applied art and crafts of various kinds.




Born and educated in Hamburg, Behrens studied painting in Dusseldorf and Karlsruhe (as well as in Hamburg), from 1886 to 1889, before marrying and moving to Munich in 1890, where he began working as a painter, illustrator and book-binder. In 1899, along with the Viennese Secessionist architect Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908) and others, Behrens joined the utopian Darmstadt artist colony set up by the Grand-duke Ernst-Ludwig of Hesse. Here, he designed and built his own house (along with almost everything in it), an achievement which convinced him to take up architecture. In the process he turned away from the fashionable Art Nouveau style towards a more austere type of design. (See also: German Art: 19th Century.)

In 1903, he was appointed director of the Art School in Dusseldorf, where he took the opportunity to introduce a series of teaching reforms, and in 1907, along with Joseph Maria Olbrich, Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), Theodor Fischer (1862-1938), Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919), Karl Schmidt (1873-1954), Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), Bruno Paul (1874-1968), Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1957), and others, plus twelve craft firms, he established the German Werkbund. Indebted to the ideas of the Arts and Crafts leader William Morris (1834-96), members of the Werkbund were dedicated to improving the design of everyday objects. This highly practical agenda drew the attention of several industrialists, as well as other influential designers and academics. As a result, in the same year, Behrens was appointed artistic consultant to AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft).

Behrens's Work for AEG

During his consultancy (1907-14), Behrens masterminded AEG's complete corporate identity - including designs for the company logo, packaging, PR and advertising materials - for which he is considered the first serious industrial designer. In addition, shortly after the firm entered the field of aircraft production, he designed the classical-style AEG Turbine Factory (see below), raising the question whether classical designs formerly reserved for temples and the like, were appropriate for ultra-functional industrial buildings. He also built several offices for the company. During the period 1907-12, he employed a number of younger architects as pupils and trainees, including Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Jean Kramer and Adolf Meyer.

The AEG Turbine Factory

This factory, built in Berlin 1909, exemplifies early 20th century architecture, for Behrens managed to combine functionality and elegance, matching the use of modern materials and building techniques to classical proportions. Its construction was triggered by increased demand for the large-scale production of turbines. Working with the engineer Karl Bernard, Behrens designed a space sufficient for the entire assembly process, including the use of cranes to lift and move component parts during assembly. His windows design also ensured that the interior was fully illuminated by natural light. Behrens's design also included a number of classical features reminiscent of features used in Greek architecture in the construction of temples. For example, the facade of the iron-and-glass structure is given extra solidity by the addition of masonry pylons, steel columns and a polygonal tympanum, all of which give the building a classical feel. In this way, Behrens shows that a purely functional modern industrial building can still have a link with the architecture of the past. (Compare the use of iron and also masonry pylons in the design of the Eiffel Tower by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) in 1887.)

Other Industrial Designs

In addition to designing for AEG, Behrens also designed the German Embassy in the Russian capital St Petersburg (1911-12). He also designed and built the technical administration building (Technische Verwaltungsgebaude) for the Hoechst Dye Factory in Frankfurt am Main (1920-24). This building's fortresslike appearance, complete with tower and bridge, which was constructed in the style of the medieval brick castles of northern Germany, raised similar questions to those posed by his innovative designs for AEG.

During the 1920s Behrens took up several teaching assignments. In 1922, he went to Vienna, where he taught at the city's Academy of Fine Arts. He also became head of the Department of Architecture at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. During the mid-1930s, when he was 68, he was associated with Nazi art, namely Hitler's utopian architectural fantasies for Berlin, when he accepted the commission for AEG's new headquarters building, to be constructed on Albert Speer's famous planned north-south axis in the German capital. The project was never realized. In February 1940, Behrens died at the Hotel Bristol, in Berlin.


Behrens - rather like his pupils Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe - was a pioneer of modernist architecture: that is, architecture designed for the modern age, free of historical elements and associations. In fact, as mentioned above, he retained a number of historical motifs in his designs, but otherwise his monumental industrial designs incorporated numerous modernist features and made full use of new materials like steel and glass. But his modernist vision was only properly implemented by the International Style of his disciples, Gropius and Le Corbusier and by the skyscraper architecture of his pupil Mies.

Famous 19th Century European Architects

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79)
Influential Gothic style architect.

Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926)
Spanish Gothic/Art Nouveau architect.

Victor Horta (1861-1947)
Pioneer of Art Nouveau architecture in Belgium.

Hector Guimard (1867-1942)
Famous French Art Nouveau architect.

• For more about early 20th century modernist architecture in Europe, see: Homepage.

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