Designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer; completed 1911, with subsequent expansions Alfeld-an-der-Leine, Germany
In 1910 spurred on by a dare from his former employer, Behrens Hannoverian Carl Benscheidt had visions of opening a competing shoe factory. After he secured a site just across the road from his former workplace in Alfeld, Germany (but with better rail access and three hectares to build on), Benscheidt founded Fagus GmbH in March 1911 and approached the Hannover architect Eduard Werner (1847–1923) to design his new factory. Not only had Werner designed the plans for the Behrens factory in 1897 (which was three times larger than Fagus would be), but he had the invaluable experience of knowing the calculations and work involved in building a shoe last factory. In Werner’s plan, the Fagus complex would amount to a row of brick buildings (or half timbered in the case of the warehouses), all with different functions along the production line. With the exception of the administrative rooms, the production houses were fairly utilitarian in nature. Benscheidt had already expressed his dissatisfaction with this aspect of Werner’s slightly Gothic design, and in 1911, he commissioned Walter Gropius (1883–1969) and Adolf Meyer (1881–1929) to redesign the facades of the entire complex. Gropius had done some exemplary work for the AEG Motor Company years before in Berlin while under the tutelage of architect Peter Behrens, and the buildings there had not only set new standards in factory design—practically making them works of art—but, in keeping with the time, had also created architecture as advertisement. It was decided that Werner would remain in charge of the project as a whole and in charge of the interior spaces and “outfitting of the buildings.” However, it is the influence of Gropius and Meyer that gives meaning to a contemporary understanding of the Fagus Werk. Gropius viewed this opportunity in Alfeld as the perfect collaboration between industry and the arts—the primary aim of the Deutscher Werkbund—and it would turn into a long-term project that would occupy Gropius and Meyer until the end of their partnership in 1925. Because of Gropius’s media presence during the building of Fagus, his adopted leadership of the building program, and his frequent writings within the Werkbund on the Fagus Werk, he is often credited solely with the design of the factory; indeed, it has been difficult to trace exactly what Meyer’s contributions were. However, Meyer considered the conceptualization of the factory a truly collaborative effort and kept a personal archive of drawings throughout the life of the project.
In the spring of 1911, Gropius and Meyer submitted their plans for the complex; these deviated from Werner’s in the positioning of the different buildings, creating courtyard space rather than the static row of structures proposed in the Werner plan. Their plan gave the building a much broader exposure toward Hannover and, thus, to the trains that frequently passed the factory’s property. Benscheidt never agreed to this plan, and the building was executed with its facade in a competitive stance toward Behrens’s, as originally conceived. The pair ended up making few changes to the original Werner plan and retained the overall layout of the factory complex.
However, they succeeded in carrying out a more unified scheme through their use of materials and color. All Fagus buildings, for example, have a 40-centimeter-high purpleblack brick base that projects from the facade by four centimeters and seems to allow the yellow-bricked rising walls of the building to float; windows in all the buildings appear to be cutouts from the cubical structures that contain them, although the window shapes and sizes differ from building to building. Perhaps the most daring design feature of the Fagus Werk—and the one that makes the building so significant and recognizable—is the vertical bands of windows that wrap around the main building, creating the illusion of a floating curtain wall. It was presumed that to accomplish this, the architects would have to employ some new construction technology, when in fact the frame construction was based entirely on Werner’s original projections of a brickwork building with an iron ceiling beam. A staircase on the clear-span side of the building acts like a stabilizing column to the glass-clad structure. Buildings in the Fagus complex—other than the famous, often photographed main office building—included the production hall, sawmill, warehouse, and punch-knife department. All these buildings were visually unified with their yellow brick, terra-cotta roof tiles, gray-slate roofs and glazing, and black bases. The interiors of the public spaces of the office structure and the production hall were planned by Gropius and Meyer down to the smallest details. The waiting room exuded order, lightness, and success; glass panes offered views of the main offices from the waiting rooms, which were friendly and informal. The architects designed dust-free work conditions and placed the machines in sequence with the production process in a lightfilled work environment. The design offered employees a commissary, washrooms, lockers, and later, housing.
An expansion to the Fagus Werk, led by Gropius and Meyer, began in 1913. Additions were attached to existing structures, and the main building and production hall were enlarged, the latter to three times its original size. Although hardly a challenging job for the architects, the expansion allowed them to suggest the application of a glazed facade to the production hall and the punch-knife department. This permitted them to provide a unified appearance to the entire complex. During World War I, the work progressed slowly as Gropius enlisted and Meyer took a job with a steel company. However, Benscheidt continued to make plans for the expansion, and drawings continued to be made. In 1915 some construction was allowed to commence, and the dominant characteristic of all Fagus buildings emerged: the floor-to-ceiling glazed and enclosed building corner.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2004.
Banham, Reyner, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London: Architectural Press, and New York: Praeger, 1960; 2nd edition, 1967
Jaeggi, Annemarie, Fagus: Industriekultur zwischen Werkbund und Bauhaus, Berlin: Jovis, 1998; as Fagus: Industrial Culture from Werkbund to Bauhaus, translated by Elizabeth M.Schwaiger, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000
Gordon, B.F., “The Fagus Factory,” Architectural Record, 169/7 (1981) Scheffauer, Herman George, “The Work of Walter Gropius,” Architectural Review, 56 (1924)
With his first major commission, which he received at the age of 28 through the agency of his uncle from the industrialist Karl Benscheidt, the young architect Walter Gropius succeeded in creating an early masterpiece. The historical significance of the Fagus Factory lies in its remarkable modernism compared to the standard office building of the times. Begun in 1911 and extended in 1913, it has shaped the image of the shoe-tree factory down to the present day. After the functional concept for the various parts of the complex had been drawn up by an architect versed in the technical requirements of the plant, Benscheidt made Gropius responsible for the “artist building design” and requested him “to give the entire plant a stylish appearance.” With the experience he had gained in the office of Peter Behrens, the artistic adviser to the AEG , Germany’s General Electric Company, Gropius was ideally equipped for this task.
To lend the factory a “worthy appearance,” Gropius chose a leathery, yellow brick commonly used for industrial bindings. Against all expectations, however , he hid not design a solid brick block, but a dematerialised , transparent enclosure. The stability of the reinforced concrete structure of floor slabs and internal columns enabled Gropius to dissolve the façade as he wished. The openings he formed in the traditional brick work were so large that the remaining wall areas represent little more than a skeleton framework, and the building is reduced to its bare outlines. The solid external structure, consisting of a low plinth, slender piers , and a horizontal parapet wall at the top, is closed with panels of glazing that extend over all three stories.
In his first factory building, Gropius emancipated himself from his mentor , Peter Behrens. The Fagus works can be seen as the architectural antithesis of the latter’s best-known building, the AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin. Gropius did not build a temple of labour, but a regular cubic block in which work is objectified. The various functions of the building and the internal production process are made visible. Nevertheless, the factory had a number of different faces, depending on the view point. Gropius designed a structure with an outer skin that , seen from an angle, as it normally is when one approaches the building, congeals to a glazed curtain wall. Viewed frontally, on the other hand, it is articulated by arrow of receding piers. Gropius thus reverse the concept of the Turbine Factory. For a moment, one had the impression of a self-supporting curtain wall wrapped around the corners.
Here, for the first time , the façade provides some indication of the great degree of transparency that skeleton-frame structures were to make possible in the future. At the corner, where the observer would expect the greatest loading to occur, the building gives an impression of weightlessness.
Although iron floor girders had long enabled structures to be cantilevered out at the corners, Gropius was the first architect to draw formal conclusions from this. Where Behrens resorts to architectural history, Gropius is radically modern. On being attacked on the press for his daring, Gropius replied that by leaving out the corner pier, his had saved not merely a column, but money, too.