The following essay is part of a series devoted to contemporary art and architecture East-Central Europe. It was first delivered as a paper at a conference held at MIT in October, 2001.
The way in which architecture lends character to the appearance of a town and thus is present in the everyday life of all parts of society would seem to make buildings an instrument especially suitable for the manifestation of national identity. Thus, at the end of the 19th and in the first decades of the 20th century, architecture - especially in border regions - was often interpreted as an instrument of political purposes.
In this context, the question of a "national style" and its regional diversifications (vernacular style/"Heimatstil") became topical in Europe, having an essential meaning for the self-definition of Eastern European nations under foreign rule, such as Poles and Czechs. But also in the new-united German Reich (1871) the search for national identity by means of art and culture played an important role.
I would like to verify these observations by two examples from the common history of Germany and Poland: the town of Poznan/Posen and the region of Upper Silesia.
Great Poland (Wielkopolska), the cradle of the Polish state in the 10th century, with its capital Poznan, became part of the Prussian kingdom ("Provinz Posen") after the Third Partition of Poland in 1793. This situation lasted until 1918, when after World War I Poland regained its independence.
At the end of the 19th century, Wilhelm I, king of Prussia and - from 1871 on - German Emperor, and his chancellor Otto von Bismarck, started an intense program of "germanisation" in the regions inhabited merely by Poles. This policy, which included above all a ban on the Polish language at school and in public life, and a huge settlement ("colonisation") program in order to increase the number of German inhabitants, continued under the rules of Wilhelm II.()
In the old Polish town of Poznan, of which 57% of its inhabitants were Polish, the Prussian administration made an effort to demonstrate the German presence by means of architecture. Such activities, subsumed under the slogan of "Hebungspolitik" ("policy of cultural improvement"), were not only directed against the Poles, but also were meant to increase the attraction of the provincial town, which Prussian civil servants were eager to leave westwards as soon as possible.
The ambitious building program started with the erection of the Emperor Wilhelm´s Library (1899-1902), and the Emperor Friedrich´s Museum, projected by the Berlin architect Karl Hinckeldeyn. Both buildings turned back to examples of Berlin monumental architecture, in the case of the Museum to the Armory (Zeughaus) Unter den Linden.
When in 1902 the fortifications were pulled down to give room to the expansion of the city, the Government claimed a wide area to create a new representative quarter focussed on the Emperor´s castle - the former military-base was to be raised up to the position of an Emperor´s residence. The place for the Emperor´s Forum was chosen to be in the southwest, at the "entrance" to the town center coming from the railway-station or the road from Berlin.
The plans for the arrangement of the new area, elaborated by the Municipal Architect Heinrich Grüder, were then rejected by the central authorities in Berlin. The planning now went into the hands of the Berlin architect Joseph Stübben, who was named head of the "King's Commission of Town Planning in Posen" (Königl. Kommission für die Stadterweiterung zu Posen) in 1904.() Stübben was responsible for the urban planning of the Forum area, whereas the single buildings of administration, culture, science, and religion, were carried out by various architects.
Wilhelm II himself took part in the planning of his own castle, which was erected by Franz Schwechten, one of the most famous architects of the so-called "Wilhelminian Style". The emperor chose monumental Romanesque forms of the Staufish period and he especially turned back to art and architecture of Friedrich II in Sicily and in Apulia - i.e. to the times when the German Empire ("Holy Roman Empire") reached its widest extension.()
The neo-Romanesque castle in Poznan was meant to demonstrate German presence on this land from the middle ages on.() Schwechten continued the Romanesque attitude in the complex of the Regional Bank (Posener Landschaft) and the Post Office (Postdirektion) on the other side of the main street (Am Berliner Tor). Thus, the castle and the administration buildings formed a kind of monumental gate to the city, and their silhouette with the massive Emperor´s tower in the very center dominated the city.
None of the other buildings gathered around the castle showed such a suggestive "architecture parlante". The Royal Academy, which should be the nucleus of a future university in Posen,() as well as the near-by Cooperative Bank and the Protestant Church Community Center, bear the character of "German renaissance". Although it was the Netherlands from which this manner of form and decoration spread over northern Europe in the 16th century, it was considered as "German national style" at the turn of the 19th century and therefore widely used in administration or education buildings.
So, in the case of the Academy and the Bank, it was this general "national" connotation that decided the form, although there was no iconographic relation between the architecture and the function of the buildings.() This was different however for the Church Community Center: here, the neo-renaissance costume was to draw back the line to the times of Martin Luther. Nota bene, the placement of a protestant institution within such a prominent ensemble was a strong manifestation of "germanness" to the catholic Poles.
The seat of the Royal Settlement Commission (Königl. Ansiedlungskommission) was erected in splendid neo-baroque forms with a dominant cupola and a wide representative hall, which remind one of simultaneous administration-buildings in Berlin. Nevertheless, the ideological context was visible only in the frescoes of the hall and sculpture-program at the facades showing the periods of "German colonization" of Eastern Europe from the Middle Ages (a monk and a Teutonic Knight) over the times of Friedrich the Great in 18th century (Hugenots and religious refugees from Salzburg) to the present (peasants from several German regions).()
The New Municipal Theatre was designed by the Munich architects Heilmann & Littmann who specialized in this field. It is built in neoclassical style, the standard in theater architecture all over Europe. Thus, in this case it was the inscription on the tympanum, a verse of Schiller, which "nationalized" these per se neutral, classical forms.
The ensemble was completed by the already existing neo-gothic St-Pauli-Church in the northeast of the area, which also figures on the official plans of the Forum. The main idea in quoting architectural styles from the middle ages on was to demonstrate the continuous presence of the Germans in Poznan throughout the centuries - even if the chosen styles were not necessarily connected with German art only. This explains the historistic attitude of the buildings, which was getting out-of-date in the first decade of the 20th century, but was still in the gusto of Wilhelm II.
The works on the Emperor´s Forum came to an end in 1910. At the same time, municipal and governal authorities planned a further event to propagate the prosperity of the town all over Germany and abroad. They invited the other Eastern Provinces of the Reich - Silesia, Pomerania, Eastern and Western Prussia - to take part in an ambitious exposition project. The "Exposition of the German East" (Ostdeutsche Ausstellung), which opened its gates in 1911, was to demonstrate the economical, technical and cultural power of those border regions and fight off the wide-spread stereotype of the "backward East".()
Besides the short-lived echo of the exposition, thanks to this event Poznan gained an extended exposition area near the railway-station, which to up to our days serves for the Poznan Fairs. Furthermore, it obtained a modern landmark in the town silhouette: the tower for the Upper-Silesian Industry designed by Hans Poelzig.
Although Poelzig himself did not speak of "national" implications in his work, the monumental forms of the tower were interpreted as a symbol of "German" power. The ample base and the broad head, connected by a swallow shaft, are due to the double function of the building, which had to serve as an exhibition hall and - after the exposition - as a water-reservoir. Poelzig used a steel-construction filled with thin brick elements and - a sign of modernity - broad rows of windows.()
All those activities happened without any participation of the Polish inhabitants, who had only few possibilities to start their own building initiatives.(.) Therefore, it was no wonder that after 1918, Poles were eager to demonstrate the return of Poznan and Great Poland under the Polish rules by setting new architectural accents. Since classicism in the seek of a "national style" was regarded as a part of Poland's architectural tradition() and connoted dignity and representation, official buildings after the First World War in Poznan and elsewhere were mainly designed in this style.
When the 10th anniversary of the Second Polish Republic was going to be celebrated in 1929, it was deliberately chosen to be held in Poznan, at the former "East German Exposition" area. The President of the Polish Republic, Ignacy Moscicki, held the patronat over the exhibition. With a similar propagandist intention as its precursor, the "Exposition of the Polish State" (Wystawa Krajowa) was directed to the neighbor.() The main pavilions of the Wystawa Krajowa were erected in monumental classic forms. But the exposition also gave room to modern polish architecture of the Warsaw avant-garde (e.g. Pavilion of Centrocement, Bohdan Lachert & Józef Szanajca), thus initiating the modern movement-boom of the Thirties. Modern Movement then became a new kind of "national style", manifesting the progressive development of the country - last but not least in Upper Silesia.
Upper Silesia ()
As a result of the First World War, the Prussian province Silesia suddenly found itself in an exposed border situation, "surrounded" from the north, the east and the south by the foreign or even hostile states of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Tension reached its peak when the industrial region of Upper Silesia was divided into a German and a Polish part in October 1921. The loss of coalmines, industrial facilities, and markets increased the dramatic economical problems the German province had to face.
On the Polish side, the situation was not easy either: after the long period of non-existence, the new state, disposing of modest means only, had to build up structures of administration, economy and communal life in a region with a high quota of German inhabitants. National antagonisms between Germans and Poles gained a wide influence on everyday life. Both sides were eager to prove their territorial rights by claiming their own nation's historical and cultural relationship to Silesia.
Thus, the Polish architect Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz in his announcement to the competition for the new Silesian Parliament [Sejm] in Katowice demanded "to erect, in the capital of our Western border region, a monumental building which represents our culture and contrasts with the culture of the maniacally imperialistic nation, manifested by the fully north-German character of the actual Sejm building"() (the parliament was temporary located in the former Baugewerkschule). "Polish culture" should form an opposition to the German/ Prussian brickwork neo-gothic prevailing in Katowice´s prewar architecture.
Thus, according to the actual discussion on a national style, both of the most prestigious buildings in Upper Silesia - the Sejm and the cathedral of the newly formed Katowice diocese() - were realized in neo-classical forms. When the Upper Silesian Parliament (arch. K. Wyczynski, L. Wojtyczko, S. Zelenski, P. Jurkiewicz) was inaugurated in May 1929, Michal Grazynski, President of the Province of Upper Silesia, in his speech called the building a "material symbol of Polish culture and power".()
Of course, the dimensions of the four-ailed building with its monumental corner pavilions demonstrate the will of power, but its neoclassical forms, rooting in European art history, can hardly be interpreted as a typical expression of Polish culture. So here, like before in the building of the Royal Settlement Commission in Poznan, it is only the iconography of the architectonic detail, which declares the building to be "Polish": the ionic capitals of the columns and pilasters bear the Polish Eagle, the friezes are decorated with reliefs representing lictor´s fasces, and shields with the initials RP (for Rzeczpospolita Polska/Republic of Poland).()
Since the seat of the governement of the Prussian Province was Oppeln (Opole) and the Bishop resided in Breslau (Wroclaw) and Neisse (Nysa), in the German industrial era of Upper Silesia no buildings comparable in splendor to the Silesian Parliament or the Cathedral arose.
Due to the great number of refugees coming from the now Polish parts of Upper Silesia and from Wielkopolska, the construction of houses and schools - "to disseminate German culture"() - was the main task for the municipal administrations of the three towns of Gleiwitz (Gliwice), Beuthen (Bytom) and Hindenburg (Zabrze). Whereas on the Polish side public projects were worked out mainly by free-lance architects, in the German towns architects employed in the Municipal Building Offices dominated, thus creating a rather monotonous architectural landscape.
Until the late Twenties, traditionally structured architecture prevailed in all categories of buildings, too, but its details derived rather from the Biedermeier-style "circa 1800", which was propagated by the German Heimatschutz reformers, such as Paul Schultze-Naumburg or Paul Mebes in the first decade of the 20th century.()
The most representative building on the German side, the hotel "Haus Oberschlesien" in Gleiwitz, which not only had to serve as a first-class hotel, but as a cultural center for the whole region,() shows the bulky forms with a rather modest decoration, which were typical in these years. The monumental corpus covered by a steep roof is structured by an uprising front-risalite, which is decorated with colossal pilasters. The building had been designed by the Breslau architects Richard Gaze and Karl Böttcher in 1923. As the investor went bankrupt, municipal and governmental authorities supported the completion of the building "because of its cultural importance".
Besides traditional elements of decoration, expressionist motifs gained an increasing popularity among the architects on the German side. Just after the First World War, expressionist inspiration exerted a great influence on German architecture. The utopian projects of artists gathered in the "Glass Chain" (Gläserne Kette) propagated the rising shapes and the purity of crystals as a prototype for a new architecture.
Although only few expressionist buildings came to realization, the typical steep and uprising expressionist forms remained in use during the whole decade, mainly as elements of decoration. One of the rare examples of structural use of the expressionist form is the Eichendorff High-School at Gleiwitz (ca. 1925; Municipal Building Office/ Carl Schabik?). A high roof on a simple rectangular block with rows of glazing-barred windows and expressionist detail - this was the manner preferred by the municipal authorities in the German part of Upper Silesia until about 1927 (Police-office, Beuthen; Friedrich-Wilhelm High-School in Gleiwitz, Schabik)
It is striking to consider that although the new urban architecture in the three German towns was widely commented on as "honourable and important cultural work",() the commentators rarely tried to prove this point by arguments on architectural style. One reason for this might have been the fact that expressionism played an important part in Polish decorative art and architecture scene, too, even representing the country at the Paris World Exhibition in 1925.
Also in Katowice some examples of expressionist architecture or detail may be found (Tadeusz Michejda´s own house, 1926; Administration for the K. Airport, 1927/Michejda, Sikorski). Thus, it was rather the huge number of realizations, the function of buildings and their monumental form, which had to represent "the image of a characteristic and powerful German urbanistic complex at the outermost frontier in the south-east of the Reich".()
Modern 'cubic' architecture in Polish as well as in German Silesia could overcome conservative tendencies only in the later Twenties.() Architects who wanted to realize new conceptions had to face the opposition of building authorities. But in the course of time, authorities, eager to present Silesia as a prosperous and modern region and competing with the disliked neighbor, could no longer reject Modern Movement Architecture.
For the German part, the artistic circles around the Breslau Academy of Arts played a precursory role, planning and realizing a model housing estate ("Wohn- und Werkraumausstellung") in 1929.() To get financial support from municipal authorities, architects had to make concessions; their plan to invite, like in the Stuttgart Weißenhof Exhibition in 1927, foreign architects to demonstrate the international dimension of Modern Movement Architecture, was rejected. Municipal administration demanded a demonstration of Silesian architecture, manifesting modernity and creativity. Some of the commentators even wanted to see the "WuWA" as an "efficient counterpart to the Poznan Exhibition planned in 1929".()
Especially in Upper Silesia modern architecture - also called "International Style" was instrumentalized in the nationalist contest for the mutual boasting of national cultural achievements and the demonstration of progress and economic dynamism. Thus, in a comment on new housing estates in Hindenburg (Zabrze; 1930; Hugo Leipziger und Albrecht Jäger, Breslau) parallels were drawn to the mediaeval settlement-movements in Silesia: "It is important to realize this modern spiritual colonization in a border region like Silesia, [..] in the same way the Middle Ages let architecture canvass and work for their aims".()
Most modern architecture buildings were erected under the rules of the quietly progressive Municipal Architect M. Wolf in the young city of Hindenburg (founded in 1922), where there was still a lack of buildings of urban life and administration.() In 1930 e.g., the Cologne architect Dominikus Böhm projected the most impressing church (St. Joseph) in the whole of Upper Silesia.()
In 1931 in Oppeln (Opole), there was erected a new seat for the government of the Prussian province Upper Silesia, and this occurred according to a modern architectural scheme presented by the governmental architect Lehmann. Nota bene, the large complex arose at the site of the old Piast castle, which had been pulled down for this purpose. This fact proves that the International Style was now fully accepted "to express the character" of "this heavily mutilated borderland".()
On the other side, in Katowice, in the decade up to the beginning of the Second World War, there arose some of the best Modern Movement buildings in Poland. They are comparable only to Warszawa - and to Gdynia, where the situation of national antagonisms was very similar to that of Upper Silesia (e.g. skyscraper of the Revenue Office /Urzad Skarbowe by Tadeusz Kozlowski, 1929-30; dwelling-house for the management of the State Railways by Tadeusz Michejda, 1930). "Upper Silesia is the most American part of Poland", wrote the architect Witold Klebkowski in his description of the Revenue Office building,() thus pointing out the dynamic development of the region.
Symptomatic for the cultural competition between Germans and Poles was the erection of new museums on both sides of the border in Beuthen (1930-1932; Goltz ) and Katowice (1934-1939; Karol Schayer()). According to their conception as "regional museums", both expositions embraced the periods from prehistory to the present day, with the intention of proving scientifically the perennial presence of Germans respectively Poles on this land.()
The new buildings seem to continue the quarrel by the means of modern architecture. Both projects were part of a representative urban square. Especially the Polish museum situated at the city "forum" opposite the Silesian Parliament, an ample administration building ("Gmach Urzedów Niezespolonych"), and the equestrian monument of Pilsudski, symbolized the political meaning of this cultural institution.
The governmental investors wanted to enhance the expression of the building and, as before in the Sejm-building, they planned to visualize the political intention by sculptural decoration. The façade-reliefs of a miner and a woman in regional costumes and the monument of the first Polish King, Boleslaw Chrobry, could not be realized any more, but the symbolic connotation of the institution seems to have been so strong that Nazis after the conquest of Poland in 1939 destroyed the museum.()
Thus, paradoxically, in the border region of Silesia, even the "International Style" of modern architecture could be instrumentalized as an expression of nationalist ideas and of economical and cultural superiority. But in fact the common - European - roots of architectural styles and tendencies, led to parallel phenomena in Germany and Poland. Furthermore, both parts of Silesia and of the German Provinz Posen shared a common psychological barrier as border provinces which, on the one hand, wanted to overtop their not-beloved neighbor, and on the other hand had to promote themselves within their own countries.()
In the end, it was not the form, but the theoretical interpretation and justification by politicians, critics, and, in few cases only, the artists themselves, which made architecture appear a manifesto of national assertiveness.