Peter Behrens

Peter Behrens (1868-1940) was Germany's foremost architect in the early 20th century, as well as a painter and designer. His buildings greatly influenced the architecture of the next generation in Europe.

Peter Behrens was born in Hamburg on April 14, 1868. He studied painting at the School of Art in Karlsruhe (1886-1889). He spent the 1890s in Munich as a painter and designer in the current Jugendstil, or German Art Nouveau style, and cofounded the Sezession group of artists, architects, and designers in 1893. In 1899 he joined the artists' colony on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, where, under the influence of J. M. Olbrich, he turned to architecture. Behrens's house at Darmstadt (1900-1901) was a characteristic Art Nouveau work.

During his tenure as director of the School of Applied Arts in Düsseldorf (1903-1907), Behrens designed a series of buildings, including the exhibition hall for the Northwestern German Art Exhibition at Oldenburg (1905). In this design, simple rectilinear geometry, plane surfaces, and incised linear decoration replaced the curvilinear forms of his residence.

In 1907 Behrens succeeded Alfred Messel as architect and designer for the German General Electric Company in Berlin. In this capacity he designed everything from company brochures, light fixtures, and electric teakettles to factory complexes. Of major importance were his industrial buildings, such as the Turbine Factory (1909), the High Tension Factory (1910), the Small Motors Factory (1910-1911), and the Large Machine Assembly Hall (1911-1912), all in Berlin, which have come to be considered as a point of departure for much of the architecture of the first half of the 20th century. The Turbine Factory, of exposed steel, concrete, and large areas of glass, was especially admired by the next generation of architects.

Some of Behrens's other works of this period, however, were firmly within the German neoclassic tradition. The best of them, such as the houses at Eppenhausen near Hagen, including the Schröder House (1908-1909) and the Cuno House (1909-1910), continued the simplicity of the Düsseldorf period. But in other buildings, such as the German Embassy in Leningrad (1911-1912), the classical style became inert and pompous. Behrens's classicism was to have its influence upon the next generation, especially upon the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

In the years following World War I, Behrens's work became expressionistic, as did, briefly, that of many German architects of the time. An example is his I. G. Farben Company Building at Höchst (1920-1924). In 1922 Behrens became professor of architecture at the Academy in Vienna; he built little of consequence after the mid-1920s. He died on Feb. 27, 1940, in Berlin.


Further Reading on Peter Behrens

The basic monographs on Behrens are old and in German. There is a chapter devoted to Behrens and his German contemporaries in Henry-Russel Hitchcock, Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1958; 2d ed. 1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Windsor, Alan, Peter Behrens, architect and designer, New York, N.Y.: Whitney Library of Design, 1981.