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Le Corbusier house on the Weissenhof siteImage: Valerie Hammbacher

Model Homes from the Modernist Movement

May 10, 2004

Some of the greatest masters of modern architecture are behind the Weissenhof Settlement in Stuttgart. Originally derided, the homes today are considered architectural gems -- well worth a visit.

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Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hans Scharoun and Le Corbusier are just a few of the architects who designed parts of a model housing settlement for a 1927 exhibition called "The Dwelling," which aimed to be a platform for the nascent New Construction movement.

While half of the original designs were destroyed in World War II, those that remain make up the Weissenhof Settlement in the Stuttgart neighborhood of Killesberg.

Innovative concept

The experimental settlement gave the largely young and progressive Modernist architects the chance to design homes "for the modern city dweller, from blue-collar workers to the upper middle class." They used new construction materials intended to keep costs low and building times short -- an innovative concept at the time.

MoMa Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe,

By the spring of 1926, the team working under the German architect Mies van der Rohe (photo) included Peter Behrens and Josef Frank from Vienna, Ludwig Hilbersheimer, Hans Poelzig and Bruno und Max Taut from Berlin, the Frenchman Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, Walter Gropius from Dessau, and Mart Stam from Rotterdam.

In its day, the Weissenhof settlement sparked controversy. The 21 houses, with their 63 apartments, were unveiled to great applause. Some half million visitors came to visit the "Dwelling" exhibit.

But conservatives criticized the project as being inhuman, unrealistic -- and eventually, anti-German. The Modernist models were called a "suburb of Jerusalem," and a "Swabian living-machine," and ridiculed as "squish-and-squeeze single family homes" and "a product of theater architects."

'Degenerate' architecture

During the Third Reich, the settlement was referred to as an "Arabian village," "culturally Bolshevistic" and "degenerate." It was supposed to be replaced by a huge building complex for the General Command of the Wehrmacht, but these plans were put off by the advent of WWII.

During the war, 10 of the 21 original buildings were lost to bombs. Afterward the buildings came a hair's breath from being razed during the post-war "economic miracle" building boom.

Finally, the remaining 11 buildings were placed under historic monument protection in 1956. Most of them had been fully restored by 1982.

Plans for museum

Devoid of ornamentation, simple and bright, the end result is a grouping of apartments and houses that manages to be visually harmonious despite the various architects who worked together on the project.

But while architecture afficionados around the world know about the development, up to now the city of Stuttgart has not done much to exploit it as a potential tourist site. There are few signs pointing the way to the buildings, and only a small office on the site currently informs visitors about the settlement and its role in the architecture of the era.

Yet all that is set to change. By 2005, the empty Le Corbusier "house on stilts" is expected to be renovated and made into a museum. The house, whose roof garden was revolutionary at the time, will explore the Weimar era's search for a fundamental rejuvenation of architecture.

Until that happens, guided tours of Weissenhof take place once a week in winter and twice a week in summer.

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