“There’s no building more beautiful than the monumental glass and reinforced-concrete hall that Peter Behrens designed for the turbine factory on Huttenstrasse,” wrote author Franz Hessel in the 1920s. The building that was completed 110 years ago is still captivating today, in large part because it continues to serve its original purpose: the production of turbines. It makes no difference that these prime movers were steam turbines in AEG’s day and became gas turbines when Siemens took charge.
Departure for the northwest – AEG transfers steam turbine production
On February 27, 1904, the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) – previously known as Deutsche Edison-Gesellschaft für angewandte Elektricität – founded its turbine factory, at the same time transferring its steam turbine production from the AEG machine factory in Berlin-Wedding to Moabit. The company took over the previous owner’s facilities at Huttenstrasse 12 – 16, including an eight-year-old, 200-meter-long assembly hall built by the architect Theodor Rönn, the exterior design of which reflects the historical development of contemporary architecture.
While the first turbines built in the assembly hall had capacities of up to one megawatt, within two years engineers managed to raise this to six megawatts. But as capacities increased, turbines became larger and heavier, and space became an issue, along with the lifting capacity of the traveling cranes. The problem was also reflected in the fact that as of the 1906/1907 fiscal year, serious differences between the megawatt capacity ordered and the capacity delivered were occurring on a regular basis. Because a staff increase would have been of limited value, building a second assembly hall became an absolute necessity.
Debate over authorship – Peter Behrens and/or Karl Bernhard
On September 16, 1908, AEG founder Emil Rathenau notified the Royal Minister of State and the Minister of Public Works, Paul von Breitenbach, of the company’s new construction project:
At the corner of Huttenstrasse and Berlichingenstrasse in Berlin, we intend to build an iron hall 200 meters long and 35 meters wide for producing steam turbines. ... For the design and calculation of the hall, we’ve engaged former government architect Bernhard, Privatdozent at the Royal Technical University of Berlin, and plan to give him full control in accordance with government regulations, including during the implementation.Emil Rathenau, 1908
At that time, Karl Bernhard was a recognized expert in Germany and abroad, primarily in iron and reinforced-concrete bridge-building, and he seemed like the perfect choice for taking on the construction project for AEG.
Nevertheless, the association of his name with the turbine hall was more of the exception than the rule. Instead, everyone was talking about Peter Behrens, who had served as AEG’s “artistic advisor” since 1907. Although AEG didn’t associate his vocation with the supervision of architectural projects, the company commissioned him to build a power plant for AEG’s turbine factory and the adjacent light-bulb factory in 1908.
There’s no longer any way to discover when or in what capacity AEG involved its artistic advisor in the project to build a new assembly hall for the turbine factory. What we do know is that both Peter Behrens and Karl Bernhard – independent and with extreme certainty – claimed to have provided the design.
What we also know is that for more than 20 years, experts on the subject and the records themselves have clearly indicated that Karl Bernhard was responsible not only for the structural calculations but also for developing the design.
Nevertheless, the report that appeared in the evening edition of the “Berliner Tageblatt” on February 17, 1910, remained firmly rooted in the public’s consciousness: AEG’s artistic advisor was successful not only as a product designer but also as a “factory architect” whose turbine hall was an “exemplary building.”
Although Peter Behrens’ role in designing the assembly hall was ultimately much less significant than is generally claimed, this in no way diminishes his overall achievements on behalf of AEG. By subordinating its products, printed materials, and buildings to a principle of (industrial) objectivity as a synthesis of art and technology, he helped the company create a modern aesthetic. It was thanks to him that AEG became the world’s first company to have a corporate design.
High-speed construction – From initial groundbreaking to final acceptance in just seven and a half months
AEG submitted its application to build the new assembly hall on December 17, 1908, and was granted permission by the appropriate authorities on March 17, 1909. Excavation work began just under two weeks later on March 30, 1909.
The construction period was remarkably short: The iron structure was built in late August and early September of that same year. The building shell, which was initially 127 meters long, was completed on October 22. November 12 was the date of the final acceptance of the assembly hall, which was described as an “iron church,” “temple of work,” and “cathedral of machines.”
Modern construction materials in unusual colors – The rejection of red-brick monotony
Its construction of iron, glass, and concrete meant that the assembly hall already differed significantly from the industrial buildings in its immediate vicinity, which were made almost exclusively of brick. The difference was compounded by its colors, which were a stark contrast to the more or less grimy brick-red: light-green, dark-green, grayish-white, and a warm sandstone color.
The assembly hall was divided into a main hall and a side hall. The gray-green, load-bearing iron structure of the main hall consisted of 14 pairs of arched girders whose impost hinges rested on grayish-white concrete plinths on the Berlichingenstrasse side. A prominent feature of the façade along Berlichingenstrasse was the 14.40-meter-high slanting window made of dark-green transparent glass positioned between the girders.
The main hall’s effective span and apex height were about 25 meters. A saddle-shaped skylight that provided both natural light and ventilation was located above the apex. The striking elements of this building segment’s front façade, in addition to its warm sandstone tone, were the rounded concrete pylons horizontally articulated by iron girders, the 14.40-meter curtain wall of glass surrounded by an iron framework, and the heptagonal gable bearing the AEG logo and the word “Turbinenfabrik.”
The two-story side hall had a skylight in its central roof area, was just under 13 meters wide, and had a ridge height of 17.50 meters. Its front façade and the first four meters of the façade on the courtyard side were made of concrete, which was interrupted in the front façade by two large windows surrounded by an iron framework. An iron load-bearing structure that was also gray-green with broad horizontal elements connected with the concrete section on the courtyard side.
Because the main hall’s north façade originally had an expansive glazed front, light flooded the space from all four sides and the roof. The original windows on the four sides of the hall were made of transparent glass. We don’t know whether dark-green glass was also used on the south, west, and north façades. Nor do we know whether the glass on the Berlichingenstrasse side was tinted for aesthetic or artistic reasons in order to harmonize with the color of the iron girders, or whether it was purely functional so as to provide built-in sun shading.
Acclamation in the daily press – The first report on the assembly hall appeared on November 4, 1909
The long list of contemporary statements about the assembly hall is filled with prominent names like Adolf Behne, Oskar Lasche, Franz Mannheimer, Karl Ernst Osthaus, and Karl Scheffler. The first article was published eight days before its final acceptance in the evening edition of the “Berliner Tageblatt.” Its author was historian of technology Artur Fürst, well-known in his day, who closely followed the development of AEG and Siemens and also wrote biographies of the two companies’ founders, Werner von Siemens and Emil Rathenau.
Fürst praised the façade on Berlichingenstrasse as a “single, gigantic glass window” that was saved from monotony by “the heavy iron masses ... that provide a richly varied articulation.” His description of individual design elements as “light,” “cheerful,” “lively,” and “bright” emphasized the building’s distinct departure from traditional industrial architecture. But when he described “the impression of height, pride, airiness” created by the gable façade, he was already hinting at features that would be criticized by several of his contemporaries – namely, the monumental and dramatic effect of the gable façade and the cladding of the iron load-bearing structure with infill concrete.
The emotional intensity of Fürst’s report swelled as he began describing the hall’s interior, which he experienced as “almost cathedral-like.” “The roof rises to a dizzying height and although nowhere has any attempt been made to conceal the heavy, utilitarian construction, the supple lines of the entire supporting structure fortunately prevent the impression of coarseness and heaviness. At the same time, the dazzling fullness of light that pours through the long window façades and the almost exclusively glass roof dispel the impression that this hall is a factory.”
Fürst’s enthusiasm rose to even greater heights in the evening edition of the “Berliner Tageblatt” from February 17, 1910, when he claimed that the building influenced the moods of those who worked in it by giving them “a certain feeling of importance” that “increased their working power.” “When you’re in the hall, you have the feeling that it’s light inside and dark outside. ... This is truly a ‘hall’ of machines, something that’s so often been spoken of but never before existed, a banquet hall for machine building. Gone is the dark factory gate, where the bell sounds and a stream of dispirited workers troop into the light. The cheerful goddess of art has partnered with the gray ghost of labor and raised the low shop ceiling to the height of a hall roof.”
The planned length achieved – First expansion of the assembly hall
Between 1939 and 1941, the assembly hall’s length was extended by 80 meters. The new extension was designed by the architects Jacob Schallenberger and Paul Schmidt and differed from the original in terms of the more angular design of the frame construction and the unslanted window surfaces of the Berlichingenstrasse façade, among other things.
The assembly hall through the years – A cross-section
If you’d like to learn more about the milestones in the assembly hall’s history following the completion of the first extension, click through our photo gallery.
An attraction for architecture aficionados, now as then
As Berlin’s first industrial building, the assembly hall was made a protected historical monument in 1956. Whether, as Artur Fürst predicted, it has actually become a “landmark for the entire district” over the course of its 110-year history remains to be seen. Today it continues to attract architects, structural engineers, art historians, and tourists from around the world. In light of this fact, a statement that the architect Erich Mendelsohn addressed to his future wife in March 1914 appears to have lost none of its relevance:
If you come through Berlin, don’t forget ... to visit the AEG turbine factory by Peter Behrens. It’s a must-see.Erich Mendelsohn, 1914
Dr. Claudia Salchow