This article was originally published on March 28, 2015. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
The Fagus Factory is one of the earliest built works of modern architecture, and the first project of Walter Gropius. The commission provided Gropius with the opportunity to put his revolutionary ideas into practice, and the stunning rectilinear volume with its primarily glazed façade would guide the course of Modernism through the coming decades.
Before working on the Fagus Factory, Gropius was working under Peter Behrens, the architect who designed the AEG turbine building. Although both of the German architects were very interested in industrial architecture, their design philosophy differed. While Behrens introduced a sense of nobility to industrial architecture with the AEG building, Gropius was critical of the project and felt that it lacked authenticity with regards to the exterior design masking its construction elements. Instead, Gropius felt that exterior design should reveal the construction logic of a building. It would become his mandate to discover artistic solutions of constructing industrial buildings in a variety of contexts.
Gropius formally expressed his design ideals during a lecture at the Folkwang Museum in April 1911. In his lecture, ‘Monumental Art and Industrial Construction’, he explained that train stations, departments stores, and factories should no longer be built like those from previous decades and needed to evolve to suit changing societal and cultural dynamics. Gropius emphasized the social aspect to architectural design, suggesting that improving working conditions through increased daylight, fresh air, and hygiene would lead to a greater satisfaction of workers, and therefore, increase overall production. These are the theories that would guide his design of the Fagus Factory.
Shortly after his lecture, Gropius met with Carl Benscheidt, the owner of the Fagus Factory. Located in Alfeld, Germany, Benscheidt’s factory, which produced wooden ‘lasts’ for the manufacturing of boots, was in the process of an ambitious expansion project. Industrial architect Eduard Werner was already designing a series of buildings, renovations, and additions for the Fagus Factory. Gropius explained to Benscheidt that Werner’s design would not provide his factory with the progressive image that Benscheidt had wanted. After successfully convincing Benscheidt of the value of his approach and that the factory should be planned as an artistic project, he was commissioned in May 1911 to assist with the project. As the design was already well underway, Gropius and his collaborator Adolf Meyer adhered to Werner's floor plans and focused on the exterior and interior design of the project.
The Fagus Factory is a complex with many buildings, which contain various functions such as manufacturing, storage, and offices, and Gropius felt it was important to design an exterior design aesthetic that could be applied to various structures. The use of brick — more specifically, a 40-centimeter high, dark brick base which projects 4-centimeters from the facade — can be seen repeatedly throughout the complex. The most architecturally-significant aspect of Gropius’ contribution to the project is the office building. Unlike the other buildings, this flat-roof, three-story building features a façade that is comprised of more glass than brick. Instead of conventional load-bearing exterior walls, Gropius had made the bold and innovative decision to place reinforced concrete columns inside the building to free the façade. A series of brick piers suspend iron frames between that supports glass inserts. Metal panels were placed within the iron frame to conceal the floor slabs behind. The most innovative feature of the building is the fully glazed exterior corners, which are free of structural elements. The exterior design of the office building effectively demonstrated Gropius’ ambition to improve interior conditions while exposing contemporary construction techniques as an architectural image.
The Fagus Factory was architecturally completed in 1911, though the interiors were not completed until 1925. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 for its early influence on the development of modern architecture. Design elements of the factory, such as its simple geometric forms, generous use of glazing, and perceived weightlessness, became inseparable from the vocabulary of Modernism and remain common principles in contemporary construction.
Following his work on the Fagus Factory, Walter Gropius continued designing progressive industrial buildings, and in 1919 established the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus Building was designed by Gropius himself and remains his best known work of architecture. As a result of his prolific career devoted to the Modern Movement, Walter Gropius is considered to be one of the most important pioneers of Modernism.
Reference: Lupfer, G., and Sigel, P. Gropius (Cologne: Taschen, 2005).