‘The sum of life was ever thus . . . only fools and weaklings seek a golden age either before or after their own.’
Where do we feel at home? What do our cities look like? How do we see? In 1908, architect and theorist August Endell set out to answer these deceptively simple questions. In The Beauty of the Metropolis he views the oft-maligned urban environment, acknowledging its shortcomings while also finding in it an aesthetic enrichment to rival any romanticised landscape. This forward-thinking essay raises the workaday city to rapturous heights, with flights of prose aspiring to the quality of music. Endell advocates a complete engagement with the here and now, drawing numerous examples from his own home, Berlin. From the clamour of Potsdamer Platz to quiet outlying districts, the author discovers visual pleasure in the rapidly expanding German capital where detractors found little more than squalor. Along the way Endell reconsiders the peculiarly German concept of heimat, incompletely translated as ‘homeland’. The Beauty of the Metropolis is joined here by articles Endell wrote for a progressive journal in 1905, on subjects as diverse as modern art, busy streets and the passing of the seasons. An afterword and informative endnotes provide further insight into Endell’s vision.
August Endell (1871-1925) was one of the most eloquent commentators on aesthetics in Wilhelmine Germany. In his art criticism he was advocating abstraction before the end of the 20th century, and thus well before artists themselves embraced non-figurative painting. Not just a theorist, Endell was also a self-taught architect and designer who put his bold ideas into action. Among his signature works are the now-vanished Elvira photographic studio in Munich and Berlin’s Hackesche Höfe. As a proponent of the Jugendstil movement, Endell believed that every element of design should contribute to an organic whole. His progressive ideals brought him into conflict with cultural reactionaries, most notably Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom Endell criticised in an open letter. August Endell represents a crucial link in the chain of modern architectural theory that leads to the present day.
The Beauty of the Big City exhibition, Berlin, 2018
Architect August Endell’s The Beauty of the Metropolis is an endearing and page-turning paean to the emanation of the 20th-century global city, as a framework for a progressive mode of social connectivity and a contemporary canvas for as yet unrealised aesthetic beauty. It would be a vision wholly obliterated by the indiscriminate bombs of World War I, clearing the slate for the austere prophecies of his rival Walter Gropius, and his Bauhaus school.
- Julian Tompkin, The Australian
FROM THE AFTERWORD
Endell was entirely a creature of the city. It was his home, his place of learning, the showcase for most of his works, and had already figured prominently in his writing. His minority had coincided with an astonishing population boom in Germany, and the growth of urban centres in particular. At his birth, just five per cent of Germans lived in cities; by the time he reached adulthood city-dwellers represented half of the country’s population. Endell had experienced first-hand a process of accelerated urbanisation unparalleled in European history to that point.
In The Beauty of the Metropolis, Endell suggests that Heimat is not just an automatic inheritance but one shaped by experience and sensibility, something mercurial and highly subjective. As he warms up to his main theme, Endell decouples Heimat from the patriotism with which it had become entwined, at once rejecting national chauvinism and suggesting that in fact your Heimat could just as well be a city.
As well as sharing his detailed observations, Endell also describes the provenance and construction of the critical apparatus through which he views the city; one paragraph is a survey of art history that progresses briskly from cave paintings to Vincent van Gogh. And ‘the city’ that Endell references here is usually Berlin, specifically its modern quarters. Although riddled with misgivings about contemporary development in the capital, Endell praises it as a wellspring of aesthetic experience. Where others had found Babylon on the Spree, he finds a ‘fairy tale’, a ‘wonderland’, his lyrical flights often transposing his visual impressions into something approaching music. Much of the second half of the text is taken up with a tangential tour of Berlin that begins with the view from his study window and takes in busy squares and railway architecture, sporting grounds and construction sites, female fashions and newly built churches, before finally arriving at the very heart of the city, the Brandenburg Gate, in time for the magic hour.