The Fagus Factory (German: Fagus Fabrik or Fagus Werk) is a shoe last factory in Alfeld on the Leine in Germany, an important example of early modern architecture. Commissioned by owner Carl Benscheidt, the factory was designed by the architect Eduard Werner, with facades designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer. It was constructed between 1911 and 1913, with additions and interiors completed in 1925.
Carl Benscheidt (1858 - 1947) founded the Fagus company in 1910. He had started by working for Arnold Rikkli who practiced naturopathic medicine. It was there that he learned about orthopedic shoe lasts (which were quite rare at that time). Then he proceeded in making his own workshop and in 1887 was hired by the shoe last manufacturer Carl Behrens as works manager in his factory in Alfeld. After the death of Carl Behrens in 1896, Benscheidt became general manager of the company, which was on its way to become one of the biggest companies in that sector in Germany. In October 1910, he resigned from his position because of differences with Behrens’s son.
After his resignation, Benscheidt immediately started work in establishing his own company. He established partnership with an American company acquiring both capital and expertise. He bought the land directly opposite from Behrens’s factory and hired the architect Eduard Werner (1847-1923), whom he knew from an earlier renovation of the Behrens’s factory. Although Werner was a specialist in factory design, Benscheidt was not pleased with the outside appearance of his design. His factory was separated from Behrens’s by a train line and Benscheidt thought of the building’s elevation on that side (north) as a permanent advertisement for his factory. On January 1911, he contacted Walter Gropius offering him the job of redesigning the facades of Werner’s plan. Gropius accepted the offer and a long collaboration started that continued until 1925 when the last buildings on the site were completed.
During construction, Gropius and his partner Meyer were in great pressure to keep up to the rhythm of work. The construction started in May 1911 based on Werner’s plans and Benscheidt wanted to have the factory running by winter of the same year. This was achieved in great part and in 1912 Gropius and Meyer were designing the interiors of the main building and secondary smaller buildings on the site.
In order to be able to pay additional expenses for Gropius’s design, Benscheidt and his American partners had decided to make a smaller building than the one that was actually planned. By winter 1912 it was clear that the factory could not keep up with the number of orders and a major expansion was decided. This time the contract went directly to Gropius and Meyer and from now on, they were to be the only architects of the Fagus buildings. The expansion practically doubled the surface of the buildings by adding to the street (south) side. This gave the opportunity of creating a proper street elevation. In the first stage of design, the main elevation was considered the north elevation that faced the railway and Behrens’s factory.
Work on the expansion started in 1913 and it was barely finished when World War I started. During the war it was possible to do only minor works such as the power house and the chimney stack that became a prominent characteristic of the building complex.
After the war the work continued with addition of minor buildings such as the porter’s lodge and the enclosure wall. During that time the architects, in collaboration with teachers and students from the Bauhaus, designed the interiors and furniture of the main building. They also recommended to Benscheidt various designers for the publicity campaign of Fagus. From 1923 to 1925, the architects were also working on a new expansion that was finally never done. It was not earlier than 1927 that Benscheidt wrote to Gropius to explain that all activities should stop until further notice due to financial difficulties.
The building that is commonly referred as the Fagus building is the main building. It was constructed in 1911 according to Werner’s plan but with the glass facades designed by Gropius and Meyer and then expanded in 1913. The entrance with the clock is part of the 1913 expansion. The interiors of the building, which contained mainly offices, were finished in the mid 20s. The other two big buildings on the site are the production hall and the warehouse. Both were constructed in 1911 and expanded in 1913. The production hall is a one-storey building. It was almost invisible from the railway (north) elevation and acquired a proper facade after the expansion. The warehouse is a four-storey building with few openings. Its design followed closely the original plan by Werner and it is left out from many of the photographs. Apart from them, the site contains various small buildings designed by Gropius and Meyer.
For many years, people thought that the main building was made of concrete or steel, because of its glass façade. However, during its renovation during the 80s, it became clear that this was not the case. Jürgen Götz, the engineer responsible for the renovation since 1982, describes the construction system like this:
“The main building was erected on top of a structurally stable basement with flat caps. Nonreinforced (or compressed) concrete, mixed with pebble dashing was used for the basement walls, an unfortunate blend unable to support great individual loads. From the basement upward, the building rose in plain brickwork with reinforced wood floors. The ceilings were underpinned with a formwork shell and finished in rough-cast plaster on the services installation side. The floors were composed of planks on loose sleepers – that is, sleepers that were not fixed between the floor joists. Hence, the ceilings in the main building were not continuous shears and thus were unable to fulfill the necessary bracing function.”
'The same kind of misunderstanding exists about the glass façade of the building that many writers describe as a curtain wall similar to the one Gropius used for the Bauhaus building in Desau. Götz describes it like this:
“The window openings were intrados frames composed of L beams; the internal membering with horizontal and vertical muntins was differentiated in that all the verticals appeared more slender on the outside, while the horizontals appeared wider. These fames were, however, only floor-to-floor height, screwed to the building on four sides; one string course that reached across the three floors consisted, in fact, of three different sections. Along the side of the building, 3-millimetre-thick steel plates sealed the wedge between window frame and piers.”
It should be noted that this description applies only to the main building. Götz note that the other buildings were much simpler and some of them were actually concrete and/or steel constructions.
Although constructed with different systems, all of the buildings on the site give a common image and appear as a unified whole. The architects achieved this by the use of some common elements in all the buildings. The first one is the use of floor-to-ceiling glass windows on steel frames that go around the corners of the buildings without a visible (most of the time without any) structural support. The other unifying element is the use of brick. All buildings have a base of about 40cm of black brick and the rest is built of yellow bricks. The combined effect is a feeling of lightness or as Gropius called it “etherealization”.
In order to enhance this feeling of lightness, Gropius and Meyer used a series of optical refinements like greater horizontal than vertical elements on the windows, longer windows on the corners and taller windows on the last floor.
The design of the building was oriented to the railroad side. Benscheidt considered that the point of view of the passengers on the trains was the one that determined the image of the building and placed great weight on the facade on that side. It was already noted by Peter Behrens
(with whom Gropius and Meyer were working one year before starting work on the Fagus factory) that architects should take account of the way the speed of modern transportation affects the way architecture is perceived. Gropius had also commented the subject in his writings. According to the historian of architecture Annemarie Jaeggi these thoughts were important in the design of Fagus:
“The animated fluctuation in height, the change between horizontal structure and vertical rhythms, heavy closed volumes and light dissolved fabrics, are indicators of an approach that deliberately utilized contrasts while arriving at a harmony of opposites in a manner best expressed as a pictorial or visual structure created from the perspective of the railroad tracks.”
The building that had the greater influence on the design of Fagus was AEG’s Turbine factory designed by Peter Behrens. Both Gropius and Meyer had worked on the project and with Fagus they presented their interpretation and criticism of their teacher’s work. The Fagus main building can be seen as an inversion of the Turbine factory. They both have corners free of supports and glass surfaces between piers that cover the whole height of the building. However, in the Turbine factory the corners are covered by heavy elements that slant inside. The glass surfaces also slant inside and are recessed in relation to the piers. The load-bearing elements are attenuated and the building has an image of stability and monumentality. In Fagus exactly the opposite happens; the corners are left open and the piers are recessed leaving the glass surface to the front.
At the time of the design of Fagus, Gropius was collecting photographs of industrial buildings in the USA to be used for a Werkbund publication. The design of these American factories was also a source of inspiration for Fagus.
Götz, Jürgen. "Maintaining Fagus", in Jaeggi (2000) pages 133-141
Jaeggi, Annemarie (2000). Fagus: Industrial Culture from Werkbund to Bauhaus
, New York, Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 1-568981-75-9
Pevsner, Nikolaus (1949) Pioneers of Modern Design ISBN 0300105711
Schwartz, Frederic J. (1996). The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War
, New Haven and London, Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-06898-0
- http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Fagus_Works.html Great Buildings Online - Fagus Works, contains various photographs of the building