We are now approaching the 100-year anniversary of the date when Alpine Architecture – arguably the most ambitious architectural treatise of the 20th century – was produced in the spring and summer of 1918. The Latin dictum on the book’s title page points to the radicality of its message, in so much as it polemically places the act of building higher than life. No less radical is Alpine Architecture’s formal presentation as a book. Due to its lack of a systematic approach, labelling it a treatise creates difficulties for any traditional conception of the genre. This has been true since its first publication in 1919 and has persisted ever since. However, the work has proven enduring and may be of more acute value today than ever before.
Alpine Architecture was the work of Bruno Taut (1880-1938), the German architect responsible for a number of ground-breaking buildings such as the Träger-Verkaufskontor pavilion in Berlin (1910), the Monument des Eisens in Leipzig (1913), and the Glass House for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, his most famous structure. Taut was also the architect of several large housing developments, including the famed Hufeisensiedlung (1925-33) and Onkel Toms Hütte (1926-31), both of which are located in Berlin. Taut’s involvement with larger public and social questions is even more apparent, however, in his prolific theoretical oeuvre. Besides Alpine Architecture, Taut published Architecture Program (1918), in many ways the ideational precursor to Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus programme; Die Stadtkrone The City Crown; Die Auflösung der Stadt The Dissolution of the City – produced in conjunction with Alpine Architecture; and Der Weltbaumeister The World Building Master. Taut spearheaded the Gläserne Kette (1919-20), alternatively translated as either Glass Chain or Crystal Chain, a correspondence established among selected architects, artists, engineers, and writers who included Gropius, Paul Gösch, Wenzel Hablik, Hermann Finsterlin and Hans Scharoun among their number. He also was the editor of the seminal journal Frühlicht Light of Dawn.
It is helpful to view Alpine Architecture in the context of these other undertakings, as it is not otherwise easily accessible. It consists of 30 annotated drawings (22 monochromatic and eight coloured plates of 39.5cm by 33.5cm), a title page, and a table of contents, which depict a tour of the fundamental act of building at all scales – from a ‘Crystal House’ to an ‘Architecture of Mountains’ to ‘Buildings of the Alps’ to ‘Buildings of the Earth Crust’. In its fifth and final subchapter, ‘Buildings of the Stars’, the work addresses interstellar space and the beyond with such notions as “the nameless” and “the great nothing”. Taut’s depictions are curiously abstract and lack the plasticity of actual spatial configurations. For this reason, the annotations are of great importance for understanding the work. The drawings require explanations in order to partially reduce the immense ideational distance between the signified and the signifier in any attempt to make sense of what is shown: “Architecture as a Scaffolding of a Space Open to the Universe”, “The Rocks Are Alive. They Speak”, “Corrections of Horizons”, “Building on Monte Rosa”, “Cave Star with Suspended Architecture”. Alpine Architecture lives through these tensions between signified and signifier – the ability to empathically comprehend the idea of the interconnections between the world and art.
“Aedificare necesse est, vivere non est necesse” permeates Taut’s entire treatise and presents the cosmological underpinnings of the work from the outset. However, Alpine Architecture is marked by a long list of ideational influences, among which are the writings of the poet Paul Scheerbart, a friend of Taut who organised a “Society for Glass Architecture” and published a book with the same title; various so-called theories of empathy, such as that advanced by the psychologist Gustav Theodor Fechner; Paul Bommersheim’s Das Ewige und das Lebendige – Zur Philosophie der Architektur; as well as the expressionist climate of Berlin at the time. Taut adopted a view that claimed artistic human beings as a part of natural laws that participate in the unfolding of God’s perfection. Such thinking on nature is the justification to rebuild “incidental forms” into “angular-smooth” mountains, as shown on one of the plates, titled “From Switzerland”. In any case, the message of Alpine Architecture addresses a much more all-encompassing realm than one that should be viewed solely as a response to the upheavals of the end of the First World War and the collapse of monarchic-feudal old Europe. At best, these political and social revolutions were symptoms of what Taut addresses.
The ideational extent of Alpine Architecture is what makes the work not only a century-old historical artefact, but a work worth engaging with today. In the face of increasing societal heterogeneity in which no common social ideal or institution exists – as for example the church or the state did in the past – the enormity of the ideas present in Alpine Architecture possess the strength to coalesce our world. Taut’s proposition is at least as timely today as when it was published. Dedicated to the emergence of a new spiritual foundation for the world, Alpine Architecture is more Nietzschean than Scheerbartian in terms of the magnitude of its question about what humans – and architects specifically – are to do in a disorienting and increasingly disintegrating world. Moreover, the newly liberated culture of Taut’s world would depend upon an all-encompassing act of building that reached well beyond the architectonic in its physical domain. It was not only a call to build a new world in the Alps and everywhere else – it was also a call for the individual human being to build themself anew.
The treatise is neither a megalomaniac vision of an architect, nor is it really utopian in programme, nor should it be understood as particularly morally righteous, as it is sometimes interpreted and presented. Alpine Architecture is not a retreating from, but rather a civilisation beginning under changing circumstances. As such, it stands in the world and not in the beyond – its exuberance in scale and its outlandish materialisation of buildings notwithstanding.