27 November 2019

The Theoretical Facade of August Endell: Hackesche Höfe and Optic Psychology

gta, ETH Zurich

Illustration from Raumästhetik (Theodor Lipps, 1897), superimposed on the screenshot from In weiter Ferne, so nah! (Wim Wenders, 1993).

Between 1905-1906, German architect August Endell was commissioned by the property developer and architect Kurt Berndt to design the facade and several interior decors for the first courtyard of Hackesche Höfe, to make a visual advertisement to the potential customers of this newly emerged complex mixed with residential and commercial areas.

The characteristics of this courtyard were sensitively captured by the filmmaker Wim Wenders in his film In weiter Ferne, so nah! (1993) , such as the movement of the line, the lightness of the surface, the dynamic of the space. They also fascinated architectural critics and historians from different times and regions with a specific theoretical interest. The idea that Endell translated the contemporary psychological aesthetics into this facade remained unquestioned ever since the project was published and reviewed by Karl Scheffler in 1907. In particular, there was a surprisingly consistent reference to the optic psychology in every explanation of this project, although sometimes gravitating towards the empathy theory, sometimes towards the Gestalt theory, and sometimes linked to their recently discovered neural substrates.

Indeed, specific visual qualities are perceivable in this facade, as Wenders noticed. They seem to suggest an ingenious device of controlling and managing the visual and perhaps also the emotional response of the observer which is inseparable with the rationalization and commodification of experience around 1900. Endell’s academical background in philosophy and psychology as well as his theoretical writings also encouraged such a hypothesis. But what is the nature of these qualities? Are they the result of an elaborate mechanics? Can we designate them to a certain optic theory? And how are they related to the broader reorganization of vision in the institutional and social spaces? If the facade is an architectural essay about psychological optics, what is its main hypothesis?

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