Christian Philipp Müller

Architekturmuseum Basel

The architect, painter, and set designer Hans Poelzig (1869–1936) is one of the most enigmatic figures of early-twentieth-century architecture. Dissonant at first glance, Poelzig’s work—industrial buildings before World War I; the expressive, fantastic forms such as the Großes Schauspielhaus in Berlin (1919); the stage sets made between 1920 and 1923; and, finally, the more economically executed and functional residential and office projects of “Studio Poelzig,” which he ran with his second wife, Marlene, in the ’20s—defies any facile categorization.

“In the Taste of the Times: The Work of Hans and Marlene Poelzig from a Contemporary Perspective” is Christian Philipp Müller’s most recent artistic project; shown first in Berlin and Frankfurt, then in Basel, it is also an occasion to thematize fundamental questions of the temporal and spatial specificities of architecture, design, urban planning, and, not least, artistic methods. With the Poelzigs, this took the form of a partnership that melded aspects of various movements—Expressionism, the People’s Theater movement (Volkstheaterbewegung) around Max Reinhardt, the nostalgia for the rococo that sprang up among Berlin’s upper crust at the beginning of the ’20s, and finally the Bauhaus—into their own unique amalgam. Poelzig’s work method, according to the catalogue essay by Alexander Alberro and Nora M. Alter, “represents a form of cultural pragmatism that accommodates the taste of the particular context,” though, of course, this “taste” could allow for many levels.

Those who are familiar with Müller’s previous work will know that the question of taste—as a cultural construct, as a way of life, and as a matter of what Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction”—has been a central topos in his artistic thought of recent years, for example, in projects like Hudson Valley Tastemakers, 2003, or Tauschwerte (Exchange Values), 2002. Equally consistent is his interest in architecture and the question of how the ideals of artistic and urban-planning designs are modified by their users and the demands of the times, reflected here for instance in the only-partial realization of Poelzig’s plans around 1927 for the urban renewal of the stables quarter around Berlin’s Bülowplatz, today Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and home of the Volksbühne (People’s Theater).

In his artistic encounter with Hans and Marlene Poelzig, Müller combines these strands of his own work into a materially rich, dense, and yet theatrical presentation, divided into six “chapters” by way of full-scale, two-dimensional stage backdrops (one could see, for example, the silhouette of an illuminated column from the Großes Schauspielhaus). In Basel, viewers entered the exhibition by way of a biographical chapter on the Poelzigs only to find themselves, on entering the next room, onstage, facing rows of chairs. Müller’s use of light underscored this theatricality, a successful paraphrase of Poelzig’s understanding of “architecture as illusion”—as a Gesamtkunstwerk of color, form, light, language, and movement. Müller provided a wealth of detail: archival photographs, sketchbooks, a series of interviews, and a video in which Müller himself (as he has often done) slips into the role of a cultural tourist, scrutinizing various buildings in search of Poelzig’s traces. “In the Taste of the Times” afforded a vivid view into the creativity and (self-) stagings of the Poelzigs—and into the world of Christian Philipp Müller.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.