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Three schools by Hans Scharoun

Hans Scharoun’s architectural reputation is re examined, focusing on three programmatically innovative schools designed late in his career

Originally published in AR March 1975, this piece was republished online in October 2012

The European architects who brought about the Modern Movement fall approximately into two age groups. The early pioneers were born mainly in the 1860s (Muthesius in 1861,Van de Velde and Behrens in 1863, Poelzig and Tony Garnier in 1869); while most of those who established the International Style and ClAM in the 1920s were born in the 1880s (Häring in 1882, Gropius in 1883, Mies in 1886, Le Corbusier and Mendelsohn in 1887). During the subsequent decade a few more significant figures were born, amongst whom Hans Scharoun (1893) and Alvar Aalto (1898) are probably the most important. Both architects produced their first mature works in the late ’20s : Aalto is still building today, and when Scharoun died in 1972 he had several buildings under construction. Thus the full historical perspective into which they fit has yet to be established.

While Aalto has long enjoyed international recognition, Scharoun, arguably a figure of similar status, has had a patchy reputation. Though revered by the Germans and generally accepted as their greatest post-war architect, he has remained relatively little known in the English-speaking world. There are three main reasons for this. First, there is a lack of written information on his work because he himself wrote little and tended to discourage others from writing about him. Second, the fact that he remained in Germany during the Nazi period, though politically opposed to the Nazis, meant that he was exposed to the anti-German prejudice which followed the war. Third, he followed an architectural philosophy quite opposed to the International Style and has often been misunderstood and misrepresented by critics and historians.

Marl Primary School: Circulation space between entrance and assembly hall.

Marl Primary School: Circulation space between entrance and assembly hall.

Marl Primary School: Circulation space between entrance and assembly hall

Typically he has been seen as a kind of hangover from the ’20s, a gifted but wayward eccentric of minor importance. Critics in England, have tended to ignore the influence which he had had on German architecture during the last two decades and the fact that he is the one major figure bridging the gap between the German architecture of the ’20s and that of the ’50s and ’60s. Also his buildings of the late ’20s and early ’30s are still for many critics his most acceptable works (being those closest to mainstream modernism) and they are in consequence still the most widely publicised, excepting the Philharmonie. This gives the misleading impression that Scharoun is already half a century out of date, whereas in fact he produced the bulk of his considerable oeuvre during the post-war period, and some of his greatest and most original works were designed in the mid ’60s, two of which are still incomplete.

Scharoun has often been classified by historians as an Expressionist. While there is no doubt that he was deeply involved in the so-called Expressionist movement of the early ’20s, and that he remained closer to its social and political ideals in later life than did any of his colleagues, his architectural ideas stemmed much more from Hugo Häring’s theory of ‘new building’, which was essentially a functionalist doctrine. Häring was perhaps the most important German architectural theorist of the ’20s and the only one to produce a complete philosophy of architecture. His functionalism differed from International Style functionalism over one issue primarily: the application of geometrical disciplines for aesthetic reasons. According to Häring each part of a building should have a particular form generated by its function, and the relationship of parts should follow the relationship of functions. Thus the form created not only works well, but also expresses in the exterior of the building its internal layout and indeed its whole raison d’etre. The building then takes on a specific character generated by the various considerations which called it into being.

In this process the architect follows the role of interpreter rather than creator; he lets the building become what it needs to become without subjugating it to his own notions of taste and beauty. Häring’s philosophy was anti-aesthetic, and he attacked the International Style architects particularly Le Corbusier- for imposing a geometrical straitjacket for the sake of an aesthetic harmony which conflicted with the ‘essence’ of a building and suppressed its natural character.

Marl Primary School: Assembly hall

Marl Primary School: Assembly hall

Marl Primary School: Assembly hall

Häring’s theory gains a great deal of credibility when seen as part of a longer historical perspective. Many of his arguments with Le Corbusier and Mies echo nineteenth century arguments between Gothic Revivalists and Neo-Classicists, a fact that he was obviously aware of, for he subscribed to the old distinction between Nordic and Latin architecture which had been popular with nineteenth-century theorists-Ruskin among them Häring saw himself as continuing the Nordic tradition- the tradition of responsive building, and Le Corbusier as continuing the Latin tradition, the tradition of Architecture in which the rules of abstract harmony a re allowed to dominate. Scharoun was a close friend of Häring and seems to have been totally sympathetic to his theory of ‘new building’ from the start. Although his early works are close to the International Style in terms of their general appearance, they are quite alien to it in their planning. He was always interested above all in the differentiation of space in relation to function. Also, for him a building was a part of a locality, it had to grow out of its site and relate to the surrounding area, while simultaneously expressing faithfully what it contained . These remained his priorities.

Scharoun produced his first built works towards the end of the ’20s. His house at the Weissenhof exhibition of 1927 and his flats at Breslau of 1929 gained him international recognition. His reputation grew with the building of Siemensstadt in 1930 and of his extraordinary Schminke house of 1933, so that he seemed destined for a brilliant career. But the Nazis came to power and outlawed modern architecture as degenerate, so most architects with international reputations emigrated. Scharoun, though, felt rooted in Germany and doubted the chances of being accepted abroad. Despite being totally opposed to the Nazi regime, he chose to stay. During the next decade he had to rely entirely on private clients, and he built about a dozen private houses. Although forced by the Nazi building authorities to use traditional construction, he continued to develop his spatial ideas, and the interiors of some of these houses have a spatial fluidity that remains unsurpassed today.

After the war Scharoun was appointed city architect for Berlin for a short period, and some parts of the plan he developed have been realised. Gradually he regained his international reputation, mainly through his prize-winning competition projects. In the early ’50s he produced a series of revolutionary designs for various types of public building which were to be the prototypes for many of his later projects. One of these was a design for the new theatre at Kassel, which was awarded first prize and should have been built. It was abandoned at the last moment, because of the client’s fear of constructional difficulties. Always an idealist, Scharoun aimed high. His projects were daring and uncompromising, often approaching the limit of what was possible constructionally.

In the’ 50s there was some doubt whether he could actually build them, so their validity seemed to hang in the balance. In 1959, though, he successfully completed his ‘Romeo and Juliet’ housing scheme in Stuttgart, and in 1962 the school at Luenen. But it was the completion in 1963 of the Philharmonie, which must rank as one of the most complex buildings of the century,that brought him full credibility. The undoubted success of the Philharmonie brought Scharoun more commissions and made judges of competitions more confident of giving him first rather than second prize. As a result he had more major projects under construction in the late ’60s than ever before. These late works represent the culmination of a long and consistent development. While they are no less daring than any of the earlier works, they show a finer precision of judgement. Scharoun had perfected his architectural language and could use it with great confidence.


Scharoun designed three schools in the postwar period, two of which have been built. They demonstrate, perhaps better than his other works, the way in which he attempted to articulate in the planning of a building the social structure that it was intended to contain. In 1951 he was invited by the town of Darmstadt to participate in a conference entitled ‘Man and Space’. Ten of the architects involved were asked to produce projects for various kinds of public building, and Scharoun presented a project for a primary school. Although it was never built, it was widely publicised and became the prototype for his later schools. One need only glance at the plan to see that it is a highly fragmented building formed by assembling separate parts rather than by dividing up a single whole. Scharoun felt that each part should have a specific identity related to its function, the differentiation between the parts being as important as the differentiation between the whole school and its surroundings.

Marl primary school: one of the open spaces inside the complex. On the right is the workshop.

Marl primary school: one of the open spaces inside the complex. On the right is the workshop.

Marl primary school: one of the open spaces inside the complex. On the right is the workshop

The three school units- upper, middle, and lower school- are designed as specific entities, each consisting of a group of classrooms, a communal hall, and a ‘gatehouse tower’ containing cloakroom facilities which acts as an entrance to the unit. There is a distinct hierarchy of privacy and space ownership which follows the social structure of the school. Thus the classroom belongs to the pupils of one class, the communal hall to those of a unit, and the ‘open zone’ including the assembly hall and general functions to everyone.

The classroom types vary in design to accommodate the changing needs of a growing consciousness. The lower school has small classrooms of fairly simple shape and, since the pupils are just starting their education, they are encouraged to play, gradually developing their social awareness. ‘Physical and spiritual growth require light and sun’, and so the classrooms face south. In the middle school learning begins in earnest and discipline must be imposed. This discipline is reflected in the more formal planning of the unit, the classrooms are square and the external spaces fully enclosed. At this stage sunlight would be distracting, so the classrooms face east and west. In the upper school imposed discipline is replaced by self-discipline and the form of the classroom becomes more relaxed, the external space being separated and more open. The lighting condition is northlight, in German Himmellicht.

In his second school project, the Geschwister Scholl girls secondary school at Luenen, Westphalia, Scharoun dropped his specialised classrooms in favour of a more flexible classroom unit. He called this a Klassenwohnung or class-dwelling, because he intended each pupil to identify with it as a kind of second home. Each of these consists of a classroom, annexe, entrance lobby and external teaching space. The shape of the classroom and annexe was designed to allow flexibility of seating layout, a consideration that has been found psychologically very important. The lighting, rather than being specifically directional, is obtained from all sides through clerestory windows. The Klassenwohnungen are grouped into school units, though these are much less strongly defined than those in the Darrnstadt project, having no distinct unit spaces and no ‘gatehouse towers’. The ‘open zone’, though, is much more developed, the central part of the main circulation space being opened out into a ‘break’ hall to replace the playground in wet weather. This intermediate space is quite irregular, being formed by the outsides of the other parts, and this expresses very well its transient function.

Geschwister Scholl school, Luenen (1959-62): view of entrance and assembly on the right.

Geschwister Scholl school, Luenen (1959-62): view of entrance and assembly on the right.

Geschwister Scholl school, Luenen: view of entrance and assembly on the right

In the school at Marl- a primary school- ideas from both earlier projects are mixed. Klassenwohnungen, like those at Luenen, are grouped into school units with communal limit spaces as in the Darmstadt project, At the heart of the complex, forming the centre of an obviously cumulative plan, stands the assembly hall, which takes pride of place because it represents the whole community, Scharoun intended that it should be used as a theatre and cinema for local people in the evenings, the school being seen as a kind of cultural centre. The gymnasium also was intended for use by outsiders and is placed next to the main entrance in consequence.

The location of Marl in the heavily industrialised Ruhr region results in an educational bias towards scientific subjects. Thus there are in the school a number of specialized science rooms and a workshop which was designed to be like part of a factory, creating an atmosphere preparatory to the outside world.

As in other Scharoun buildings the circulation spaces are formed by flow patterns and by the outsides of other elements. They have an indefinite, transient feel encouraging movement and exploration and, as one walks through them, one experiences a series of rich and changing vistas. Practically all of the rooms and circulation spaces in the school are generously daylit. Seen from the outside, the school is very broken up and almost impossible to see as a whole. The external elevations are modest and unimposing, the entrances relaxed and inviting. Scharoun considered that ‘a school building should not be a symbol of political power, nor primarily a product of technical or artistic perfection. It should, rather, communicate an idea of a way of life sympathetic to the universal principle of democracy.’

The school at Luenen has now been operational for a dozen years and is used very much as intended. It fits, veil into its locality and is used by outsiders in the evenings. The principal is very sympathetic to the whole architectural concept and regards the building as an undoubted success. The Marl school, though, has had a less fortunate history. Shortly after its completion, the German educational system was revised and it is not used as intended. Due to a regional shortage of staff and schools, it is also overcrowded and classes are considerably oversized, making the classrooms cramped. The assembly hall is not yet used by outsiders, partly for administrative reasons, partly for security, for it is impossible to cut it off from the rest of the complex. The external spaces, too, are criticised by the staff. The numerous little gardens between the blocks are a paradise for the children but a nightmare for the staff trying to control them. As one master put it ‘this would be a wonderful school for ideal children, but these children are far from ideal’. Despite these criticisms the school is generally considered an exceptionally pleasant and inspiring place to work in. The spatial differentiation between the various parts of the complex creates a strong sense of place and encourages personal identification with particular elements, even when they do not function as intended.


Architecture Review: March 1975 Volume CLVII Number 937

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