The former buildings of the Pharmaceutical Institute are now used by Loewe Research Center for Biodiversity and Climate. 2013 Photo © Jörg Hempel/SchürmannSpannel AG
Campus Kramer
by Thomas Edelmann
Feb 11, 2014

In Frankfurt/Main the city’s Department of Culture has opened an exhibition focusing on Ferdinand Kramer’s furniture design. As we would expect, Felix Semmelroth is not only pleased with the historical restoration of the objects that Kramer designed, but at the same time makes reference to his architecture, which helps shape Frankfurt’s cityscape and has been a subject of debate for decades. In view of the recently demolished university tower, the “AfE-Turm”, the Head of the Culture Department talks of “melancholy”. For, as sad as it may be, Kramer’s erstwhile university buildings are on the list for demolition. The fact that many of Kramer’s university buildings with an uncertain future are also to be found on Frankfurt’s list of protected buildings is not a noticeable contradiction for Semmelroth. The dynamism of the big city is unsustainable without architectural change, says the local politician. Commemoration, melancholy, restoration, yes, but demolition and banal reconstruction? Absolutely. Whereas in the past cultural politicians courageously pulled out all the stops for their job, today they at best cite the power of fact and the municipal department they work in.

A comprehensive ornament-phobia

An exhibition that primarily sets out Kramer’s furniture designs and standardized building elements keeps its distance to current controversies revolving around Kramer’s architecture. Curator Gerda Breuer does recapitulate the history, the neglect and on the other side the “outspoken supporters”. In her essay “Kramer revisited” she ascribes to post-War Modernism and Kramer too “a comprehensive ornament-phobia in the embellishment of façades”. She criticizes that Kramer’s life and legend are always told in the same way; Kramer and with him his design production have long since fallen prey to artifaction, she claims, citing striking examples and not even excluding her own collecting and exhibiting activities. And yet the widening of the gate, which was far too small, of the Neo-Baroque main building of the Goethe University from 1906 was far more than just ‘façade embellishment’. This spatial opening is both a symbolic and a practical act. In a very pragmatic move, the architect Kramer opened up the entrance for an increasing number of students. There was no thought as yet of the huge university of later decades. An emigrant, Kramer, whom rector Max Horkheimer and curator Friedrich Rau (both likewise returned émigrés) had fetched to his home city from the USA, remained true to his design for this important university building in Frankfurt. As he reported in 1982, Ordinaries said to him, as head of the University Building Department: “I grew up in the shadow of a Gothic cathedral and that’s the way I’d like my institute.”

During his time as Head of Frankfurt’s University Building Department (1951 – 1964) Kramer designed some 23 university buildings. Given that state and municipal authorities argued over responsibilities for the endowment university, which had been financed independently before the War, only four million deutschmarks per year were made available for the university’s planned reconstruction, which largely consisted of new buildings. In times of spiraling construction costs and half-finished airports and concert halls, it is difficult to comprehend in retrospect how building activities could be so cost-effective, swift and tailored to optimum land use. As early as 1958, the writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge said the following about the commissioned institute buildings: “Kramer’s building style is functional, cheap and of an almost delicate form; I have hardly witnessed anything like it in Germany before.”

A feature from his work in the United States

Buildings with gridded concrete façades assuming a delicate form? Using concrete as a material and assigning the form a delicate quality seem mutually exclusive endeavors. On the Bockenheim university campus the well-proportioned steel skeleton shells, semi-concealed among subsequent, less carefully designed buildings, are not readily identified. Among the tell-tale signs are concrete structures with an infill of bricks and – a feature from his architectural work in the United States – external steel emergency stairs, along with “bris-soleils”, in other words, shading systems fitted to the outside of the building shell. Since the recent demolition of the “AfE-Turm” the chimney of Kramer’s thermal power station once again dominates the quarter’s architectural make-up. “A concrete chimney as a towering symbol of work is, we fear, intended as a proletarian monument, a kind of surrogate Eiffel Tower and an affront,” one critic raged in the 1968 issue on Frankfurt of “Merian” magazine. In reality, however, the power station meant that the university did not have to fit any of its institutes with boilers, which obviated any subsequent costs. The thermal power station erected in 1953 was one of the first structures that Kramer built for the university.

When Ferdinand Kramer returned to Frankfurt in 1951 some institute buildings had already been completed, however, “mostly plans did not allow for relationships between associated sciences and there was no consideration for future space requirements,” as he commented in an article for the journal “Bauen für die Wissenschaft” in 1960. The new university was not, as originally intended, a greenfield development; instead Kramer and the lawyer and university reformer Friedrich Rau had to make do with the old location from 1914 for the new campus university. The 16.4-hectare site between Bockenheimer Landstrasse in the north, Georg Voigt Strasse in the south, Gräfstrasse in the west and Senckenberganlage was surrounded and transected by roads, populated by tenement houses and gardens; a section of it was privately owned. The city should specify at least one particular investment area, the architects demanded, and in so doing give precedence to the university as part of the construction efforts made in the context of the Economic Miracle. However, the city treasurer was convinced it would be cheaper to acquire each property just in time for the start of construction. A fatal mistake, as it turned out. For it meant that the grounds repeatedly became subject to replanning, with new links introduced between associated sciences, only to be discarded soon again thereafter. Initial plans even went so far as to include tennis courts in the heart of Bockenheim, however, the sports institute was too big for the university campus.

A university molded in a single intellectual mindset

Pragmatism on the one hand and the attempt to build in a forward-looking and mutable way on the other are not mutually exclusive. Did the heavyweights of critical theory feel at home in the buildings in which Kramer sought to capture the “progressive spirit”, as Breuer suggests? It certainly wasn’t the university rector Horkheimer who laid obstacles in Kramer’s way, and for two periods of office he supported the construction and planning activities. People have often speculated on the relationship between architect Kramer and the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer. Their relationship was and remained friendly, even though Kramer didn’t need to be a theorist or an academic in order to be commissioned to design the buildings. And conversely the critical theorists did not have to approve of all Kramer’s aesthetic and functional decisions down to the last detail. Their theoretical positions on “instrumental reason”, for example, possibly flew in the face of the buildings. Attempts to directly link Adorno’s 1965 lecture on the “Critique of Functionalism” to Kramer – whose friend he had been since early childhood – are unfounded. At any rate: Only a little while ago, the estate of émigré Leo Löwenthal (he was one of the cofounders of the Frankfurt School) including his desk (designed by Kramer) [JG1] came back to Germany. He worked at it from the 1920s onwards until his death. Today, the Berlin Academy of Arts is home to the furniture.

“What strikes one about an architect and designer” such as Kramer, writes Michael Müller in the catalog accompanying the Frankfurt exhibition, is “that he used the materials from which he composed his buildings, rooms and objects for everyday life in an entirely unspecific way. There is nothing ostentatious, let alone monumental about them. Precisely in today’s age of “culturalizing” and aestheticizing public space this is what is counted as their greatest shortcoming. Frankfurt University now has its new, thoroughly greened campus, something quite unlike what Kramer had in mind. Is it a “university molded in a single intellectual mindset”, as Alexander Kluge enthused when viewing the Auditorium Cube, the seminar-room high-rise, the “Biological Camp”, the refectory and the University Library back in 1958? “Ostentatious buildings,” he declared, are “regularly bad buildings” and he had not yet seen the sublime, shell-limestone-clad institutes on the campus near the former I.G. Farben head office. They have been appearing since the end of the 1990s on the new “Campus Westend”, and the old “Campus Bockenheim” is now being left to the real estate asset strippers. Alongside the one or other trivial building, they include Kramer’s institutes, halls of residence, refectory and library. The municipal AGB Holding, which owns the built legacy “New Frankfurt” bequeathed us, intends to turn the dilapidated functional buildings into a “Cultural Campus”, with civic inclusion and hifalutin aims. The idea is to locate cultural institutions there. The Senckenberg Research Institute has secured the central section of the former campus to expand its established premises, and Peter Kulka has been entrusted with the modernization and conversion effort.

The “New Frankfurt”: a part of the world’s cultural heritage?

The controversy over Kramer continues. In the northwest of the old campus, an initiative is seeking to convert the “Philosophicum”, the modular seminar building erected in 1960 based on exposed steel columns, for residential ends. AGB would prefer to tear it down and build new, denser properties, favoring more residential space over qualitative experiments. Kramer’s refectory, built in 1963, a flat cube with huge panes of glass, has for years been covered in tarps. The plan: to replace it as soon as possible with an office-and-residential building. Not that a holistic approach is to be sensed anywhere.

The only exception is to be found in the extreme southwestern corner of the old campus – and it shows how Kramer’s architecture can be moved forward and stay in use. Forschungszentrum BiK-F has completely modernized the former Pharmaceutical Institute dating from 1958 – complete with lecture theater and lab building – turning it into a contemporary research facility. Bochum-based architects SchürmannSpannel were extremely circumspect in their design. Fabian Wurm presents it in detail in his superbly written monograph on the building, which features photos by Jörg Hempel, (“Opus” series, vol. 77, Edition Axel Menges, 2014). Here, Kramer’s intellectual and design cosmos is clear to see again. “The fact that mutability was part of the concept,” comments architect Matthias Solbach in the book, “is something we swiftly realized during the modernization.” The architects had, he continues, hitherto “never worked on a project that they could so smoothly adapt to the conditions required today.” In the mid-1980s, Manfred Hegger, today a major champion of sustainable construction, explored the potential Kramer’s buildings offered. He suggested that a figure in the single-digit million deutschmarks would definitely suffice to get them back in shape. Frankfurt has simply still not understood that the “New Frankfurt” of the 1920s is just as much a part of the world’s cultural heritage as Kramer’s farsighted (cost-effective) approach to building, which simply eschews any ostentatious gestures. The testimony to this is still standing and has not yet been reduced to mere images in some museum catalogs.

MORE on Stylepark:

Knock-Down, not craftsmanshipby: Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Art presents Ferdinand Kramer – the designer, that is, not the architect.
(08 February 2014)

AfE-Tower 1972 – 2014: The tower of Goethe University Frankfurt’s Educational Department has been demolished. The building was just 42 years old. An obituary.
(04 February 2014)

The former buildings of the Pharmaceutical Institute are now used by Loewe Research Center for Biodiversity and Climate. 2013 Photo © Jörg Hempel/SchürmannSpannel AG
Lecture hall and laboratory building of the Pharmaceutical Institute of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University (with K.P. Heinrici), Frankfurt am Main, 1957 Photo © Paul Förster, Kramer Archiv
Lecture hall and laboratory building of the Pharmaceutical Institute of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University (with K.P. Heinrici), Frankfurt am Main, 1957 Photo © Paul Förster, Kramer Archiv
Ferdinand Kramer in 1970. Photo © Trebor, Kramer Archiv
Fire stairs Pharmaceutical Institute, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, 1957 Photo © H. Schwöbel Kramer Archiv
Exterior facade dormitory Bockenheimer Warte, 1956. Photo © Kramer Archiv
Stairs, Pharmaceutical Institute, 1957. Photo © Kramer Archiv
Cafeteria, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, 1963. Photo © H. Schwöbel, Kramer Archiv
Auditorium, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, 1958. Photo © H. Schwöbel, Kramer Archiv
Fire stairs Philosophicum, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, 1960. Photo © Kramer Archiv
Housing scheme Westhausen (with Eugen Blanck), 1929 Photo © Grete Leistikow Kramer Archiv