O. R. Salvisberg (1882 – 1940) and the Meaning of Materials. Architectural Modernism and its Differentiated Use of Materials

Gstöhl, Florin (11 July 2019). O. R. Salvisberg (1882 – 1940) and the Meaning of Materials. Architectural Modernism and its Differentiated Use of Materials (Unpublished). In: Ethics and Politics of Material in Architecture. Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut. 11-12 Juli 2019.

In the historiography of modern architecture, the eminent influence of new materials such as iron, glass and concrete is always emphasized. In most cases, however, the material is reduced on its constructive possibilities and, as a result, on formal and aesthetic aspects. The material seems to be merely a placeholder for technical progress, which the propagandists of Modernism regarded as the basis for a new "international architecture" (Walter Gropius, 1925). The focus on form and the associated "marginalization of material" - as Monika Wagner (2001) attributes to the image-based methodology of art history - already seems to have its roots in Modernism itself. On the other hand, around 1900 a "change in the evaluation of materials" can be observed (Günter Bandmann, 1969), which accumulates in the maxim of "material justice" (Materialgerechtigkeit) and has contributed to extend the "understanding of the nature of materials" (Wilhelm Michel, 1905) in arts, crafts and architecture. The "repression of the ornament" (Michael Müller, 1977), the demands for "simplicity" (H.P. Berlage, 1905) and the "reduction of elements" (Reduktion der Mittel) (W.C. Behrendt, 1928), the detachment of the wall from the statics of the building by the steel and reinforced concrete skeleton construction together with the new sensorium of material-appropriate design in the modern age – so my thesis - are shown in the creative treatment of "pure unbroken surfaces" (G.A. Platz, 1927) of the buildings, in which the material acts as the primary medium of design and transmitter of meaning.
The swiss international architect and professor at ETH Zurich Otto Rudolf Salvisberg named the material as the “palette of the building artist” (Palette des Baukünstlers) in which the “optical attraction” is combined with the “feeling for structure” and which determines the “character of the building”. Salvisberg planned the use of each material down to the last detail and always measured it on the same parameters held high by the avant-garde, such as function, purpose and construction. His buildings, for example, reveal a “materialization” that cannot be separated from the building idea, which was not only intended to convey the respective purpose of the building, but also to express the insights of the “machine-technical age” through architectural design.
Starting from the thesis that material became a primary “vehicle of meaning” (Bedeutungsträger) in modern architecture, the presentation will follow various observations of material details in Salvisbergs architecture - in particular the use of clinker stone and concrete - paired with contemporary writings on architectural theory in order to show commonalities as well as differences in theory and practice in architecture of the first third of the 20th century.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Art History

UniBE Contributor:

Gstöhl, Florin


700 Arts
700 Arts > 720 Architecture




Florin Gstöhl

Date Deposited:

21 Nov 2019 09:03

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:32



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