Architecture of the 50s – Wilhelm Riphahn

I’ve been a fan of 50s architecture for many years. In 2004, I became more intensively involved with Wilhelm Riphahn when I conceived city tours for the supporting programme of the major retrospective at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst. Since then it has always been great fun for me to do persuasive work. When the argument comes up: everything had to go fast back then and that’s all so ugly what they built after the war. But once you’ve opened your eyes to the wonderful details and the elegance of simplicity, you can walk through Cologne and see beautiful buildings on every street corner.

For the Kunsthallensommer of the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, I reworked a blog post that I published here almost exactly 10 years ago. It took a while because I was still missing photos. So now, at the last minute for the wild fifties, my contribution in a new guise.

Wilhelm Riphahn is one of Cologne’s most important post-war architects. Even his work before the war is remarkable. Above all, his visions and plans for innovative housing estates (late 1920s, early 1930s) are remarkable. And only the expressionist bastion! My absolute favourite building! But let’s look at his work in the 50s! (He died in 1963.)

It was a time when architecture on the one hand set itself apart from the gigantism of Nazi architecture with swinging round forms. But also in the simplicity of the materials and the clarity of the forms the idea of the Bauhaus is taken up again. Let’s take a closer look!

An urban development project

Already under the National Socialists the Hahnenstraße had experienced an expansion as an important north-west axis in the city, which was to connect it finally with the huge “Maifeld” marching field on the territory of today’s Aachener Weiher. After the war, the route to the west was taken again. And already in the summer of 1945 Riphahn received the order to think about the new planning around Rudolfplatz.

Initially, his office was designed with a strong focus on greenery and ventilation, but this was soon replaced by the planning of an urban shopping area. Riphahn had dedicated himself to an idea of new building, which above all wanted to avoid the creation of constricting canyons of houses. The flat cubic buildings, grouped like a string of pearls to the left and right of Hahnenstraße, seemed to him the best way to meet the demand for loosening up the city.

In addition, here, as elsewhere in Cologne’s inner city, which had been destroyed by the war for more than 80 percent, new construction was required on old land. Riphahn also had to bear in mind that the Apostles’ Church was to be rebuilt, but this did not succeed until the 1980s. Looking ahead, he was sensitive to the environment.

The buildings along the Hahnenstraße were also interesting, as they were intended to shape the life of the city through a so-called mix of industries. The oven house Ferdinand Leisten, the laundry Klug, the restaurant Zieren and others such as the fabric pavilion Möller or the fur trader (today Adrian) gave Riphahn a community of shops here, which Riphahn also equipped with regard to advertising and small details such as door handles and window frames.

For the fabric pavilion Möller, which with its extravagantly downward curved window fronts was not only practical (one could see the displays without reflections), Riphahn also planned the presentation tables. They still have to exist, I heard. But what aggressive advertising is disfiguring this former piece of jewellery today does not bode well.

Also worth mentioning is the former Ferdinand Möller Gallery, which moved into a simple yet ingeniously designed commercial building at the corner of the Mauritiussteinweg. The gallery owner’s apartment was at the back. Living and working in an economically well thought-out space are exemplary for the new building. Today, this building is located in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the big city, somewhat unnoticed, at a corner, where the tram also bends squeakily around the corner. Every time I see it, I feel reminded of building blocks that are nested inside each other.

Everything was very practical

Ferdinand Möller, who came from Berlin, belonged to the progressive committed gallery owners who familiarized the people of Cologne with modern art: First he showed the Expressionists, who had been ostracized in the years between 1933 and 1945 and disappeared from the public eye. Josef Haubrich bought from him and had already bequeathed his collection of Expressionist artists and other avant-garde artists to the city of Cologne in 1946. Later Möller brought the people of Cologne into contact with abstracts such as Baumeister and Nay. In a city guide from the fifties, one reads which clientele appeared in the gallery.

Ferdinand Möller’s modern gallery is a place where one can cultivate peace and quiet. One simply sits in front of a wall and watches how the pictures behave.

Outstanding from this development is the planning for the first cultural institute of the occupying powers. For the French, Riphahn built the Sachsenring between 1951 and 1953. The “British Council – Die Brücke” was established as early as 1948 and 1950. Today, it can be said that the use of this building by the Kölnischer Kunstverein is an excellent solution which, under the direction of expert tenants, will lead to a perfect renovation and, in some cases, the dismantling of the bridge. Here the architect had to fulfil an interesting requirement: a culturally used house in which a library, a cinema or lecture hall and also offices were to be grouped together in a meaningful way.

Here the economical use of materials (simple shell limestone), which constitutes the simple structure, is noticeable. However, this simplicity unfolds a sympathetically unobtrusive effect, such as can be found in the chain of small lights in the foyer. Bare light bulbs in front of a brass bowl shine in the row a noble line, which fits perfectly to the interesting curved staircase. The semicircular conches of the windows for the theatre space, which face the Romanesque church, also shine with their simple yet consistent elegance.

A piece of jewellery without pomp and circumstance

Although soon after the opening in 1957, the people of Cologne mocked it as the “Tomb of the Unknown Conductor”, they were certainly proud of this most modern theatre building of the post-war era. Riphahn had been commissioned by the general planner of the reconstruction to redesign the opera house – initially in duplicate with the Schauspielhaus. Not only the rejection of the historicist architecture played a role here, but also the idea of reviving the city centre with a new opera building in a central location. The old opera house on Rudolfplatz was badly damaged and it was decided to demolish it, thus clearing the way for Riphahn’s planning.