TWENTIETH CENTURY EUROPEAN NARRATIVES:

TRADITION & INNOVATION

6th Conference of the

International Society for the Study of European Ideas (ISSEI)

16-21 August, 1998, Haifa University, Israel

Workshop "Self-image and popular narrative on science";

Chair: Dr Martin Potschka

 

 

THE SILENT MESSAGE OF ARCHITECTURAL DECORATION. ALBERT CARSTEN AND THE EARLY 20th CENTURY BUILDINGS OF THE GDANSK UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, POLAND

 

Waldemar AFFELT, PhD, Conservator of Architecture

Gdansk University of Technology, Faculty of Civil Engineering

 

 

1. Introduction

 

The academic year 2004/2005 at the Gdansk University of Technology will be a jubilee of an extraordinary significance. Specifically, the 6th of October, 1904 and the 24th of May, 1945 are milestones in the modern history of the Gdansk Region of Pomerania (in German: Ost Pommern, in Polish: Pomorze). The former is related to the establishment of the royal technical high school -Königliche Technische Hochschule zu Danzig, and the latter is the date of its transformation into the Polish academic state university – Politechnika Gdanska. Thus, in 2004 this university will celebrate the centenary of the first academic year in Gdansk (in German: Danzig), and in 2005 - the 60th anniversary of the existence of the Gdansk University of Technology, presently the largest technical university in northern Poland. More information is available at the http://www.pg.gda.pl/historia/historiaPG1_eng.html and http://www.pg.gda.pl/januszajtis/eng.html.

 

The historical city of Gdansk has a an extensive scholar tradition dating back to the establishment of its Academic Gymnasium (founded in 1588) and the Collegium Medicum (founded in 1614). Since beginning of 17th century Rosicruscians had approached Gdansk from the Netherlands and the Czech country, and local printing shops started to publish related literature. Mannerism in painting had made citizens familiar with the realm of veiled symbols and mystic motives. The Society for Literature (in Latin: Societas literaria cuius symbolum Virtutis et Scientarum incerementa, active between 1720-1727) and the scientific society Societas Physicae Experimentalis (in German: Naturforschende Gesellschaft), established in 1742 and operated until 1939, were founded in course of Enlightenment. The new Society for Literature was founded in 1835 in purpose to provide forum for graduated citizens, and it operated until 1935. Most influential was the Historical Society founded in 1879, acting as a publishing house for periodicals: “Zeitschrift des Westpreussischen Geschichstvereins”, “Mitteilungen des Westpreussischen Geschichtsvereins”, and “Quallen und Darstellungen zur Geschichte Westpreussen”. These institutions provided the intellectual base for progressive movements, whose distinguished activists were gathered in freemason lodges. The very early lodges were “Under the three plumb-bubs” - Aux Trois Niveaux – Zu den drei Bleiwagen, founded in 1751 and renamed in 1775 as the “Eugenia under the crowned lion” – Eugenia zum gekrönten Löwen; “Under the Three Stars” active between 1763-1772; “Lodge of Unity” – Zum Einigkeit (1790); and the “Under the Red Cross” – Zum rothen Kreuz, founded in 1873, renamed in 1906 as “Under the Victorious Light” – Zumsiegenden Licht. Lodge Eugenia offered only three regular levels, but as early as in 1802 it was possible to obtain the fourth and the fifth level according to the Scotch rite (Lodge “Fides”), and the sixth and seventh level (Lodge “The Intrinsic East”). Also the Theosophical Society had seat in Gdansk. During the time of development of the project for polytechnic some local intellectuals like for example Paul Giese, doctor of philosophy; Albert Erhardt, architect; Johannes Petruschky, bacteriologist; Karl Fehlhaber, building officer; Kurt Hempel, architect; Leo Baumgardt, architect; Rudolf Damus, attorney; Paul Simpson, historian; Fridrich Georg Schoemann, doctor of philosophy, were active in local Masonic lodges. It could have happen, that those individuals were somehow engaged into the elaboration of the symbolic programme for the architectural motives applied at the edifices of the first high school in Gdansk. That question requires further studies and archival investigation.

 

On October 6, 1904, the grand opening of the polytechnic in Gdansk was celebrated by the Kaiser Wilhelm II, who inaugurated the new polytechnic on the East Province of Germany which aimed “to spread around the German spirit and culture” (Fig. 1). His remarks referenced such notions as the “workshop of the nature” (in German: allgwaltige Werkstatt der Natur), “fruitful common activities” (in German: fruchtbarem Zusammen wirken), and the “German laboriousness and diligence” (in German: deutsche Arbeitsamkeit und Tuchtigkeit). There were six faculties (in German: Abteilung): Architecture, Civil Engineering, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, Shipbuilding and Ship Engines, Chemistry, and the General Sciences. The buildings of Chemistry, the Main Building and the Electrical Engineering were linked by underground passageway. The whole university site was media-self-sufficient; electricity, steam for low pressure heating, and technical gases for laboratories were supplied from the central power station containing an enormous boiler room. The water tower, combined with an attached chimney and the detached cooling tower made of stainless steel 32 meters high became the landmarks of Wrzeszcz (in German: Langfuhr) suburb (Fig. 1). The shape of cooling tower made of steel reminded a spatial device, perhaps referencing a popular picture from the story about the journey to the moon by Jules Verne. Unfortunately, this unique and picturesque structure was dismantled in 1994. There was a tennis court and a place for physical exercises located in the corner of the lot along with a botanical garden nearby. The greenhouse supplied fresh flowers for free hand drawing classes held in winter.

 

2. Concept of decoration

G. Rossler’s article about the Technische Hochschule zu Danzig in the annual report of 1910 of the "Zeitschrift des Vereines deutscher Ingenieure” identifies selected features of the new university buildings Gdansk. According to that description, the Main Gate to the university site is guarded by two obelisks made of sandstone and serving as a lamp holder (in German: Lichttrager ausgebildete Sandstein-Obelisken) - exactly as one may see today. The facade of the Main Building (Fig. 2), enriched with abundant symbolic decoration was inspired by the monuments of local architecture. Rossler mentioned some details with a special attention: flame bowls, copper gargoyles in form of monsters handed by mythological heroes (Fig. 3), eagles carrying balls, next set of two obelisks rising up over the Main Entrance (Fig. 4), and the general appearance of the window frames made of stone at the gable. The sculpture of Technology placed at the centre of the facade (now replaced with the eagle – the Polish national emblem), and the portrait of emperor over the Main Entrance do not exist now. But apart form those details, there is much more of the sculptures and relieves still visible for attentive spectators.


 

 

 

This architectural design clearly recalls features of the splendid civic buildings in historical Gdansk from its Golden Age - a time of prosperity based on trade, shipbuilding, and craftsmanship of high quality luxury goods like gold, silver, fine amber, black oak furniture and richly carved indoor wooden staircases. It was a period of Northern European Renaissance flourishing along with the flavour of Mannerism from the Netherlands seasoned with a bit of Italian taste. Albert Carsten from Berlin, appointed architect in charge, was perhaps enchanted by the unique charm of the Gdansk monuments, when he arrived on the polytechnic site for the first time in March, 1900. He followed in his design the general presence of red brick masonry enriched by the numerous decorations sculptured in stone, often gilded. Thus, the inspiration for the general appearance of the Main Building came from the outstanding architectural monuments of the old city of Gdansk:

·      Medieval Town Hall of the Main City (there were also other districts within the chain of the city fortifications: the Old City, the Old Suburb, the New Town, Long Gardens, Down Town) with the Renaissance addition of a third floor, corner tabernacles and the rectangular window frames made of stone inserted into the Gothic masonry; after collapse of Teutonic Knights superiority over the city the tower was raised and the spire was erected;

·      The Artus Court, bearing the Gothic pointed arch openings on its facade covered with the rustic work of plaster and the gable, topped with a terrace-like balustrade;

·      Saint Mary's Church – an enormous Gothic hall serving the Authorities as an official place of worship and splendid burial place for the distinguished citizens, who were commemorated be means of the wall epitaphs enriched by paintings and colourful marble decoration;

·      The Green Gate, a city palace for hosting Polish royalties during their state visits to Gdansk, situated on the Motlava river embankment at the end of the Royal Parade – a long street and rectangular market place leading from the city gate called the Golden Gate and passing by the Town Hall of the Main City;

·      The Great Armoury, a splendid palace-like building used for the simple purpose of the city guard depot;

·      The Town Hall of the Old City;

·      The city gates and gatehouses inserted into the intensive earthen walls - curtains linking the bastion fortifications system at one time surrounding like a chain the entire city, but dismantled at the end of 19th on its southern part;

·      The richly ornamented facades and gables of refurbished the Gothic merchant houses, so typical of the townscape, and announcing the splendour and dignity of the owner to the public.

There were also five famous figural presentations made of bronze:

·      A nude Neptune with a trident standing on fountain in very heart of the city;

·      A gilded statue of the Polish King Sigismundus Augustus looking upon the city from the spire of the Town Hall of the Main Town;

·      A small but very elegant sculpture of Mercury soaring up from the cupola over the entrance to the wine cellar of the Arthur’s Court;

·      The Angel standing on the top of the gable of the Angel House, also known as the English House after the purpose of this site – as hostel and English merchant exchange or market;

·      A verdigris-covered Saint George with the dragon on the top of the roof of Saint George Society Shooting-Gallery House.

More information available at the www.gdansk.pl/en/article.php?category=454&article=937&history=

 

3. General appearance of the Main Building

However this is primarily a study on “silent message” from Albert Carsten (and, perhaps, his collaborators), so I feel confident in listing its basic conceptual components. The general appearance of the Main Building was directly inspired by the outstanding monuments of Gdansk architecture. On the very centre of front facade one may see set of the three gable walls so typical for the appearance of the southern Baltic coastal cities, called by German tradition the Danziger haus. The structural base of facades reminds orthostate - heavy stone work serving the bottom courses of the walls of the ancient buildings. The facade of the ground floor level is worked out in that manner, and the red brick masonry courses rise up with numerous details made of sand stone. Very special arrangement of the brick facades is applied: the distance between ashlar masonry of the ground floor and the window base moulding at the third floor is divided by means of seven stony strips. They are dressed sequentially from very sharp just untreated surface until the very smooth finish at the seventh level. It may correspond to the seven degrees of initiation had been available at the Masonic lodge of Eugenia (three primary degrees, and than further four ). Similar interpretation fits to the two sets of steps leading to the Main Entrance.  

 

·      The Main Entrance is preceded by a set of four plus three steps and the Portico – shaped like a triumphal arch with a central opening flanked by two columns, perhaps referencing Joachin & Boaz pillars of Salomon’s temple. The arch bridges those columns and there are five nude males carved (Fig. 5). They are: drawing – on keystone (sketch of St. Mary’s Church tower in Gdansk, 15th century); riveting the truss (shape of railway bridge over the Vistula river in Tczew, 1891) and rolling a cog-wheel - on voussoirs; surveying (the opening of the artificial Vistula mouth the to sea, 1895), and mining – on springers. There is a parade balcony over; on its balustrade there is a cartouche which scrollwork incorporates ropes and pomegranates. Inside originally there was a portrait of the Emperor Wilhelm II, replaced after the WW II with metal emblem of a sailing vessel. Cartouche is conveyed by sovereign insignia - sceptre and sword and eagles on the sides. The immense obelisks supported by four balls and topped with the pyramid and ball on its pick erect from the balcony corners.

·      Portal passageway forms three openings to inside. Over the central pass there are two puttos: one holds a sheet of drawing showing a layout of this edifice, and the second - a plumb bob. Between those puttos there is Medusa head – the universal symbol of wisdom and educational institutions (Fig. 6). From door frame made of forged iron the keys in regular size hang down.  

 

·      Busts of the Four Great German Engineers in Roman manner are presented on front facade. They are: Gotthilf Heinrich Ludwig Hagen [March 3, 1797, Königsberg (in Polish: Krolewiec, in Russian: Kaliningrad) - February 2, 1884 in Berlin], specialist in soil mechanics, hydroengineering, hydraulics; Karl Fridrich Schinkel [March 13, 1781, Neuruppin (in Polish: Nowy Rupin) – October 9, 1841, Berlin], leading neo-classical architect; Johann Friedrich August Borsig [June 13, 1804, Breslau (in Polish: Wroclaw) - July 6, 1854, Berlin], industrialist, steam engines builder for locomotives; Ferdinant Schichau [January 30, 1814, Elbing (in Polish: Elblag) – January 23, 1896, Elbing], engineer, constructor of ships and steam engines, owner of the shipyards in Elbing and Danzig. These busts (and their real-life engineer’s contributions) correspond to the four elements of Nature represented by the decorated composition of the front lower entrances, namely to the Soil, Air, Fire, and Water, respectively.  

 

·      The Front Lower Entrances are adorned with splendid decorations carved in stone. The central part depicts a horse carrying the crops of grain (Fig. 7), while on the sides there are compositions related to field of activity one of the Four Great German Engineers: (Hagen) the old man’s head carrying a lighthouse (Fig. 8); (Schinkel) the Angel’s head carrying a model of Saint Mary’s church (Fig. 9); probably a winged wheel (flying wheel) ruined in the course of WW II (Borsig); (Schichau) and a dolphin carrying a boat with lanterns.  

 

·      The Side Entrances are adorned with different decoration related to the intellectual and physical virtues, respectively. Above the western portal there is a head of woman crowned with a fortress-like hat; small opening reminds a beehive. In tympanum there are various symbols of architectural design (Fig. 10 ). Above the eastern portal there is a male head; his hands are tied with an iron chain (Fig. 11), and below mechanical workshop tools are depicted. Both gates received the same form of framing; the water wheel with water plants depicts this source of energy. On the other side there is a fabulous crocodile swallowing the piston of steam engine - a symbol of the industrial revolution.  

 

 

 

4. Description of ornamentation

The richness of motifs may be classified according to the variety of typologies. It may be assumed that a certain narrative programme was adopted, resulting in order of images applied for the Main Building, particularly. Moreover, relieves on keystone over the windows defined the purpose of the room behind, its user’s position and his scientific field. Whenever one tries to analyse such a delicate network of symbols and to unveil the hidden messages along with their possible double-bottom meanings, then immediately he involves his own cognitive discernment and psychological sensitiveness into the world of symbolism and applied iconology. It is possible to assess the images by collecting them for instance into the following clusters:

·      local architectural references;

·      maritime theme;

·      technical theme;

·      anthropological images;

·      zoomorphic images;

·      phitomorphic images;

·      symbols of abstract notions;

·      composed images.

The maritime subject seems to be a leading one in the decoration of the Main Building. It may have been due to political and economic reasons, as it was a high priority to fulfil the demand for qualified engineers in Gdansk and Elblag (Germ. Elbing) shipyards, along with other specialists had been necessary for industrial development of the Province. Following maritime-related items are selected:

·      Anchor - usually it is combined with other elements and appears elsewhere from the very top of the building. Always it is tied or fastened by means of rope or chain. One application may be found as the top of the forge bar at the iron fence surrounding the university place.  

 

·      Boat: this image appears often in various compositions: ancient naval boat made of copper tin and driven by two dolphins (Fig. 12); on the eastern wing as a sophisticated five-boat seat for eagle; over the Front Lower Entrance as a sophisticated set of three boats floating over the open book; as a part of dolphin carrying a boat composition at the Front Lower Entrance - as an attribute of Schichau’s portrait; in a pontoon bridge on the keystone of the arch over the window; as a sailing boat on a shield hanging down on the tree at the side of the western wing.

·      Coral: in a large composition of raw anthozoon is located at the top of the rear facade over the windows of the university aula (Fig. 13).  

 

·      Cornice in Italian style of "tortiglione": below the eaves there is the horizontal moulded projection terminating the building. Under the brick gables there is a heavy slab-and-bar chain following the popular Manneristic pattern of forged blacksmith work (Fig. 14). This decorative detail was popular in Venice as tying up an important Gothic objects following the rope tortiglione - the fastening member of ancient boats. This decoration had been early applied in the chapel of Mascoli in San Marco basilica, the seat of male worshippers’ brotherhood from 12th century; this was often repeated in important Venetian edifices later on.  

 

·      Fish: an image of dolphin is usually combined  with a boat, but can be found as a flat relief decoration fastening the gutter.

·      Fishing equipment: a net with floats is a part of combined images. Set of floats in misleading shape of grape bunch decorates the top of front facade.

·      Lighthouse: the old man with long beard carries of his head the structure of the lighthouse; below, the crustacean shell appears within the combine composition, that may depict Nerites, son of Nereus or may be recognised as a shell of Saint’s Ambrosio, a good trip talisman related to lighthouse. The whole appearance of the Water Tower follows the shape of a lighthouse; the impression is stressed by means of images of sea waves, shells and seaweed at the bottom.

·      Mooring equipment: mooring eyes are applied often in various locations and the most meaningful ones are those next to ground entrances. Guard rails in the misleading shape of garlands are located on the top of the front facade - from distance they look like flowers. Chains, hooks and ropes are composed in variety of images.

·      Sail: a model sailing boat is handed by hero, perhaps Mercury, within the bronze gargoyle group at the top of front facade; it appears as a gift given to an older man, perhaps Hercules subjugating a monster Cerber-like. Small image of boat with a sail in grotesque form of woman acts as emblem hanging on the tree-like sprouting and budding stick (Fig. 15); the boat is loaded with books.  

 

·      Sea hero: head of the sea hero or god is repeated twice at the top corner of front facade below the gable. This image combines anchor, rope, dolphins, shells and sea waves.

·      Sea monster: the monster face appears often in repeated composition of emblems on pilaster followed above with the triangle, compass and plummet on its capital. Some particular monsters have human faces transformed with fish and shell pattern incorporated.

·      Seaweed: in the decoration of the inner yards at the bottom of pillars, there appears composition of mother & baby shells and rockweed; exposed to the air they will dry and die perhaps.

·      Shells: Shells serve often as a secondary element of composition. A set of “mother-shell” with a “baby-shell” inside appears in the inner yard at the bottom of pillars. The most sophisticated image is visible on the eastern projection of the back side of the building: the shell houses a hammer surrounded by pearls. In other applications a shell acts as a cartouche-like background for an image of primary importance, i.e. the Gdansk city code-of-arms.

·      Starfish: This motif appears as a repetitive cast iron element in the balustrades of the side staircases. Its five-beam shape relates to numerology of “5”.

·      Trident: Small relieves depicting the trident appear in various places as elements of forged iron-like details made in stone, following the typical in Gdansk architectural decoration in the Mannerist style.

·      Water plants: Water lilies combined with calamus catkin flags are depicted in the stone composition framing the side ground entrances. Bronze calamus appears once more within the composition of ancient naval boat driven by dolphins on the gable of the side facades.

 

At the Chemistry Building the most ingenious decorative feature appears at the side and back facade cornices; there are symbols of chemical elements elaborated in plaster following the Art Nouveau wavy form of characters. Above the entrances to the building are the head of Mercury and an alchemist’s fire salamander guarding the crystal; on the portal to auditorium are two testing tubes heated by flame. Inside of the building there is the forged iron balustrade running along the stairs that consists of bars formed in shape of retort, starfish, and the symbols of chemical elements.

   

Above the main entrance to the Electrical Engineering Building there is a dorsal crest dragon taming the flash of lightning. On the top of the ashlar corner there are deep relieves: lizards playing around the sea shell (Fig. 16), and the kissing couple. The latter is quite unique and is without references to other anthropological motifs applied; behind the long-haired women’s head appears a hand holding a bundle of rye ears, while the old bearded man holds burning torch. On the side facade, facing the front line of the Main Building one may see the “plus” and “minus” symbols related to electricity, and the instrument for demonstration of electrical phenomenon by means of provoking the spark jumping between electrode bulbs.

   

 

The side entrance to the Mechanical Laboratory is decorated with the basso-relief depicting a hand holding a hammer; sophisticated long sleeve slides down, unveiling the forearm muscles and vanes in tension, on foreground behind there is a laurel twig with fruit (Fig. 17). Over the entrance to the Boiler Room there is a monster head eating two human beings – the most dramatic emblem of all. On the roof ridge a bird - Phoenix - rises up from the flames. The arrangement of the attached water tower follows the shape of a lighthouse; the stony foundation breaks the sea waves - this pattern is reminiscent of a Vitruvian scroll (Fig. 18).  

 

 

5. CONCLUSIONS

 

To appreciate this “discovery quest” for message embodied into the early building of the Gdansk University of Technology I recommend a slow walk along their facades and around with certain stops for closer scrutiny, at times utilising binoculars (Fig. 19). Another story can be created while exploring buildings inside. It is possible to interpret every single image individually using references to iconography or taking as a starting point a philosophical statement or the proverb presumably depicted by the emblem. Taking into account the richness of the decoration of the Main Building it is quite easy to simplify the findings, as does the local mass media, calling this edifice as the Masonic Temple. But the majority of images hardly deals with the Freemasons’ theatrum of symbols and ceremonies, thus in my opinion, the more relevant name would be, for example, the Temple of Cognisance. Those images were bearing perhaps some message readable for those who had possessed an adequate knowledge – as a kind of cultural initiation. Looking carefully at those meaningful ornaments and “reading” them reminds us of  the existence of a philosophy of the holistic formation of the person (historically, the man) through the process of comprehensive education. It seems that after the World War II this “tune” of technical higher education has been abandoned and forgotten step by step. That process has diminished cognitive potential and distracted human imagination. In our days the younger generation addicted to electronic media is used to obtain the “instant answers” for any request; they prefer to gain their on-line cognition from somehow “virtual outside”, not from the “real self” on their own. Learning from the tangible and intangible heritage may be kind of solution and remedy for sustainable preservation of the cultural human dimension inherited from the past, like the promise from the sealed book (Fig. 20), visible on the back façade with the reading room of the Central Library behind.

At the end of the 20th century the calling for a new “tune” for enlightening students during their university education became more audible. The idea, that humanities should be introduced to the academic circles, traditionally oriented onto applied technical sciences only, emerged at the Technical University of Gdansk in 1993 when the decision was made to organise for the first time in Poland the International Seminar on Preservation of the Industrial Heritage (PIH-GO). Interest emerged both on a local and national scale and led to the second edition of that seminar in 1995 (PIH-GO II). The International Project “Technology & Heritage” held in 1997 in co-operation with the State Museum for Technology and Work in Mannheim, Germany, was further continuation of those efforts. For the advent of the Millennia the following conference was held under the theme “Preservation of the Engineering Heritage - Gdansk Outlook 2000” (PEH-GO 2000). Those activities are reported at the http://www.heritage.xtd.pl/pdf/full_affelt.pdf. Now we have undertaken the challenge to organise the fourth edition of those conferences bridging the gap between culture and technology, as the International Conference “Heritage of Technology – Gdansk Outlook 4” (HOT-GO4). You are welcome to join us; please, visit the home page: http://hotgo4.mech.pg.gda.pl.