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An architectural monument in the middle of nowhere

23-Oct-2019

Das Fleckhaus in Erberich, Bergisches Land

Photo: far.consulting, Koelnmesse

It’s an idyllic little place close to Cologne, on the western edge of the elevations of the Bergisches Land. A place formed of forests, fields and the scattered settlements typical for the region. One of these settlements is Erberich with its 850 residents. Small, tranquil and sleepy. But in fact... Erberich has an architectural gem tucked away.

There are just four houses in the whole of Germany designed by the famous Swiss Bauhaus architect Max Bill. And two of them can be found in Erberich. Among them is the Fleckhaus, which is probably the most famous of these four buildings. Willy Fleckhaus, Germany’s first art director, built it together with Max Bill in 1960. The building is fondly known in the local neighbourhood as the “shoebox” because of its rectangular shape.

The two family homes were built in 1960/61 and reveal the first traces of a dialectic between contained and uncontained form in Bill’s architecture. Located right beside each other, the two houses have a consistent formal language – exposed brick, white painted window frames and visible concrete ceilings – that comes together to form an unmistakeable ensemble. The way in which these means are used is, however, entirely different.

An architectural dialogue

The ground floor of the Fleckhaus extends much farther. The floor above it is set back some distance on three sides. The covered loggias on the ground floor are not the result of a reduction, but rather the free interplay of the structural panels of the ceiling and the walls that jump back and forth. By contrast, the neighbouring house is a clearly defined, two-storey cube. Above the loggia on the ground floor, the first floor is supported only by a steel column with a minimal cross section. This effect is strengthened by a window that is oriented towards the loggia and whose panes meet directly in the corner, without a frame.

Das Fleckhaus in Erberich, Bergisches Land

Photo: far.consulting, Koelnmesse

The two buildings therefore form a conceptual pair. And not only because they have been built with the same means in each other’s direct vicinity. But because their different designs can be seen as a dialogue of thesis and antithesis.

The buildings’ architect, Max Bill, was fascinated from a young age with Le Corbusier and Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov, and studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau, where he met Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers, among other figures. The foundations of Bill’s architecture were based on combining a Mediterranean architectural style with the use of new, 1920s technical construction methods. To simplify the construction process, he preferred to use prefabricated, standardised construction elements. This resulted in a utilitarian aesthetic, but one widely regarded as unpretentious.

A hubbub of activity in the Fleckhaus

The owner of the house at the time and its co-builder, Willy Fleckhaus, was one of the most important German graphic designers in the period from the 1960s to 1980s. He was a journalist, book designer and magazine impresario who taught visual communication as a professor in Essen and Wuppertal. But above all he is considered to be Germany’s first art director. His work was characterised by a blend of rational graphics and an American-influenced editorial design combined with clear structures and an organisation that gave the whole meaning. His famous designs include the Q for the magazine Quick, the old logo for the West German broadcaster WDR and the emblem for the campaign “Ein Herz für Kinder”, which raised money for children in need. From 1956 to 1976, he worked as a graphic designer for photokina in Cologne, developing the concept for the catalogue and the exhibition design. In 1956, he launched his most important project, the lifestyle magazine twen. He served as its art director.

The Fleckhaus was usually a hubbub of activity. It was here that the editorial meetings took place. The editorial directors, photographers, graphic designers and journalists would sit until the early hours with the powerful art director, honing and polishing the next issue of twen. Later, in the hands of his daughter, Nelly, the Fleckhaus would become a kind of cultural centre in the midst of the provincial Bergisches Land. Sometimes, complete strangers from Munich or Milan would ring at the door unexpectedly and ask to be taken on a brief private tour. And on the first Thursday of the month, there was a regular gathering with potluck and an exchange of ideas. Musicians, singers and other artists were always warmly welcomed. The 2,500-square-metre garden and a private forest covering 13,000 square metres served as an exhibition space. Today the family no longer lives in the building.