Present Futures. ‘Werkbund’ and Building Exhibitions in Weimar Germany

Kerstin Barndt (University of Michigan)

In this presentation, I will take Siegfried Kracauer’s hitherto understudied critical engagement with contemporary exhibition culture as my entry point into a medium that prominently shaped Weimar modernity. A number of representative shows staged design and building experiments crucial to the era’s self-proclaimed identity as a ‘new’ future-oriented time: from Munich’s first post-war trade show in 1923 to exhibitions of the German Werkbund in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and the Building Exhibition in Berlin 1931. Positioned between mass cultural fair culture and the avant-garde movements of the time, these exhibitions broke new ground for Weimar consumer and display cultures and successfully captured the social and aesthetic imaginations of Kracauer and his contemporaries.

My analyses of these shows and the contemporary discourse they provoked extrapolate the immense productivity of exhibition as a medium in interwar Germany – a medium eager to address questions of democratic ‘form’ (housing, design) as well as its aesthetic and social dimensions. I pay particular attention to the temporality of the spatial images (Raumbilder) created by and through Weimar exhibition culture. For it is striking that Weimar’s avant-gardist as well as mass-cultural fair cultures remained confidently future-oriented even during times of crisis (inflation, post-1929 economic depression). Resisting the exhibitions’ manifest rhetoric of ‘making the future present,’ however, Kracauer insisted on the transitional function of cultural and architectural forms; far from presenting the future, Kracauer argued, these forms actually deferred the emergence of the ‘new.’ Recovering Kracauer’s overlooked writings on exhibition as mass culture, I argue, we can read the history of this medium against the grain of the progressivist ideologies that have defined fair culture in particular.


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