There is hardly any construction material that has shaped Munich more than brick. You will instantly notice it, the moment you start looking. From the Frauenkirche (cathedral) to Gasteig (cultural centre), from the Augustiner brewery to the new Volkstheater: Munich’s red facades are everywhere to be seen. So what exactly is the background here?
There’s one architectural feature of the Bavarian capital that can be relied on to amaze even locals who think they know the city like the back of their hand: all you need to do is point out how many buildings are made of brick– whether ordinary, well-known or even historically significant structures, both old and more recent. In Germany, the reddish masonry brick made of clay is actually regarded as a typically northern “Prussian” building material.
Put on your “brick glasses” and you’ll see it everywhere – in spite of the fact that the plastered splendour of the Baroque has left its unmistakable architectural stamp on the city: the city’s first high-rise, built in 1929 on Blumenstrasse, for example, the Alter Südfriedhof cemetery in Isarvorstadt, and the Alter Israelitischer Friedhof (“Old Jewish Cemetery”) in Thalkirchen, all the surviving buildings of the Isar Valley Railway, including the recently lavishly restored service buildings next to the Maria-Einsiedel outdoor swimming pool, the Schäfflerhof at Marienhof, the entire north side of the New Town Hall, the single people’s hostel in Westend designed by Theodor Fischer and completed in 1927, and even the elegantly angular brick apartment building at Max-Weber-Platz with its quaint fake Hogwarts oriels.
And then there are the city’s world-famous brick sights: Sendlinger Tor, Klenze’s Alte Pinakothek (art gallery) – the largest museum building in the world when it opened in 1836, the imposing State Library on Ludwigstrasse and of course the Frauenkirche itself – Munich’s iconic High Gothic cathedral that was begun in 1468 and went on to become the template for so many of the city’s other churches.
Munich’s tradition of red brick architecture is by no means an aesthetic whim: there are sound geological reasons for it. Clay was readily available in the area – in fact two of the city’s neighbourhoods even have clay in their names (in modern German: Lehm, cf. also the English word “loam”): Laim in the west and Berg am Laim in the east. In the case of Berg am Laim, the addition am Laim (“on clay”) first appears in documents in 1430.
So the brick industry once flourished in Munich. From Giesing district via Berg am Laim to Ismaning, there was a one-kilometre-wide seam of loess loam soil that stretched for 20 kilometres east of the River Isar across the alluvial plain of Munich. Bricks were used for much of the city walls as well as many of the buildings of the city centre dating back to medieval and early modern times.
For centuries, brickworks and clay pits were a natural part of the townscape in Haidhausen, Ramersdorf, Bogenhausen, Englschalking and Oberföhring: “Without clay, Munich wouldn’t exist” – such was the popular saying. It was not until around 1900 that the city’s natural clay deposits finally ran out.
It is a sound practice of modern architecture – especially in the design of prestigious public buildings – to draw on the architectural history of the site at which a new building is to be erected. So it was no coincidence that the city’s biggest cultural centre, the Gasteig in Haidhausen, completed in 1985 and including a large concert hall for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, is a brick building.
It was Mies van der Rohe who said that architecture begins “when two bricks are carefully placed together”.
Meanwhile, the new Volkstheater demonstrates the kind of modern urban style brick is capable of conveying in a public building: this cultural centre was erected on the former Viehhof (cattle yard) in the middle of the rough Schlachthofviertel (literally: “Slaughterhouse District”). Its outer brick shell echoes its surroundings – the theatre’s facilities also include several listed brick buildings in the immediate vicinity. The white stage tower – almost 30 metres high – rises from the centre, an almost delicate contrast to the massive brick walls. In designing it, architect Arno Lederer was actually inspired by a lady’s stocking.
If you talk to the city’s historically prudent younger architects like Alexander Fthenakis, who also runs a highly regarded Instagram architecture account and most recently held a visiting architecture professorship at the Technical University, the conversation soon turns to the reconstruction of the Alte Pinakothek by Hans Döllgast from 1952 to 1957. Having been badly damaged by bombing, the building was restored by Döllgast using bricks from other destroyed buildings in Maxvorstadt district so as to ensure that the history of the building’s destruction remained visible.
As Fthenakis says: “There’s no other building material that lends itself so well to an idea of this kind like brick does”: Döllgast’s approach is still considered a pioneering act of historically critical monument preservation. It was Mies van der Rohe who said that architecture begins “when two bricks are carefully placed together”. Even to the non-expert, there is no other processed building material that conveys the same authenticity and human craftsmanship.
An average brick can easily be held in one hand, and somehow exudes a sense of warmth and familiarity. The production process is not complicated: a mixture of clay and water is pressed into moulds, dried and finally fired at 900 degrees to make the brick waterproof. It insulates heat well and is exceptionally durable, as well as being easy to transport and stack: “Essentially, it’s the ideal embodiment of the archetype of flexible, modular construction that is perfectly adapted to human needs,” says Fthenakis.
Especially in times when sustainability is so urgently needed, especially in construction, such an ancient building material turns out to be highly modern.
In times when sustainability is so urgently needed – especially in construction – an age-old building material of this kind turns out be very much in line with modern needs. And so Munich’s architectural past actually points directly to the future. You never know, the day might be coming when we’ll be saying: “Without clay, Munich WOULDN’T exist”.