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«Discovering Construction as an Art – The ‘Cologne Bridge Quarrel’ Roland May Darmstadt, Germany ABSTRACT: It is commonly known that modern ...»

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Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, Cottbus, May 2009

Discovering Construction as an Art – The ‘Cologne Bridge Quarrel’

Roland May

Darmstadt, Germany

ABSTRACT: It is commonly known that modern architecture became deeply influenced by the severe beauty

inherent in the engineers’ structures since the beginning of the twentieth century. But it is far less known that at

the same time also a noticeable change in engineering occurred. A central occurrence for this shift of paradigms in engineering is the Cologne Bridge Quarrel, which developed subsequently to the design competitions for the Hindenburgbrücke in 1913. It is the aim of the author to discuss the main arguments that were given by the experts in the course of this fascinating judicial proceeding about the artistic qualities of an engineer’s construction, and by this, to revive our knowledge of what can be identified as a milestone in Construction History.


Where does science end, where does art begin, what is applied technology, what belongs to pure knowledge?

Sigfried Giedion (Giedion 1928, p. 10) At the beginning of the twentieth century many architects, such as Walter Gropius (1883-1969) or Le Corbusier (1887-1965), discovered the severe beauty inherent in the engineers’ structures as a tool to create a world both modern and aesthetic. But, while this impulse of the engineers on the development of twentieth-century architecture is nowadays widely acknowledged, it is far less known that many engineers at the same time tried to step out of the shadows of the architects, claiming for themselves what was unquestioned for their half siblings: that their constructions should be recognized as works of art.

One of the main fields in which engineers tried to gain this recognition was the most prominent discipline of engineering: bridge building. Chances to fulfil this desire seemed good around 1900, as the development of bridge building at this time was intensely followed by the whole intellectual world. Yet, particularly when it came to building big bridges inside of cities, the gigantic steel structures of the engineers – though enthusiastically praised as vivid visualisations of human progress – were still considered to lack both representational qualities and respect for the historic surroundings.


In Germany, the prestigious bridges over the Rhine in particular attracted a growing public attention. For that reason, since the end of the nineteenth century most of these bridges were commissioned through nationwide competitions. As the juries were often dominated by architects and laymen, an appealing design considerably improved the chances of winning, and thus the bridge companies usually collaborated with architects to guarantee an ‘artistic status’ for the designs through elaborated ‘architectural treatments’.

In 1927 the engineer Karl Schaechterle (1879-1971) remarked retrospectively that the “big competitions for the Rhine bridges in Worms, Bonn, Mannheim, Cologne, Ruhrort brought lots of important stimuli and led to exemplary solutions in both technical and aesthetic aspects” (Schaechterle 1927, p. 19). However, it can not go unProceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009 acknowledged that a real collaboration of architect and engineer did not take place in the development of these buildings. Both professions were merely concerned with their own well-defined responsibilities. Normally, the architectural intervention was not reaching much further than creating romantic-defiant bridge gates, usually inspired by middle-age castle architecture. While the bridge-heads of the first big German iron river bridges actually had to fulfil some military functions, the bridge towers had lost this task during the course of the nineteenth century and developed mainly into a fancy accessory without a real functional purpose. Furthermore, the architects reacted only marginally to the distinct change of the engineers’ superstructures, which became dominated to such an extent by the tied trussed arch that they were soon known as “German arches” (Hertwig 1922, p. 75).

Surprisingly, many engineers did not question this situation, as their sole responsibility for the design of the superstructure stayed thereby largely untouched. This mindset makes it understandable that the influential engineer Theodor Landsberg (1847-1915) could call the design for the Ernst-Ludwig-Brücke in Worms (1897-1900) a “crowning achievement of unified architecture and art of the engineer” (Landsberg 1896, p. 58) – even if the elegant steel construction by the company Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG, Werk Gustavsburg (M.A.N.), seemed to live a parallel live to the ponderous bridge towers by the architect Karl Hofmann (1856The culmination of this obvious state of dichotomy was marked by the Hohenzollernbrücke in Cologne, erected for the German railways between 1907 and 1911 as a replacement for the overburdened Dombrücke (1855-59). Meanwhile however, opinion about this way of ‘artistic enhancement’ for engineering structures was

changing and – despite the bridge’s combination of ‘German arches’ and colossal neo-Romanesque bridgeheads by the architect Franz Schwechten (1841-1924) being only the most dramatic interpretation of a common disposition – heavy criticism had already arisen prior to its inauguration:

The foreigner, coming by boat from Mainz, besides the grey towers of the cathedral and the tangled rooftops of the holy Cologne is welcomed now by the imperious donjon-like bridge towers in ‘strictly Romanesque’ style […], which have been patched by Schwechten to the marvellously bended iron arches of the new Dombrücke. Cloister motives and middle age merlons, loophole-like window openings and all romanticism from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ in combination with the gigantic achievement of modern engineering! A people of dreamers? (Walter Cohen 1910, qtd. in Bohny 1927, p. 82) Figure 1: Hohenzollernbrücke, Cologne, 1907–1911; (postcard, Cologne: Verlag Heinrich Worringen, 1912)


The dichotomy between engineers and architects was by no means restricted to a certain bridge type. For instance, one of the most important German suspension bridges of this time, the Kaiserbrücke in Breslau (1908– 10), likewise showed intensely elaborated decorative portals and abutments. Thus, it did not give a better example for a corporative design philosophy based on the idea of emphasising its technological character. But, only a short time later the architects’ ‘treatments’ of important bridges showed the beginning of a noticeable change towards a growing involvement in the engineer’s work. Bridge historians may be aware of the important role played in this process by the Hindenburgbrücke between Cologne and its suburb Deutz.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century Cologne possessed a fixed railway bridge over the Rhine. The street traffic, however, had to cross the river for another half a century mainly via a floating bridge. Finally, in 1898 a competition for the erection of a steady road bridge was carried out between four companies. Yet, none of the proposed designs met with the approval of the city council, and it lasted another decade before the invitation for a new competition could be announced in 1910. Due to the fact that this time the city arranged an open contest, all important German steel construction companies took part in this prestigious challenge. Furthermore, to enhance their chances, they cooperated with numerous well-known architects, such as Peter Behrens (1868-1940), Theodor Fischer (1862-1938), Bruno Möhring (1863-1929), or Hans Poelzig (1869-1936);

Franz Schwechten also took part, looking for the chance to cooperate on another bridge in Cologne.

Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009

In order to create a contrast to his neighbouring Hohenzollernbrücke, the call for bids clearly favoured suspension bridges; furthermore, it explicitly asked for a design in accordance with the edifice’s technological character:

The main focus of the artistic treatment has to be that it appears as an engineering structure and that the form of the superstructure system fits harmonically into the townscape under aesthetic aspects. (Mehrtens 1913a, 457) This unusual approach towards a bridge in an urban context was outstandingly unconventional for a time when public opinion was still mainly following the clear position that “construction is not art” (Scheffler 1907, p.

10). Nevertheless, a surprising two thirds of the 29 projects that had been handed in by 1 April 1911, the final date of the competition, tried to fulfil the goal of an engineering structure without conventional ‘architectural treatment’ (Hertwig 1922, p. 75). However, the jury was once again unable to declare univocally a winner, and thus a third competition was enacted in July 1912 by the city council of Cologne between the five prizewinning companies. Handing in 30 different projects with another 21 variants, the participating companies once again delivered a bulk of possible solutions. Finally, in March 1913, the project Freie Bahn, jointly designed by the companies M.A.N. (superstructure) and Grün & Bilfinger (substructures) under consultancy by the Cologne architect Carl Moritz (1863-1944), were named as winners of the competition.


Even though the Hindenburgbrücke, erected from 1913 to 1915 on the basis of the winning project Freie Bahn (Fig. 6), was destroyed in the Second World War, it still is referred to in many books dealing with bridges to this day. Widely unknown however is the fact that the edifice had a dramatic back-story, known to contemporaries as the Cologne Bridge Quarrel (Cölner Brückenstreit).

The Cologne Bridge Quarrel developed subsequently after the jury had come to its decision. Just some days after the outcome of the competition had been publicly announced, the company Deutsch-Luxemburgische Bergwerks- und Hütten AG, Abt. Dortmunder Union (Dortmunder Union) and its consulting architect Peter Behrens sent a letter of protest to Cologne’s mayor Max Wallraff (1859-1941), which was also published in several newspapers. In this open letter they claimed that the winning project Freie Bahn was to a large extent a

copy of their own proposal Kunst und Technik from the competition of 1910/11:

All merits, for which the prize-winning design is praised now, such as clear roadway [freie Bahn] and free outlook on river and bank, further and above all the system of a self-anchored suspension bridge with equalised horizontal thrust, which we had utilized as the sole company in the first competition, further the arrangement of the stiffening girders as solid-walled, externally placed and only about 1.20 m above the roadway protruded plate girders, further the solid-walled chain, in short all outstanding features as well as even the particular details are directly copied from our design. (Mehrtens; Bleich 1913/14, p. 214).

The aforementioned design Kunst und Technik was an elegant suspension bridge with slender and plain steel towers. Even though it had been complimented on its thorough detailing and dynamic appearance, Behrens and Dortmunder Union nevertheless had been expelled from the price-winning group in the competition of 1910/11 for some smaller breaches of the tender conditions (Mehrtens; Bleich 1911/12, p. 406). Their deep frustration caused by this decision, which furthermore resulted in the loss of the chance to compete in the final

competition, must have culminated in the moment they saw the renderings of the winning design Freie Bahn:

At first glance, it actually looked more than similar to Kunst und Technik (Fig. 2). This observation was shared by

many contemporaries, such as Dresden’s city architect, Hans Erlwein (1872-1914):

The fact that both companies kept their projects free of all architecturally decorative additions and only operatively designed the constructive necessities evokes in both projects a common trait of plain beauty.

(MAN c, p. 4) Figure 2: Renderings of the designs Freie Bahn, 1913, and Kunst und Technik, 1911; (MAN e, Pl. 1) Unsurprisingly, M.A.N., by far the most renowned German steel construction firm in those days, protested sharply against such a publicly announced severe accusation. Nevertheless, both the jury and the Cologne city council assembly were concerned with this topic in extraordinary meetings. A few days later, on 2 April 1913, the parliamentarians and the jury members had been convinced by the arguments of M.A.N. and supported once more the jury’s original nomination. At the same time M.A.N. obtained an interim injunction, forbidding further public statements by Dortmunder Union in connection with this matter. Subsequently all involved companies and architects brought charges against the other party in different trials. Finally, the whole case was referred to the regional court of Cologne to find a clear and univocal decision.

Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009 Both companies mobilized an impressive armada of all in all not less than thirty experts, among them many of the most famous German architects and engineers of their times. But, even before the trial had started, Georg Mehrtens (1843-1917), the grand old man of German steel construction, could easily disprove the main accusation of copying technical details in a thorough study published in the Deutsche Bauzeitung (Mehrtens 1913b). Nevertheless, the trial went on, as Peter Behrens and Dortmunder Union changed their strategy by accusing M.A.N. and Carl Moritz now mainly not any more for plagiarism in technical but in artistic respect.

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