The IG Farben Building: Construction and Architectural History

When in 1925 Germany’s biggest chemical concerns amalgamated to form a “Community of Interests”, in naming their new creation they invoked their common roots in a sector whose importance had grown steadily since the Industrial Revolution: the manufacture of textile dyes.[1] Thus the Community of Interests of Dye-making Corporations plc (IG Farben) came into being—a body whose newly established monopoly status was to be given outwardly visible form through the construction of a prestigious new headquarters in Frankfurt.

Following disagreement over the building’s design and location, Carl Duisberg, Chairman of the IG Farben Supervisory Board and former General Director of Bayer, favoured delaying construction. However, he failed to persuade his board colleagues. Finally, it was massive protests by local residents that stopped building work on the site originally purchased by IG Farben between the Main River and the Gutleut Quarter. The city thereupon offered to swap the site of the now disused psychiatric clinic (“Bedlam Castle”) for the riverside location, and in 1927, the exchange was effected; land acquired near the neighbouring Grüneburg was added to the new site.[2]

There was disagreement not only over the building’s location but also over its architectural planning. On the one hand there were the determined opponents of high-rise architecture who argued that the site was unsuitable for anything resembling a skyscraper. On the other, Carl Duisberg and CEO Carl Bosch, who had both travelled much in the United States, precisely favoured the architectural style epitomised by the General Motors Building in Chicago. After much discussion, a restricted competition was agreed upon: architects of established international reputation were asked to participate.[3] Offers were invited for an expandable complex with 23,000 square metres of usable floor space, to include laboratories and business offices, canteens and conference rooms—in short, everything that the headquarters of an internationally active concern might need. 

Architects Paul Bonatz, Fritz Höger, Jacob Koerfer, Hans Poelzig, Ernst May and Martin Elsaesser were invited to present proposals to the board. IG Farben’s own planners even submitted six designs. Finally, the board decided in favour of Hans Poelzig (1869-1936), whose design featured a main building with a casino—the usual term for a canteen back then—in the rear. An elongated, slightly curved structure that was nevertheless six storeys high, Poelzig’s proposal for the main building convinced both the pro- and anti-high-rise factions.

Execution and Design

In realising his plans, Poelzig employed methods that had already proved their worth in constructing America’s skyscrapers: modern cranes, the latest supply and material utilisation techniques, and steel scaffolding. The massive building was also to have a steel skeleton. This supporting structure was first assembled on the ground, then hoisted into place by specially designed cranes, and finally clad in stone.[4]

The contract agreed with the city stipulated that the building had to be finished within three years, and so up to a thousand workers toiled to complete the project—in part at night.[5] The fast work-pace resulted in mistakes being made particularly in the initial stages: two workers were killed when one section of the building collapsed.

Besides accidents and the strict building schedule, Poelzig was also plagued by the board’s frequent demands for alterations to his original plan. So that streets could be laid around the complex, the main building was erected significantly further back from the main road than planned. In addition, the large cross-wings planned at either end of the building were scrapped and only the six smaller cross-wings existing today were built. In the interior too, changes had to be made to the original plans. For instance, the concern’s exhibition hall was relocated on the ground floor—creating the rotunda in its present form.[6] Poelzig was also instructed to use IG Farben’s own cements, plasters and paints. Room allocation issues and internal disputes between IG Farben departments also delayed completion of the interior.[7]

Despite these considerable difficulties, the building was completed on time in 1931. Under Poelzig’s direction, not only an architectural masterpiece but also a monumental expression of IG Farben’s monopoly status had been created.

The 250-metre-long, seven-storey main building with its six radially placed cross-wings was the largest building constructed in the Weimar Republic and remained until the 1950s the biggest office complex in Europe.[8] In deciding on this design, IG Farben was consciously building for the future. The building’s clear lines and plain façade, combined with the “serial character” of the six cross-wings, have been declared “the ultimate expression of industrial rationalism.”[9] Known locally as “the Grüneburg” (an allusion to the history of the land on which it stood),[10] the building’s “serious elegance”—expressed through its ultra-modern interior design, its location on a large open space, and its monumental dimensions—made it the model for other company headquarters built later in the 20th century.[11]

Poelzig’s second wife, Marlene Moeschke-Poelzig, herself a sculptress and architect who had collaborated on the building’s overall design, was responsible for modelling the interior and structuring the room layout.[12] This was not the couple’s first joint project: having founded the architectural office of Poelzig together in 1920/21, they made a name for themselves with such projects as the Grosses Schauspielhaus in Berlin—rebuilt after the Second World War but finally demolished in 1988.[13] The concern headquarters’ interior design was decidedly rational in concept: the southerly orientation of the offices allowed for optimal use of daylight.[14] Glass partitions, mechanical ventilation, telephones, document lifts, paternosters, waste paper and rubbish chutes, and running hot water—not to mention linoleum flooring with cork underlay for sound insulation—made the office tracts into modern high-tech work spaces for the building’s 2,000 or so employees.[15] And of course, this “Palace of Money”[16] impressively demonstrated the concern’s economic might.

Until it was broken up in 1933, Hans Poelzig was a member of the “Ring”, an association of leading modern architects that is today often associated with the “Bauhaus style”. Its members included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Hans Poelzig was not only an architect; he was also an artist. Some of his original paintings have been purchased by the Goethe University and are now displayed on the upper floor of the casino. In this building, in seminar room 1.812, there is also a mural by the Frankfurt artist Georg Heck (1897-1987), commissioned in 1929 by the IG Farben board. Shortly after it was completed in 1934, the National-Socialists had it painted over, for their ideology vilified Heck’s art as “degenerate”. Since 2006 however, after having been painstakingly uncovered and restored, this mural too has been on display as it was originally created.[17]

The permanent exhibition From the Grüneburg to the Westend Campus, located in the IG Farben Building, does homage to the architect Hans Poelzig and contains much additional information on his life and achievements as artist and architect (on the 2nd floor next to cross-wing Q4).

© Frankfurt Humanities Research Centre

Literature and Links:

  • Cachola Schmal, Peter: “Der Kunde ist König – Zum Einfluß des Bauherrn I.G. Farbenindustrie AG auf die Entstehung der ‘Grüneburg’”. In Meißner Werner/Rebentisch, Dieter/Wang, Wilfried (eds.): Der Poelzig-Bau. Vom IG-Farben-Haus zur Goethe-Universität. Frankfurt am Main 1999; 47-59.
  • Drummer, Heike/Zwilling, Jutta: Von der Grüneburg zum Campus Westend. Die Geschichte des IG-Farben-Hauses. Frankfurt am Main 2007.
  • Ehringhaus, Sybille 1992: “’…übrigens im ausgesprochenen Gegensatz zu Auffassung eines Corbusier…’. Marlene Moeschke-Poelzig, Bildhauerin und Architektin, 1894-1985.” In Frauen Kunst Wissenschaft 13/1992, 56-68.
  • Hammbrock, Heike 2005: “’Also los und Mut!... Die Werkstätte, unsere Werkstätte, muss eingerichtet werden’. In Forschung Frankfurt 2/2005, 70-76.
  • Meißner Werner/Rebentisch, Dieter/Wang, Wilfried (eds.): Der Poelzig-Bau. Vom IG-Farben-Haus zur Goethe-Universität. Frankfurt am Main 1999.
  • Rhein, Johannes: “Immer wieder das Gleiche: Noch einmal zur Geschichte des schönsten Campus Deutschlands...” In Zeitung des Allgemeinen Studierendenausschusses der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt 01/2013; 5-10.
  • Ronneberger, Klaus: “Architektonische Räume des Wissens. Eine historische Betrachtung zur Universität Frankfurt.” In Forum Wissenschaft 1/2015, 32. Jahrgang. Marburg 2015; 12-15
  • Santifaller, Enrico 2014: “Das Poelzig Projekt: Im Geschmack der Zeit, in Frankfurt/Main.” In Bauwelt 14/2004, 4.
  • Schillig, Christiane: “Das übertünchte Arkadien. Ein Wandgemälde in Frankfurts Universität.” In Monumente. Magazin für Denkmalkultur in Deutschland. Oktober 2007.
  • Wang, Wilfried: “Das Bürohaus des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts oder Über den Abstrahierungsprozeß der Arbeitssphären.” In Meißner Werner/Rebentisch, Dieter/Wang, Wilfried (eds.): Der Poelzig-Bau. Vom IG-Farben-Haus zur Goethe-Universität. Frankfurt am Main 1999; 36-46.
  • Sander, Ferdinand: “Georg Heck, Wandgemälde (Casino-Gebäude 1.812).”

[1] See Rhein 2013; Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 24.
[2] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 36.
[3] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 36; Ronneberger 2015, 13.
[4] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 38.
[5] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 38.
[6] Cachola Schmal 1999, 52f.
[7] Cachola Schmal 1999, 52f.
[8] Drummer/Zwilling 2007, 40;  Ronneberger 2015, 13 f.
[9] Wang 1999, 44.
[10] Cachola Schmal 1999, 47.
[11] See Wang 1999.
[12] Ehringhaus 1992, 58; Hammbrock 2005, 75; Santifaller 2014
[13] Hambrock 2005.
[14] Drummer/Zwilling, 40.
[15] Cachola Schmal 1999, 55f.
[16] Theodor Heuss 1929, quoted in Rhein 2013, 5.
[17] See Schillig 2007.