Origins of Modernism: Doors

Picture11By COD 2013 Berlin Conference Scholar Sarah Corbitt, Assoc. AIA

Among the varied sites that the Origins of Modernism Conference visited, attendees saw doors from a range of eras, and thicknesses. In general, the earlier the door, the narrower it is. Modern German doors are noteworthy for their thermal resistance and precise engineering.

From the first building that the Origins of Modernism Conference visited, the Deutsche Bank on Charlotten Strasse, we saw heavy, well-insulated and highly engineered doors. Take, for example, this door, which is a simple bathroom door in the Deutsche Bank. The width of the shoe, across the toe, is 3.5”. That makes the depth of this heavy, metal door approximately 5”, and that’s for an interior door separating a hallway from a bathroom. A 5” deep door for this situation is something I’ve never seen installed in an American building. German door manufacturers take their task seriously!

The heartiness of a German door shows up in many other buildings. At Fat Koehl Architekten’s  new, modern, cooperative apartment building, the front office door is similarly robust.

The apartment features heavy doors for all exterior openings, including a back door that is as thick as the window frame next to it.

The most special door in the Fat Koehl Apartments & Offices is an unusual balcony door that was designed to meet building codes which do not allow permanent overhangs above the street. The movable balcony was an architect-led solution.

Other apartments, such as Flotwell 2, have fine door detailing on the interior. This floor seam shows the detail of an expandable door that can be used to tailor the uses of the apartment. The seam was carefully installed to minimize its appearance. Cork insets provide for expansion and contraction of surrounding materials.

Careful detailing shows up on the exterior of the Umweltbundesamt, Dessau, where exterior siding, colored panels and trim work are continued on the nearly invisible door.

This large facility, housing workers in an environmental department for the German government, hosts different types of doors which differentiate between programmatic uses. This includes one of the thin-profile doors we saw in Dessau,  in the storefront entry doors at the main entrance to this playful building. The thin-profile metal and glass entry walls contrast with heavier, wood-and-colored-panel parts of the building.

We saw a similar use of light, glass-and metal entry door at the Unite d’Habitation, 1957, by Le Corbusier, Berlin. The light-filled and light-looking entry door contrasts with the weighty concrete of the rest of the building.

Inside the building are apartment doors which play with scale depending on the door usage – these smaller doors are for milk and grocery delivery, and equipment repair.

Back to Dessau – the town’s second thin-profile door is in the historic Siedlung Törten, a neighborhood of apartments designed by Walter Gropius, Dessau, 1926 – 1928. While the door is thin, it’s also heavy-duty metal, and clearly is meant to keep out cold weather. With prism glass inset at its side, it’s also an extremely private door. Privacy is an important design constraint here, on a street with lots of other close-by neighbors.

Pre-cast concrete headers – perhaps the floor above? – sheltering the recessed doors on these houses are part of the general method of manufacture that the Bauhaus teachers were exploring.

Another slim, metal door is just around the corner, at the one-step, front entrance of Richard Paulick and Georg Muche’s Stahlhaus, Dessau, 1926 – 1927. Here, the design intent is to provide housing that’s functional and affordable.

Dating from the same decade, but from a different design approach – using cast-in-place concrete with sweeping, fluid lines – the wooden front door of the Einsteinturm in Potsdam, 1919 – 1924, is solid and welcoming. The door, like the building, shows the work of a human hand.

These well-considered and well-installed examples demonstrate a range of final products when dedication to expressing the design intent is carried through to the handiest (pardon the pun) of handled openings, the door.


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