Fuck Fachwerk Fascism
Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Framework Houses (1959–1973) compiles and serializes an array of timber-frame (Fachwerk) homes and buildings photographed in the German city of Siegen. Houses in this architectural style might seem more quaint and folky when held apart from a typological collection rooted in location and economic history. Siegen, in the larger region of South Westphalia, is of note for its once booming mining industry. Most of the buildings photographed by the Bechers were built during this boom, with construction dates ranging from 1865 to 1914. I begin here in order to mark the specificity of the Fachwerk as it appears in the work of the Bechers. Though Fachwerk takes myriad forms outside of this context as it far predates this period of construction and spans beyond the national borders of Germany, the Bechers’ mark its significance within a small cross section of architectural and cultural history. This specificity should be held against the usage of Fachwerk as a generalizable trope, now an international cliché, standing in for a German folk past to serve the ends of nostalgic nationalism.
The Bechers force these structures to be seen within their social context, rather than as a generic and artisanal architecture that floats freely as a national symbol. To serialize like the Bechers is to expose how a normative language is established through aggregations that often serve to reduce the specificity of constituent parts. Robbed of particularity, Fachwerk becomes malleable as a symbol for fascist evocations of German culture.
Outside of the Bechers’ photographic systematization and demographic research, Fachwerk maintains an “authentic” folk-charm more easily. The Bechers disconnect this architecture from cultural fantasies of folk-purity by stitching these structures to their location, their inhabitants, and the professions of these dwellers. The book version of Framework Houses begins with a table that includes this data, showing that real people live in these structures. Most are miners. They are not an abstract Volk.
The miners, and their likely exposure to the slow toxicity of copper and iron mine shafts in the Siegen region, corrupt a romantically free-floating conflation of the timber-frame house, its keeper, and an idealistic connection to a folkloric ecology of Germany. The Fachwerk house does not contain the peasant farmer of folktales, but the industrial worker whose lungs accrue the seeds of various cancers each day in a pit before they return home. But perhaps this caricatured dark polarization isn’t even necessary to break with the romanticization of this architecture, a caricature of “German-ness” itself. The Bechers typify the residents of these homes without flattening them into tropes by labeling their profession. This, in turn, does work to wear on fascist national fantasies of a unspecified folk Germany peppered with the timber-frame homes of good, traditional, and healthy (read: “pure”) Germans.
The continuing relevance of these associations, for better or worse, is affirmed in recent art using the Fachwerk as a site of warped folk revisionism and as a stylistic trope signifying “The German.” A perversion of the folkloric or the national should take place in channeling these images to avoid the re-affirmation of fascist propaganda and its favored cultural signifiers.
It might seem obvious, but the link between Fachwerk and fascism is worth re-concretizing lest it become an overgeneralization prone to easy dismissal.
Speaking to the Nazi predilection for the propagandistic usage of a “folk” (thatched or half-timbered cottages resembling alpine chalets) architecture, architectural historian
Barbara Miller Lane writes in her book on architecture and politics in Germany from 1918 to 1945:
“It [the folk-style] was employed, moreover, in practical kinds of buildings which had previously been considered the special province of modern architecture, such as the broadcasting station and garage […]. The folk style was thus the most widespread of the officially encouraged styles, and for many Nazi officials it reflected a genuine ideological commitment. But in many cases it also reflected the cynical side of Nazi architectural propaganda; for when it was used indiscriminately, without much reference either to location or function, the folk style was intended to create an impression of rural life where none existed.”1
The Fachwerk became a kind of idealizing mask to fascist ends; a very dark pastiche. What the “impression of rural life” attempted to engender was a romantic pastoralism linked with a hyper-masculine and technophobic return to the land. The ideal German triangulated in this formula is certainly not the Bechers’ Fachwerk dweller who remains statistically present but visually absent from their images of framework homes. Most did not work the land in the conservative sense, herding cows and harvesting golden wheat. The miner works beneath the surface of the land, in its rotting bowels that heave rot back onto those who frequent its tracts. It’s an un-idealized work that, as the Bechers show, is also a reality of the Fachwerk. A fascist “repatriation of urban workers to the soil” goes too far in the miner, who plumbs its leaky depths, blurring firm Nazi boundaries between clean & dirty, above & below, and between a rigid self & its poisoned permutation.2
What leaky threats might corrode the nationalistic signifying strength of the decontextualized Fachwerk? Mold that creeps into the thatched roof, moss the crawls up the timbers, fungus thriving in the moist eaves… These light incursions, though parts of rural life, work to undo the unblemished fantasy of architecture stripped of its social and ecological realities. Natural intrusions on regulated construction, such as the flood or the swamp, pollute the cleanly bordered subjectivity of the Nazi male. In Male Fantasies Vol. 1, Klaus Theweleit writes through the symbolic composition of Nazi thought, detailing the linkages between this brand of fascism and a compositional purity rooted in a hatred of women and otherness.
“Besides avoiding dirt associated with contact and secretion, people regard anything that is only ambiguously part of themselves as unclean. By analogy, they are disgusted at the prospect of contamination, heterogeneity. When confronted with such contamination, they become afraid of falling prey themselves to ambivalence and amorphousness, of losing themselves, of being harmed by a process of amalgamation, insertion, addition, extraction, seepage, or infiltration. That is why things like pumps, funnels, spouts, and pipes are always suspect, and why people so often name commingling and in-between states when asked for examples of dirt […].
People’s third fear, after contamination by dirt, is of decay. They turn away in fright when something at the bottom moves toward the top, or something at the top moves toward the bottom; also when a structure dissolves (or the reverse): a rotting mushroom, or a nose appearing on a knee.”3
The fertile edge of some fetid, marshy pool fed by gaping drains and rusty pumps corrodes Fachwerk and, in turn, slowly breaks the edges of fascist cultural fantasies that it can be warped to prop up both historically and in the present. Racialized folk nostalgia and its flattening purity should be left to rot.
Barbara Miller Lane, “Nazi Architecture,” in Architecture and Politics in Germany 1918–1945. p. 198–199.
Ibid. p. 186.
Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies Vol. 1. p. 385.