August Endell was one of the foremost exponents of Jugendstil, the German variant of Art Nouveau which eschewed the pompous architectural historicism of the dying 19th century for entirely new forms inspired by nature and in thrall to the project of a beautifying totality. Among Endell’s most famous creations were the (sadly now gone) Elvira photo studio in Munich, which was incidentally the first company established by women in Germany, and the (happily still surviving) Hackesche Höfe complex in Berlin, the city where he was born on this day in 1871. And earlier today, while I was standing on the street looking at the green trees on rainy Sonnenallee and thinking about writing this post in honour of Endell, a taxi drove past with an ad on its side for the Trabenbahn (trotting course) at Mariendorf, Berlin, another of Endell’s designs. A sign, surely. Of what I’m not sure.
But as well as making these admirable contributions to the city, Endell also stood back to observe the entire urban organism. In fact Endell started with aesthetic theory which then drove him to become a (self-taught) architect and designer, rather than the other way round. In his writings, particularly the 1908 book Die Schönheit der großen Stadt (The Beauty of the Metropolis) Endell reveals himself to be an acutely sensitive observer, his rapturous prose finding visual delight in things that many city dwellers unthinkingly pass by every day. He advocates a close reading (or “slow seeing” as he terms it here) of both natural processes and the built environment. And this in a time when commentary on urban life was overwhelmingly focussed on the negative – overcrowding, pollution, lax morals, aesthetic mediocrity, alienation, anxiety.
In 1905, following his divorce from Else Plötz (later Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whom we bumped into again just a couple of days ago), Endell published a series of articles for Die Neue Gesellschaft, a journal of progressive thought issued by Heinrich and Lily Braun. The piece below is entitled “Frühlingsbäume” (“Spring Trees”), and describes a phenomenon now under way again in Berlin. Maybe it’s because I grew up in an environment where deciduous trees were an introduced minority in the landscape, but for me the annual miracle of watching life spring from slumbering branches never gets tired. Endell’s reverence for this miracle remains vivid over a century later.
The time of young green growth. Nothing is so oft extolled, nothing strikes people as so “poetic”. But unfortunately our poets can rarely see; what nature now offers in tremendous abundance is so much, so wondrously limitless, and what people actually see of this is so ridiculously little, nothing more than what others have seen and extolled before. The spring comes overnight, says the blind city dweller, who knows nothing of the slow miracles of the bud and the young leaf, and for all that he’s proud that he, the enlightened, the rational, can still perceive this miracle. A meagre miracle. Speed that the eye cannot apprehend, a true urban miracle that somehow recalls electric trams and similar fine things. And yet the greatest spring miracle is precisely the long duration, the transformation that constantly surprises anew. It’s not that a bare tree bears foliage from one day to the next that is amazing. No, the wonder here is how the bare winter tree assumes a hundred, a thousand forms before it becomes the full, mature summer tree. Slowly, slowly swell the brown buds, their colour casts off the deadness of winter, they lighten a little, their skin becomes tauter. And already the tree is a different tree, because all over it the thick nodes are revitalising the bare twigs. Now the tip of the bud breaks out, the dark bract slowly parts and brighter membranes become apparent, fine and slender. The nodes assume spherical forms with glowing points at the tips. And should we approach the tree from afar, it looks as though a barely visible shimmering web has been spun about the dark, naked twigs. Each day the buds swell a little more, bright soft green appears at their tips, the web about the tree becomes thicker, more lustrous. Now the young leaves break free of the bud, already complete in the old form, but still folded up, forming loose green spheres with rounded bracts. And yet again the tree is a different tree. The gentle tenderness is gone; for all their youth the leafy spheres have something powerful about them, they are no mere embellishment to the twigs as the buds were, rather they provide a counter-balance. The spheres expand, lose their shape, the leaves diverge, forming large cohesive patches that continually grow toward each other. Yet you can still see the blue or grey sky between them. The tree is a different tree. In winter it was thin and bare and hard in its lines, dull in colour. Now it is light and full and round in form and mellow in green. A completely new creation that barely reflects its kinship with the older form. And it grows fuller and lusher all the time, the colour deeper and stronger, the twigs disappear, a large spherical green cloud floats above the dark trunk.
But that is the merest outline. There are not words enough to describe all the transitions, to make them so vivid that you can see them within. I can only stoke your curiosity, entice you to look at one tree, closely, day by day. For weeks it is a new being with each new day, changing a hundred times, surprising the attentive observer with its constant turns.
Now we have not one genus, but many, and each is different in character from the others, and even within the same genus each tree is different, each has its own personal features, its own idiosyncrasies, accorded to it and it alone. Watch closely and you will soon realise that you can have friends and favourites among trees, just as you can among people. But then you have to see them individually, and not try to see them all at once. See slowly. See, and wait. Soon, here and there, oh wonder, you will gravitate to one another and experience joys unknown. The only element of confusion is the profusion that diverts the attention, tires the eyes. The mad jubilant turmoil of spring.
First let us examine the major forms of trunks and branches. We can still make them out. We encounter different types all the times. But you shouldn’t try and categorise them botanically. We could soon accomplish this, and yet we would have seen nothing. There are trunks that rise steeply without curves, cast out strong individual branches and then suddenly a cloud of thin straight twigs. Just next to it another, it too with a tall trunk and a few strong limbs, but the limbs are bent outwards, and the twigs are hunched with hard, sharp angles, like reaching fingers. Still others are heavy and round in the trunk, suddenly casting out numerous branches in all directions, that later branch out in myriad ways to form a thick sphere. Their crowns assume all manner of forms, they almost always resemble clouds, heavy spherical forms, angular, irregular low cowls that leave the supporting branches completely free. Then the heavy curtain of the fir tree, the dark shuttlecock of the pine, the long waving hair of the birch. You can see all of this in a thousand transformations here, on our streets, in the ornamental gardens and in our public parks. And that is nothing but the briefest induction into seeing. When we learn to pay attention – that’s where the finer pleasures begin. Before us a giant tree, the trunk leaning just a little to the left, its main branches extending back to the right in forceful oscillation, as though the wind had bent the twigs the other way, and the tree had stood its ground. This gives rise to wonderful, powerful lines, bold, passionate, extensive, and there is a wonderful contrast of strength and tenderness when the giant takes the first green veil. Next to it a beech trunk, all in silvery grey, smooth, with unusual furrows; a few metres above the ground it suddenly leans to one side, here there was once a branch which has been sawn off, and now the bulky trunk grows bolt upright, into the sky, its growth all the more powerful for the severe deflection that precedes it.
And then the green! How meagre is language, with just one miserable word to denote its infinite variety. It begins with a bright, almost white green, but another shade has an almost yellow shimmer, another bluish, others light brown and pink. Gradually the colours deepen, the surface of the leaves tautens. Some begin to shine, many remain dull, others are covered with white down, still others have fine tufts at the edge. Almost all are different on the topside and underside. The shade changes from day to day, from tree to tree. Even in the long rows of streets where every tree is the same genus and the same age, a few stand out, stunted by chance, and provide charming contrasts to their comrades. What soft, fine beauty and what profusion – what pleasure. And then through this wonderland steals the dream of blossoms.