WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – FRITZ VON DER SCHULENBURG
For all the energy, imagination and hope invested in Haus Schminke, one would think that Fritz Schminke and his family deserved more than just six years of peacetime living in their dream home. The house is one of the greatest examples of the modernist house in Germany, a rare gem designed by architect Hans Scharoun that was lifted far beyond the ordinary by a powerful sense of dynamism and originality. It was the result of an extraordinary collaboration between architect and patron, totally suited to the way that the Schminke family wanted to live. Yet the house soon became a key character in a drama that encompassed tragedy and loss and was, in a small way, emblematic of the pain that arose from Hitler's war and then the division of Germany itself.
The Schminke family had wanted to build themselves a house on the green edge of Löbau – a town east of Dresden, not far from the Czech and Polish borders – for years. The Schminkes owned a pasta factory called Loeser & Richter, which produced the famous Anker brand. Fritz Schminke's father, Wilhelm, planned to build a house on a site close to the factory, overlooking fields and a valley, around 1910 and even began laying out a garden and excavating the ground for building. Yet the Great War, followed by the Depression, meant the house was never more than a dream until after Wilhelm's death, when Fritz took control of the noodle factory at the age of just twenty two, along with his brother.
A few years later Fritz Schminke married Charlotte Orlamuender, from Magdeburg, and four children, three girls and a boy, followed from 1924 to 1930, when their youngest daughter Helga was born. By then the Schminkes had revived the idea of building a new home by the Anker factory and turned to Hans Scharoun to turn the dream into reality. The Schminkes had been aware of Scharoun after seeing his work exhibited in two exhibitions in Stuttgart and Breslau and, although Scharoun had not built a great deal, were soon seduced by his ideas.
Fritz and Charlotte Schminke asked for 'a modern house for two parents, four children and one or two occasional guests'. They wanted the house to connect to the garden and draw in natural light and wanted a building that was simple to maintain with 'just one helpmate for the housewife, convenient floorings, easy to clean bathrooms…. and facilities to maintain the flowers that were of the housewife's special interest.' Beyond this Scharoun was given a good deal of freedom to develop an ideal home.
The design of the house went through a number of phases, as Scharoun sought to work with the orientation of the site and the floor plan to create the ideal solution. Scharoun was a great believer in working from the inside outwards, creating spaces that were highly tailored to his clients needs, but he also stressed the importance of context, working in harmony with the land and light. Ultimately, Scharoun pushed the house into the sloping site at an angle, so that the elongated house thrusts outwards - like the bow of a ship - into the garden with the main living room, adjoining solarium and curvaceous deck-like terraces all drawing in light and making the most of the views across the countryside.
Haus Schminke largely turned its back upon the nearby factory, while the dynamic flavour of the design was lifted not only by the sinuous, cantilevered terraces, but also by placing the main staircase on a diagonal to the rest of the house. This visual cue helped to gently steer visitors from the double height entrance hallway towards the living room, where the drama of house and view unveiled themselves.
Haus Schminke was dubbed the 'pasta steam boat', with its white, sleek, energetic form reminiscent of the liners that Scharoun would see leaving port for New York from his home town of Bremerhaven as a child. Although a highly intellectual architect, the maritime elements suggest a certain playfulness, with porthole windows in the playroom and miniature bull's' eye windows with crimson glass - which were woven into the Schminke children's play - punctuating the door to the terrace. The Schminke children themselves had trouble pronouncing 'Professor Scharoun' and called him 'Pfefferhuhn'.
Threaded throughout the house was a vibrant ingenuity, with a thoughtful considered approach to practicality, flexibility and ergonomics. A basement level was devoted to storage, services and a ventilated potato room. On the ground floor, services, a hard working 'Frankfurt Kitchen' and maid's quarters were positioned to the rear of the house, behind the entrance hall. To one side of the hallway was the playroom, which could be separated off with a sliding curtain, while four colour coded storage lockers were designed for the children. Sliding doors also allowed the main living room at the heart of the house to be lightly separated from both the hallway and the large conservatory at the far end of the house that led out onto the lower terrace. To one side of the conservatory Scharoun designed an internal winter garden, complete with miniature pond, to indulge Charlotte Schminke. 'One is exposed to nature and its elements, but is not at their mercy,' said Scharoun.
Upstairs was devoted to the bedrooms, with a generous guest room at one end and just two rooms for the children at the centre of the house, one for the girls and one for the Schminkes' son. These were seen as functional spaces, while storage was provided by a long line of cupboards lining the hallway outside. Yet the parents' bedroom was a more generous space and also served as a second sitting room, connecting with the first floor terrace and again making the most of the views. Scharoun responded to the Schminke's request for separate beds by positioning two beds almost in parallel but facing in opposite directions, while a curtain could used to separate one from the other.
'It is the enthusiasm, the fascination that makes Haus Schminke so unique,' says Christoph Hess, chief executive of Löbau based lighting company Hess AG and co-chairman of the Haus Schminke Board of Trustees. 'Every architectural detail is connected to the Schminke family story. The uniqueness is apparent to all those who see the house. It is by far and wide one of the most outstanding examples of twentieth century German architecture. Each square metre of Haus Scminke offers something special waiting to be discovered and understood.'
Completed in 1933, Haus Schminke was Scharoun's masterful response to the site and the needs of the family. It was, for Scharoun, his favourite building and ranks with his Berlin Philharmonic concert hall of 1963 as one of his finest. It stands alongside Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House for its international influence and – given the Nazi regime's increasingly hostile attitude to Modernism – became a rarity in Germany. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Scharoun stayed on in Germany before and during the War, earning a living surveying bomb damage in Berlin. Denied commissions for many years, his career enjoyed a late flowering in his 60s and 70s.
But the Schminke family story took a decidedly tragic turn. The Schminke's son was killed in the war and Fritz Schminke himself was taken prisoner and held by the Russians.
The house itself was requisitioned by the Russian Red Army in 1945 and later confiscated, after the Schminkes were declared war criminals because the Anker factory had supplied pasta to the German army. The house and factory were lost; Charlotte and Fritz left Löbau and moved to Lower Saxony and started life again but later separated. The house itself served for decades as a youth club, with a constant lack of funds fortunately preventing any major damage or changes to the fabric of the house, even as a procession of children and teenagers passed through. In the 1990s Fritz Schminke's surviving children agreed to pass full ownership of the house to the city of Löbau and in the late 1990s the house and garden were carefully restored, with the help of Scharoun's archive of documents and plans. The roofing was replaced, services updated, the original windows reconditioned and an extension removed. Haus Schminke opened to the public in 2000, with visitors even offered the rare treat of spending a night at the house.
Fritz Schminke's two daughters, Helga and Erika, helped bring back key pieces of furniture to the house, including the day bed in their parent's bedroom. 'Helga said that although the house had been restored to its former glory, it was no longer her home,' says Christoph Hess. 'At the time she turned down the offer to spend the night there. The memories of the difficult times after the war and the consequences for the Schminkes were no doubt too painful. It wasn't until 2007, more than 56 years after she left the house, that Helga, together were son's family, finally slept in her parent's house again.'
Haus Schminke – www.stiftung-hausschminke.eu – + 49 (0) 35 85 86 21 33