The Jahrhunderthalle (Centennial Hall) of 1911–1912 in what was formerly the city of Breslau in Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) was a major milestone in the development of the enclosure of large public spaces by reinforced concrete structures. It was by far the largest of several pavilions built in Scheitniger Park (now Szczytnicki Park) to house the 1913 centennial of Germany’s liberation from Napoleonic rule. The Jahrhunderthalle was intended to serve as an exhibition space, an assembly hall, and a venue for concerts, sporting events, and other entertainment.
Wroclaw in southwestern Poland fell to the Prussian armies of Frederick the Great in 1741, to eventually be renamed Breslau. By the early twentieth century the city had become a major center for the arts, in part because the Expressionist architect Hans Poelzig was director (1903–1916) of the Royal Art and Craft Academy. Breslau’s largely German population then exceeded half a million, and the government decided to create what it called a “metropolis of the east.” Accordingly, the architect Max Berg, director of Frankfurt am Main’s City Building Department, was appointed City Building Commissioner. In Frankfurt, he had been deeply involved with the construction of the city’s Festhalle (1907–1909), designed by Friedrich von Thiersch; that experience was significant for his work in Breslau. He had also designed the development plan for Berlin.
Beginning in the second half of 1910, Berg conceived and developed the structure of the Jahrhunderthalle. Engineering calculations were made by Gunther Trauer of the City Building Department. Trauer described it as an “incredibly clever” design, although he admitted that it was “unusually large and challenging” for him. Nevertheless, he rose to the challenge, and the building is evidence of an admirable symbiosis between architect and engineer. Together they produced two feasibility studies—one that employed a fire-resistant steel structure and another of reinforced concrete—and prepared two sets of contract documents. Because the City Board of Directors was adamant that the exhibition building should be “no-risk [and] fire-proof,” the former structural system was virtually precluded because of the bulkiness of concrete-cased steel. On the other hand, such a huge reinforced concrete space had never before been built, and conservative members of the board doubted its practicability. However, after six months of deliberations Berg’s reinforced concrete proposal was accepted in June 1911 on the condition that the cost be reduced by 10 percent.
The client’s insistence on functional flexibility had generated difficulties for Berg. Conventional wisdom pointed to a long space for an exhibition hall and a
central plan for the other events. The first design was based upon a longitudinal plan, but that was soon modified to become a central circular space with four semicircular apses that are reached through enormous arches. As built, the hall encloses almost 60,000 square feet (5,600 square meters) of floor space. It provides standing room for 10,000 people; the seating capacity is only 6,000. The 137-foot-high (42-meter) central space is roofed with a 212-foot-diameter (65-meter) dome, formed by 32 half-arches of reinforced concrete—left exposed for acoustic purposes—springing from the massive poetic substructure to a tension ring at the apex. In its day it was the widest monolithic dome in the world. The vast interior is lit by four tiers of curtained clerestory windows, supported by the half-acrches and continuous around the entire structure, which diminish in height as they rise. That gives the dome the appearance of a series of concentric rings. The apses, also structurally formed from reinforced concrete half-acrches, have walls glazed in the same manner, adding to the stunning impact of the space. Although the structural system was revolutionary, the spatial organization (and the overall form that it yielded) had a Renaissance quality, very like the Church of S. Maria della Consolazione (1503) at Todi, Italy, by Donato Bramante and Cola di Caprarola. Berg’s inspiration was complex: he drew upon the spirit of Gothic architecture and the esthetic theories of the Frenchman Durand and the Hollanders Lauweriks and Berlage. The monumentality of the huge building evokes the romantic, unbuildable Beaux Arts projects of Boullée and Ledoux; at the same time, Berg avoids ornament for its own sake. The result is that, artistically, the Jahrhunderthalle denies the çonfident inventiveness of its engineering; at least, that is the impression from outside the building.
The contract for the reinforced structure was won by the Dresden firm of Dyckerhoff and Widmann; the Lolat-Eisenbeton Company of Breslau undertook the smaller associated buildings. Work began at the end of August 1911; the foundations were completed two and a half months later, and the building was completed in the amazingly short time of fifteen months, well before the centenary celebrations were due to begin.
The Jahrhunderthalle was a landmark building, and while some architectural writers dismiss Berg’s work as “equivocal,” others believe that the “structural audacity” he demonstrated in this magnum opus had great influence on the German Expressionist architects (including Poelzig) who flourished between 1910 and 1925. Indeed, Jerzy Ilkosz (1994, 81) has asserted that it “was the first major achievement in the pantheon of Expressionist architecture.” Following World War II the Germans were expelled from Breslau and in August 1945 the city, again named Wroclaw, reverted to Poland. The building was renamed Hala Ludowa (the People’s Hall).