During my stroll through Christmassy Bremen yesterday, I also made a detour through the Böttcherstraße (the name means barrel maker street, because this was where the barrel makers were situated).
The Böttcherstraße is one of our main tourist attractions. And like most tourist attractions, you usually don’t go there as a local. However, I made an exception yesterday, because the Böttcherstraße is also home to a wonderful craft shop which sells stunning Christmas decorations. And since I had my camera, I also took the chance to take some photos of the striking expressionist architecture.
The Böttcherstraße has an interesting history, because what used to be a narrow street of medieval houses up to the early 20th century was turned into a massive work of art by the coffee baron Ludwig Roselius. Unless you’re from Bremen, you’ve probably never heard of Ludwig Roselius, though you’ve likely drunk one of his inventions at some point, because Ludwig Roselius was the man who invented decaffeinated coffee. This innovation made him very, very rich and Roselius decided to invest most of those riches into becoming a patron of the arts. In the early 20th century, he bought up most of the existing houses in the Böttcherstraße, where the headquarters of his company Kaffee Hag happened to be, and had the architects Edouard Scotland and Alfred Runge as well as sculptor Bernhard Hoetger redevelop it into an art street between 1926 and 1931. Roselius’ brands Kaffee Hag and Kaba (cocoa powder) are still around and used to be synonyms for decaffeinated coffee and hot chocolate respectively even back when I was a kid in the 1980s.
The Böttcherstraße is quite unique not just for its expressionist brick architecture, but also for the fact that its houses, murals and statues tell so many stories. The official website has an explanation of the houses and the related stories. Böttcherstraße is a challenge for any city tour guide – I should know, cause I’ve been one.
The English Wikipedia article makes much of the fact that Roselius had a thing for “Nordic values and art” and sympathized with the Nazis. Yeah, so did lots of people at the time. That whole “Germanic heritage” thing was really fashionable, too, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now I’ve always disliked blaming works of art for the political convictions of the men and women who created them. Never mind that official Nazi cultural politics never accepted Roselius contribution to “Germanic art” – in fact Adolf Hitler explicitly called the Böttcherstraße an example of “degenerate art”. The Nazis really, really did not like abstraction and modernism, even of the more ornate sort.
There are examples of a Germanic/Anglo-Saxon focus in the artwork of the Böttcherstraße (more on that later), but it’s not Nazi architecture (we actually have very little of that in Bremen, mostly bunkers and the like. Most of what is frequently mislabeled Nazi architecture in Bremen is actually from the Weimar Republic). So let’s enjoy it for what it is, a beautiful example of Weimar Republic art and architecture, which shows an alternative path that Western art and architecture might have taken, if the Bauhaus and modernism hadn’t taken over everything:
A look into the Böttcherstraße from the Martinistraße end. The Robinson Crusoe House is on the left, House Atlantis on the right. Note the stained glass windows and the Christmas decorations.
A detail of the gilded carvings on the Robinson Crusoe House. For those that don’t know, Robinson Crusoe’s family is mentioned to be from Bremen on the first page of the novel.
Bernhard Hoetger’s sculpture “Night” and an aquarium with live fish in front of the Robinson Crusoe House. The companion piece “Day” is on the other side.
Bremen’s prettiest advertisement, stained glass windows at the Robinson Crusoe House advertising Ludwig Roselius’ decaffeinated Kaffee Hag brand. Back in the 1920s, this was considered shockingly vulgar in your face advertising. The slogan means “Kaffee Hag protects heart and nerves – Day and Night – After dinner, a cup of Kaffee Hag”. The red heart in the top middle window is the logo of Kaffee Hag to this very day.
I got really lucky, because I happened to pass through the Böttcherstraße at around 12 o’clock, just in time for the famous Glockenspiel. The Böttcherstraße Glockenspiel consists of 30 bells of Meißen porcelain and ten revolving panels depicting famous explorers and conquerors of the ocean. I took photos of some of the panels, thought my personal favourite, the one devoted to Graf Zeppelin and Dr. Hugo Eckener, had been taken down for restoration.
This is the House of the Glockenspiel. The half-turret on the right has a section that turns to display varying images of travel pioneers and explorers. The bells themselves may be seen on top. The dark blob next to the Christmas tree is the Bremen hen, because according to legend Bremen was founded when a group of explorers trotting through the marshlands of the River Weser noticed a hen nesting and decided that if a hen could nest there, the spot was dry enough to build a lasting encampment. That was over one thousand years ago, so the hen was obviously on to something.
The Böttcherstraße Glockenspiel with its thirty bells made of Meißen porcelain. This is actually the third set of bells. The original set was damaged in WWII, the second set was installed in 1954, the third in 1999. The 1999 refurbishment was financed by the bank “Sparkasse”, so the Glockenspiel now plays the Sparkasse jingle before starting up in earnest to much amusement from the watching tourists.
The ten panels of the Glockenspiel demonstrate the “Nordic” focus of Ludwig Roselius more than anything else in the street, because his selection of notable explorers and conquerors of the ocean is rather biased, to say the least. For Roselius, notable explorers are almost entirely Nordic men and so the Glockenspiel commemorates Vikings, Islandic pirates, Anglo-Saxon steamship pioneers, German u-boat captains, American, British, Irish and German aviation pioneers and Graf Zeppelin. People of Latin descent, let alone people of Non-European descent were not noteworthy explorers according to Roselius. Christoph Columbus is the only non-Nordic explorer depicted, probably because even Roselius could not ignore him, because – duh – he is Columbus after all. Alas, my attempt to photograph the Columbus panel came out too dark – the ghost of Ludwig Roselius was probably at work there.
The first panel of the Glockenspiel depicts Leif Erikson and Thorfinn Karlsefni, two Viking explorers who made it to the New World long before Columbus.
This panel depicts American steamship Robert Fulton, who built the first steamer to cross the Atlantic.
This panel depicts the aviators Herrmann Köhl, Freiherr von Hühnefeld and Colonel Fitzmaurice who were the first to cross the Atlantic in East-West direction in a plane called “Bremen”. The “Bremen” is now exhibited at Bremen airport.
Another look along the festively decorated Böttcherstraße with the Paula Becker Modersohn House on the left and the St. Petri House on the right. The gargoyle like statue sitting on a balcony above the entrance to the courtyard of the Paula Becker Modersohn House depicts the God of the Winds. The building at the far end is the Robinson Crusoe House again.
A view up the courtyard of the Paula Becker Modersohn House, named after the famous Worpswede artist. The interior houses an art museum partly devoted to Becker Modersohn’s works.
This fountain in the so-called “arts and crafts court” of the Paula Becker Modersohn House depicts the Seven Lazy Brothers, based on a fairy tale by Wilhelm Hauff about seven brothers from Bremen who were so lazy that they invented all sorts of technical innovations just so they wouldn’t have to work. I’ve always loved the story, because laziness as an engine of innovation is simply a cool idea. The photo shows only five of the brothers, the other two are out of sight.
Another view of the fountain in the “arts and crafts court” of the Böttcherstraße. You can see another lazy brother sleeping underneath the basin, while the tap depicts Bremen’s most famous fairy tale, the Bremen town musicians. The shop in the background was a glassblower’s shop for as long as I can remember, but now the glassblower has given way to a candy shop.
The Paula Becker Modersohn House is full of nooks and crannies and courtyards. Here is a typical archway with a wrought iron gate and colourful glass decorations.
Bernhard Hoetger’s Madonna in the courtyard of the Paula Becker Modersohn House. This is one of the very few explicitly Christian pieces of art at the Böttcherstraße. Opposite of the Madonna sits another Hoetger sculpture entitled Leda and the swan. It’s quite explicit and probably embarrassed many parents trying to explain it to their kids.
The House of the Seven Lazy Brothers with the brothers standing at attention, not lazy for once, on the gable.
Bernhard Hoetger’s stunning “Lightbringer” above the Market Square side entrance of the Böttcherstraße. The relief obviously depicts St. George fighting the dragon, though it was called the Lightbringer, because it was installed in 1936, when Christianity wasn’t all that popular.