Breslau, Germany

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