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Oskar Kaufmann

Berlin, Germany
1 of 3

Oskar Kaufmann (February 2, 1873 - September 8, 1956) was an Hungarian-Jewish architect. He was an expert of construction and design and played an active part in Berlin since 1900. Among his most well-known works are the Krolloper in Berlin, the Volksbuhne or "People's Theatre" and the Renaissance Theater, both located in Berlin, the Neue Stadttheater in Vienna and the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv.

Kaufmann was the son of a wealthy and prestigious Jewish family in Hungary. He began to study architecture at a university in Budapest. This created tension with Kaufmann's parents, who wished him to become pianist. The tension was so great that Kaufmann's parents refused to support him financially, so that he had to leave Hungary and continue his education in Germany, at the Technical High School of the Grand Duchy located in Karlsruhe. Ironically, he supported himself by working as a pianist.

In Berlin, Kaufmann got a job in the architectural firm of the well-known theater construction firm of Bernhard Sehring. Kaufmann was assigned to construct a new theater in the city of Bielefeld. It was his first solo project, and was influenced by the work of Hermann Billings, whom Kaufmann never actually met in person, although they lived in Karlsruhe at the same time. The influence of Alfred Messel's works can also be seen in the building's design. From 1905 until 1908, Kaufmann worked on small projects in Bernhard Sehring's office. Then he got in contact with theater entrepreneur and director Eugen Robert. Robert commissioned Kaufmann to help him in the construction of a new theater he was planning, as Robert had been deeply impressed with the theater Kaufmann had built in Bielefeld. In connection with this and other works Kaufmann constructed while in Sehring's office, Kaufmann established his own architecture firm in 1908.

The Hebbel Theater that Robert commissioned Kaufmann to build, gained Kaufmann notoriety and widespread recognition for the first time. However, his perceived inexperience still counted against him, as he was not invited to make a bid on the renovation of the Bremerhaven City Theater. Only after one of the three architects invited to make a bid, Max Littmann, bowed out of the running, was Kaufmann invited to take his place. His work on the Bremerhaven and Hebbel theaters, as well as his selection by the Charlottenburg jury, all served to give Kaufmann a strong reputation as a theater architect. When the decision to exclude Kaufmann from a competition to redesign the Royal Opera House in Berlin on technical reasons, because he had not received German citizenship in his thirty years in Germany, was met with scorn and disagreement in the press and among architectural experts, his newfound reputation was only confirmed.

With his construction of the new City Theater of Bremerhaven, Kaufmann met the young Hungarian architect Eugen Stolzer. Kaufmann made him chief partner in his architectural firm in 1916. Stolzer and Kaufmann designed many of their buildings together, and had extremely similar styles. Because he lacked German citizenship, Kaufmann was not drafted into the German military during World War I. He used this time to further his architectural firm. Also during this time, Kaufmann received a bid, never realized, from Max Reinhardt, head of the influential Freier Volksbuhne (Free Folk Theater), to build a new ballet theater. It is not clear, whether Reinhardt seriously wanted Kaufmann to build the new theater or not. From then on, Kaufmann decided to take private commissions.

Some of Kaufmann's first private commissions consisted of a series of villas built in and around Berlin. But as they did not prove financially profitable enough for his firm, he returned to theater building, and constructed two notable theaters during this time, the Theater am Kurfurstendamm, and the Krolloper. The latter took nine years to build, from 1920 to 1929. The Machtergreifung, or seizure of power by the Nazi Germany Party in 1933, cause Kaufmann's partner, Eugen Stolzer, to flee to Palestine in May of that year. Kaufmann himself followed Stolzer to Palestine in September. A Moscow-based theater group, the Habima group, wished to build a new theater in the city of Tel Aviv. The project was first given to another German architect, Erich Mendelsohn, but the bid was withdrawn after the Mendelsohn showed too little interest in the project. The new project then was offered to Kaufmann, who soon accepted, and moved his family to Palestine. In addition to this theater, he built a cinema for the city of Haifa, and a row of private apartments. Because of the Palestinian economic situation, Kaufmann was forced to return to Europe in 1939. His many contacts helped him on his journey, but the outbreak of World War II kept him from reaching his intended final destination, England.

After September 1940, Kaufmann and his wife holed up in Bucharest, Romania. However, the rising pressure put on the Romanian Jewish community by the fascist government of Ion Antonescu forced Kaufmann to move once again, to Hungary. The situation for Jewish war refugees in Hungary was better than in its surrounding countries, but still grim. Kaufmann's wife was not able to survive the harsh conditions and died in Hungary in 1942. Kaufmann avoided the mass deportation of Jews which took place in Hungary in 1944, but he was without income and found his financial situation worsening.

In 1947, the new Hungarian government, decreed that any artist over the age of 60 would receive a state pension. Kaufmann was also able to continue his architectural work through government commissions. When Kaufmann died at the age of 79 in 1956, he had produced two more theaters. His final work, which was completed four years after his death, was the renovation of the Madach Theater in Budapest.

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Berlin, Germany
  1. Wikipedia
lacuna, February 20th, 2017
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