Fall 2013, Constructs

Achtung: Berlin

German capital keeps its grip on the architectural imagination

Berlin has long commanded international attention, having served as a stage for frenzied cultural experimentation in the 1920s, capital of the Third Reich, and then as the Cold War fault line between East and West. The fall of the Berlin Wall put an end to the city’s role as a battlefield for ideological confrontation and dramatically transformed its physical and psychic profile.

The title of a conference held last February at the Yale School of Architecture, “Achtung: Berlin,” implied a need to refocus our gaze on this history-laden metropolis. To that end, the forum organized by Stanislaus von Moos, visiting professor of architectural history, brought together architects, historians, and cultural specialists along with current and former Berlin government officials in what was often tension-filled proximity for a lively three-day series of twenty-four presentations.

Many of the participants referred to Berlin as an incomplete city still in flux, with Hartmut Frank, of Hamburg’s Hafen City Universität, citing the continuing relevance of German art critic and historian Karl Scheffler’s 1910 remark: “Berlin is a city damned always to become and never to be.”

Ravaged by war, Berlin has been the scene of repeated attempts to exorcise the past by destroying architectural remains. Those ruins that manage to persist are the source of often disturbing and ambivalent memories. The latest architectural destruction, the demolition of the former East German parliament on the site of the razed Hohenzollern imperial palace, leaves a void at the very center of Berlin. Not surprisingly, this void and how to fill it was a recurring subject of the conference.

Berlin has also been a prime showplace for the deployment of architecture as a political weapon. It is the place where Nazism planned its constructed apotheosis and where the United States and the Soviet Union vied against one another not only with military might but also with competing architectural visions of their respective ideologies in urban space and built form. But as Yale Professor Emeritus Kurt Forster stressed in a keynote address, Berlin had been as much a graveyard as a haven for lofty architectural dreams since its “roster of unbuilt projects and discarded ideas far exceeds the list of actually realized ones.”  

Most recently, design restrictions imposed by city authorities in the 1990s thwarted the construction of several innovative proposals. This led architects from Germany and abroad to berate Berlin for losing a chance for bold experimentation in unification’s aftermath. The conference reunited many of the leading players in this debate, bringing past combatants back into the ring for one last round that found them aged and somewhat less vigorous but eager to recall what once was at stake for Berlin and architecture at large.  

Old controversies flickered along with newer ones. Architectural theorist and urban planner Leon Krier got things off to an incendiary start by delving into Berlin’s most notorious uncompleted schemes with an impassioned defense of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer. Krier repeated his long-held views that Speer’s plan to remake Berlin had been unjustly assailed because of the architect’s involvement in Nazi war crimes, and that it was time for the grandiose designs to be admired, irrespective of the abhorrent political regime they were created to serve.   

Berlin was not the only European capital where monuments to a dictator’s power were envisioned. Yale Slavic literature professor Katerina Clark spoke about Moscow as the “Fourth Rome” and how a Soviet counterpart to Speer, Boris Iofan, concocted his own gargantuan plan for this supposed mecca of cosmopolitan enlightenment. Clark noted that even though both cities were under totalitarian rule, the Nazi capital was short on the creation of new housing, whereas Moscow showcased new dwellings to present itself as the culmination of the Marxist-Leninist narrative of historical progress.

After the war the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) worked to promote the rebuilding of Berlin according to a far less monumental paradigm, one that was more organic and nongeometric in form, rejecting orthogonal arrangements as an oppressive political tool. Eric Mumford, of Washington University, reviewed the CIAM efforts and their advocacy by architects Hans Scharoun, director of building for postwar Berlin, and Walter Gropius, who served an advisor to the United States occupying forces.

As a result, postwar Berlin developed in ways that Albert Speer could never have foreseen, with celebrated architects from abroad designing housing projects to respond to the needs of Turkish immigrants. Esra Akcan, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, examined commissions for the 1984−87 international building exposition IBA and subsequent renovations of these projects. They involved some 5,000 apartments, including a building by Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA at Checkpoint Charlie with larger units for Turkish families, Rob Krier’s provision of T-shaped apartments for Turkish families, and O. M. Ungers’s design of an immigrant housing block in Kreuzberg.  

Yet such changes in the Berlin cityscape didn’t mean a complete end to state-sponsored monumentality. Comparisons between ongoing monumentality in Paris and Berlin were drawn by Ernst Seidel, who cited the Grands Travaux built under French President Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s as part of a conscious bid to revive national grandeur through cultural endeavors. Seidel noted that other, newer Berlin projects were different in that they arose in response to a historic event, namely the collapse of Communism leading to reunification.  

Von Moos and Cooper Union Dean Anthony Vidler addressed the key role that ruins, as well as grand monuments, play in Berlin’s collective consciousness. Columbia University’s Andreas Huyssen aptly described Berlin as a focal point for our age’s pervasive memorial culture, a place where architecture is expected to deal with the vexed challenge of incorporating multiple temporal layers. Some of the city’s ruins serve to exorcise the past while others attempt to preserve it. The lyrics of the East German national anthem had it that Germany—and Berlin—had “risen from the ruins.” But now the remnants of the Berlin Wall that buttressed the Communist regime have largely disappeared. On the other hand, there are spots that have been explicitly transformed into ruin monuments, as in the case of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, which was hit by Allied bombs in 1943 and conserved in its wounded form.  

A case study of a ruin and its partial reconstruction—the Museum of Natural History’s east wing—was presented by architect Terese Erngaard, of the Basel/Berlin firm Diener + Diener. Allied firebombs struck the late classicist building in 1945 and it languished, overgrown with vegetation, in East Berlin for over half a century. Diener + Diener chose to reconstruct the façade, completed in 2010, out of poured-concrete casts that left opaque traces of the windows. All of this was done to leave a ghostly reminder of history’s impact. Architect David Chipperfield achieved a related effect with his recent renovation of Berlin’s Neues Museum.

German conceptual artist Thomas Demand, who builds and then photographs paper and cardboard reconstructions, threw a different light on Berlin’s ruins with a discussion of his own projects involving the “contaminated” sites of mass murders and sexual abuse. While these were not Berlin-specific, he cited the city’s many locales associated with Nazi rule and other toppled political systems, including the former Reich Chancellery, showing how the spot is largely unmarked and currently occupied by a playground and a Chinese restaurant. Demand then moved on from pondering his own artworks to examine the reconstruction of the Hohenzollern imperial palace, or Schloss, in the heart of Berlin.  

The German Parliament has voted to recreate the building, which the Communists tore down in 1950. But resurrecting the monumental four-story quadrangle, with 1,200 rooms and a soaring dome at one end, has proven an enormous challenge. “The how is replacing the why,” Demand said about the project, for which the German federal government is expected to pay at least 700 million dollars. The meticulousness of the reconstruction is, in his view, subverting any debate about the need for it in the first place, as well as how it will be used once completed.  

The reconstruction is being based on photographs of the original, mirroring Demand’s conceptual work and serving as a reminder of what the artist called “the deficiency of our memory.” For New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, the Schloss site stands as a physical manifestation of Berlin’s confused identity.  

Rebuilding the palace in its original form was not the sole option to resolving this confusion. Jan Liesegang, an architect and activist who works with the design collective Raum Labor, presented an alternative proposal for the Schloss site—constructing a jagged black rock crystalline mountain. The Raum Labor group further attempted to “banalize” the official locale by offering tours of the stripped-down skeleton of the former East German parliament building, which attracted 45,000 people, and creating a temporary four-room hotel where visitors could stay.

Volker Hassemer, formerly a Berlin senator for urban development, espoused a more concrete vision for the place where the Communist legislature once stood, stressing that cities are not collections of architects but of people with dreams and desires. Hassemer saw a current vision leading not toward a religious or national political embodiment but a reconstructed Schloss housing the Humboldt Forum, which he said would serve as a place of encounter between cultures.   

 Notably missing from the conference was any discussion of the new official architectural projects that arose to embody the unified German republic, such as the Band des Bundes, which includes the new federal chancellery and offices for the Bundestag. In a roundtable discussion on reinventing Berlin, moderated by Kimmelman, the University of Michigan’s Robert Fishman highlighted this gap, pointing out, for example, that nobody had even mentioned that Berlin was the capital of Germany.  

Under its rule, the East German government certainly wasn’t prepared to let anyone forget that fact. It undertook a series of state-sponsored projects, including the grandiose boulevard of palatial apartment houses known as the Stalin-Allee that made references to designs of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German architects like Hans Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Marco de Michelis, a historian at University IUAV of Venice, zeroed in on how this use of architectural propaganda followed Moscow’s lead and how classicism prevailed until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev pressed architects to come back to reality and build better, cheaper, and faster.

The Stalin-Allee and other new constructions in East Berlin have both impressed pedestrians and loomed large on East German movie screens. Film historian Katie Trumpener, of Yale University, looked at how cinema was used by the Communist regime to project an image of a gloriously rebuilt capital, filled with consumer goods that purported to rival what was on offer in the Western sector of the city.
Just like architecture, furnishings such as couches and kitchen appliances became weapons in the Cold War. Greg Castillo, who teaches architectural history at the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed how competing exhibitions organized by the opposing sides in Berlin—held long before the famous kitchen debate between Nixon and Khrushchev in Moscow—showcased such furnishings. In the East, a chair that had taken a neoclassical turn, along with building design in the Stalinist era, later went Modernist along with those buildings after the thaw. Meanwhile the United States shipped over sleek household goods from Knoll to demonstrate capitalism’s appeal.

Such East-West competition faded after unification of the divided country in 1989, when Germans embarked upon an impassioned, often vituperative debate about how to recreate the once and future government seat. This echoed another heated discussion that erupted in Berlin, when the Reichstag building was constructed after the founding of a unified German empire in 1871. Perhaps because of the ways architecture has been exploited for political aims in Berlin, every choice relating to the style and form of individual buildings, and the urban setting as a whole, has sparked strong responses, each seen to be embedded with political significance.  

The reunification of Berlin posed an extraordinary planning challenge that some at the conference saw as a missed opportunity, others as an objective met. Architect Peter Eisenman lamented that municipal restrictions blocked his 1992 plan for a 34-story tower in the contorted form of a Möbius strip on the site of the legendary Grosses Schauspielhaus, designed by Hans Poelzig in the 1920s. “Did it fit into its surroundings?” Eisenman asked. “No,” he bluntly conceded. Nonetheless, Eisenman termed it an unmistakable and appropriately theatrical icon to the memory of director Max Reinhardt, whose family owned the land. Kurt Forster called Eisenman’s tower one of many unique Berlin projects that did not “see the light of day, while nondescript buildings elbowed their way into place.”

Hans Kollhoff, another architect with both built and unbuilt Berlin designs, took a contrasting position, showing images of his unrealized scheme to bring a kind of Rockefeller Center development to the Alexanderplatz. He disputed the importance of height limitations in shaping post-unification Berlin, saying that how the buildings performed at the street level was far more relevant. Following up with a counterpunch, Berlin architect Jürgen Mayer H.—whose designs arise from the intersection of architecture, design, and new technology—said he only managed to win a competition in the post-unification period because the jury head, Kollhoff, was absent when the panel made its decision.  

Architectural historian Vittorio Magnago-Lampugnani, of ETH Zurich, provided a helpful review of the recent past to provide context for the much-disputed municipal design restrictions. He said that the many famous architects who worked in Berlin during the Cold War—for example, in the 1957 Interbau international exhibition of architecture, in the Hansa district, including Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier—may have represented the “crème de la crème.” However, there were “too many prima donnas without a conductor” and the ensemble didn’t hold together.  

The Hansa district had a random layout and stylistic pluralism intended as a democratic response to the rigid formality of the Stalin-Allee of East Berlin. It was just this arbitrariness and incoherence that the post-unification municipal building director, Hans Stimmann, sought to avoid in applying the concept of “critical reconstruction” and using the historical city grid as a prerequisite of city planning. Rather than promoting the design of more freestanding iconic structures like Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic Hall, Stimmann tried to resurrect old streets and squares.

Now seventy-two years old and retired from public service, Stimmann spent some ten years in the 1990s seeking to ensure preservation of a local architectural tradition by requiring masonry façades that followed traditional height limitations and historic street patterns. His approach sparked an uproar of criticism at the time, with art historian Heinrich Klotz warning that Stimmann sought to create a “New Teutonia” through architecture that recalled Speer. In 1991, Rem Koolhaas quit a jury reviewing plans for Potsdamer Platz and accused Stimmann of provincialism and “a massacre of architectural intelligence.” Daniel Libeskind spoke darkly of “authoritarian and repressive edicts.”

At Yale, Stimmann addressed these charges head-on, proclaiming: “I was the bad guy.” But he also sought to defend himself, saying that while his critics had deemed him conservative, he originally trained as a bricklayer/engineer and was a longtime member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party. Eisenman watched silently from the third row as Stimmann complained that the urban-design process was complicated by the need to restitute large parcels of property to pre-war owners, and that he had nonetheless striven to restore an honest relationship to history in Berlin wherein its traces were neither extinguished nor forgotten.

Regardless of what was actually built after unification, Berlin is left with huge gaps in its urban fabric, and the conference also grappled with how to deal with the city’s overwhelming sense of emptiness following wartime destruction. In the 1970s, O. M. Ungers and Rem Koolhaas approached the dilemma of Berlin’s vacant terrain in a plan for the suburban Lichterfelde area. Sébastien Marot, of the Ecole d’Architecture at Marne-la-Vallee, examined how their plan viewed Berlin as a green archipelago in which it was no longer necessary to fight against depopulation. Some areas were selected for preservation and development, while others were allowed to fall into decay and neglected lagoons of nature.  

Such decline led to a consideration of Berlin in terms of an unlikely bedfellow, Detroit. These two shrinking cities are examples of underpopulation and fragmented urban territories. Ole Fischer, of the University of Utah, questioned whether Berlin could learn from the Motor City, which grew in wealth and prominence as the capital of the U.S. automotive industry. Detroit, Robert Fishman recounted, was planned as a linear city and may now be realigned along new transit lines, with some areas allowed to lie dormant or be turned into urban farms. In Berlin, related developments have occurred with the creation of the Natur-Park Südgelände, built atop an abandoned railway yard, and some former highways being planted with forests.

Dealing with these abandoned and empty spaces throughout the city is the preoccupation of Regula Lüscher, who became Berlin’s director of urban development in 2007. A current focus is the old Tempelhof Airport, built on 750 acres between 1936 and 1940, which is no longer used for aviation. The city held an ideas competition and has begun using the site for public recreation and considering transforming it into a vast public park, as well as constructing a major new public library building there.  

“Berlin is growing again,” said Lüscher, who expects the current 3.5 million population to grow seven percent by 2030. Meanwhile the city is seeking to manage this growth without losing the special qualities that make Berlin what she called “a carpet of lots of green interwoven with void space.” She expressed hope that new ideas to engender municipal cohesion would be put forth as part of the next international building exposition, planned for 2020.  

In the midst of these discussions, Koolhaas, another former contender in the angry debates over architecture in Berlin, appeared at the conference via video projection from Doha, thereby avoiding face-to-face confrontation with Stimmann, with whom he had sparred bitterly some two decades earlier. With his bald head looming God-like on a screen in the architecture school’s darkened subterranean auditorium, Koolhaas opted for a seemingly detached overview.

The Dutch architect argued that since 1989 Berlin had lost its unique aura, becoming a city like any other. Speaking from a comfortable distance on the other side of the globe, he stated coolly that it wasn’t worth arguing about the ways Berlin could have become a more architecturally vibrant venue since market economy forces and other changes have inevitably rendered the city what it is today. For many at the conference, Koolhaas seemed to have the last word. And although his assessment may have some validity, “Achtung: Berlin” itself showed that the German metropolis still exerts a unique hold on the architectural imagination.