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Berlin: The Lost Opportunity

Architektur in Berlin: Jahrbuch 2000

edited by the Architectenkammer, Berlin
Hamburg: Junius, 176 pp., DM68.00


How to rebuild a world city in the wake of man-made catastrophe is a notion that is just beginning to dawn on New Yorkers. But the infinitely resilient burghers of Berlin have been doing so for more than half a century, starting in the aftermath of World War II and then starting over again following the collapse of the Wall and the regimes that built and backed it. Rarely in modern times have there been reconstruction projects as far-reaching or lavishly funded as those of post-apocalyptic Berlin, and never have they been so fraught with symbolism or, in recent years, so wrought with soul-searching.

The immediate postwar aims of the West Germans and their American patrons were essentially the same as those of the East Germans and their Soviet patrons. Both superpowers wanted their respective sectors of Berlin to advertise the benefits of their political systems, and no expense was spared in translating those ideologies into built form. But since those parallel programs were being conducted in large part for the greater glory of their sponsors on the world stage, little worry was devoted to whether those schemes addressed the local past, which in large part was simply ignored.

We are reminded of that purposeful amnesia in the several chapters on postwar rebuilding in City of Architecture, Architecture of the City: Berlin 1900–2000, the richly illustrated catalog of an unfortunately underreported exhibition held at that city’s Neues Museum last year. It is further regrettable that the organizers of Berlin’s most recent building boom did not have the benefit of such an instructive guide to the city’s successive twentieth-century incarnations. Such knowledge might have better informed their design decisions and perhaps could have prevented some of the dreadful mistakes that have been made there during the last decade.

Architects and planners in 1950s Berlin felt free to do as they pleased in part because Hitler’s capital had been bombed into a veritable tabula rasa. Such wholesale departures from regional practice as the socialist neoclassical apartment towers of Stalinallee in the East (which appropriated motifs from Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Feilner house of 1827–1829 in Berlin) and the Corbusian towers-in-a-park of the Hansaviertel neighborhood in the West (including Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation of 1956–1959) only emphasized that the city had never fully meshed into a cohesive urban fabric. Spread out over almost 350 square miles, the twenty-three component boroughs of Berlin did not metamorphose into an organic metropolis in the way the villages of London or the faubourgs of Paris did. Indeed, Berlin’s lackadaisical sprawl, low-to-medium-rise profile, medium-density settlement patterns, and wildly disparate atmosphere from one part of the city to another make it more akin to Los Angeles than to any other European capital.

Schinkel, Germany’s greatest nineteenth-century architect, served as Prussia’s general building director and constructed much in and around Berlin, but the depleted finances of the state during and after the Napoleonic Wars and a parsimonious king circumscribed the scope of his efforts. The city’s rapid development after Germany’s unification in 1870–1871 and industrialization in the decades that followed was left largely to individual speculators, who expanded the Prussian Hauptstadt into a true metropolis within a generation. Berlin’s Wilhelmine growth spurt lacked Schinkel’s grand overview, one that was shared earlier in the nineteenth century by John Nash in his Metropolitan Improvements for London and later by Baron Haussmann in his boulevardisation of Paris. Significantly, the closest Berlin ever came to a comprehensive master plan was Hitler’s megalomaniac dream of turning it into a new über-capital called Germania, the pathologically overscaled plans for which are likewise excellently documented in City of Architecture, Architecture of the City. In view of that frightening precedent, it is no wonder that the federal and local governments insisted on a consultative and participatory approach rather than a single authoritative vision for the most recent rebuilding of Berlin.

Determined to avoid the mistakes planners made in the recent past, such as ignoring traditional Berlin building formats like the Hinterhof (a back courtyard around which apartment houses were grouped), those responsible for supervising post-reunification development imposed a series of guidelines to restore the city’s distinctive character. The size and proportion of city blocks, building heights, cladding materials, and the equilibrium between residential and commercial zoning were all considered for their impact on the new urban scene. Now that much of the scaffolding has come down all over Berlin, and the construction cranes that made Potsdamer Platz look like a grove of steel sequoias have been taken away, it is possible to draw some conclusions about where this colossal enterprise has led. For although the general quality of design in recent small projects is quite decent—a number of the housing schemes, schools, and recreational buildings illustrated in Architektur in Berlin: Jahrbuch 2000 are better than the present norm in the United States—the great undertakings of the past decade have been overwhelmingly disappointing.

One of the most memorable architectural images of the nineteenth century is a plate from Schinkel’s hugely influential automonograph, Sammlung architektonischer Entwürfe (Collection of Architectural Designs). That exquisitely outlined engraving depicts the view from the entry loggia of his Altes Museum of 1822–1830, in the heart of Berlin. Looking out over the city’s principal square, the Lustgarten, through a portico of classical columns that frame the Baroque royal Schloss on one side and Schinkel’s neo-Gothic Friedrich-Werder Church on the other, this is a vision of civic harmony of the highest order. By placing one of the first public art museums at the very center of the Prussian capital, Schinkel and his patrons affirmed the exalted role of culture in the life of the state. And whatever bellicose tendencies that nation and its successor regimes would later pursue, and however much subsequent German architects and patrons might pervert the classical tradition, Schinkel’s great building still stands as testimony to a unified and unifying sense of urbanism.

Today, at a similar vantage point in another part of Berlin—in the vast, airport-like entry hall of Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler’s Neue Gemäldegalerie of 1992–1998, part of the Kultur-Forum just southwest of Potsdamer Platz—the outlook is very different indeed. There spread out before one is a transformed cityscape that for all its ostentation and incoherence might as well be in Texas as in Brandenburg. In the foreground lies an ill-assorted array of attention-grabbing cultural buildings that predate reunification—including Hans Scharoun’s neo-Expressionist Philharmonie of 1960–1963 and Staatsbibliothek of 1967–1976, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s high modernist Neue Nationalgalerie of 1965–1968, and James Stirling’s postmodernist Wissenschaftszentrum of 1984–1987. That jumble of idiosyncratic structures, a veritable world’s fair of unrelated oddities, has now been joined by Hilmer and Sattler’s spectacularly mediocre and stylistically nondescript New Picture Gallery.

For decades, the highlight of many people’s visits to Berlin was a trip out to the suburb of Dahlem to see one of the world’s finest and most wide-ranging collections of old master paintings in the old Gemäldegalerie. Provisionally housed since World War II in Bruno Paul’s unremarkable but congenial Asia-tisches Museum of 1914–1923, the pictures felt particularly accessible in that low-key and uncrowded setting. At its distant remove from the city center, the museum was blessedly free from the hordes of indifferent tourists of the sort dragooned mindlessly through the Louvre, and one could commune with art in a way that has become a thing of the past in other great museums. Hilmer and Sattler’s Neue Gemäldegalerie, with its poor layout of badly proportioned rooms, harsh lighting, pompous and distracting wall coverings, and unfathomably purposeless and meandering public spaces, is one of the least distinguished museums in an era of frenetic and sometimes inspired museum-building.

Rising up behind the Kultur-Forum are the clustered towers of Potsdamer Platz, which was once one of the commercial hubs of the city but had been a no man’s land between the East and West capital zones since the end of World War II. As part of a well-intentioned master plan drawn up by Hilmer and Sattler to maintain a citywide building height limit of some 115 feet (about ten stories), it was decided as a concession to developers to allow Potsdamer Platz to rise to some 295 feet, or about twenty-seven stories. This was a great mistake. Predominantly low- and medium-rise historic cities like Paris that have confined tall buildings to peripheral districts have pursued a wiser course than comparable cities like London, where sporadic office towers have needlessly defaced a largely intact pre-modern skyline. Foolishly, the idea in Berlin was to allow what had not happened because of war and partition to occur decades after other cities had put sensible checks on high-rise incursions.

To invest the twenty-nine buildings of Potsdamer Platz with a high degree of distinction, an international team of critically esteemed architects was assembled under the supervision of Renzo Piano (who designed the office tower for the Daimler-Benz subsidiary Debis) and his local associate, Christoph Kohlbecker. Yet despite the participation of such luminaries as Richard Rogers and Arata Isozaki (each assigned an office building) and Rafael Moneo (who did a Hyatt hotel), the results are without exception far from their best efforts. Even worse is the Sony Center by the German-born, Chicago-based Helmut Jahn, a glitzy, glass-skinned shopping and entertainment center better suited to L.A. or Las Vegas. And Hans Kollhoff’s dark-brick office tower seems equally descended from the Gothic-inspired North German Expressionism of the 1920s and Philip Johnson’s pastiche postmodernist skyscrapers of the 1980s. Worse yet, despite claims that a crucial aspect of rebuilding the new Berlin would be to encourage a more active street life, several of the Potsdamer Platz buildings turn inward to atriums and multilevel shopping malls as anti-urban as anything on the American roadside strip.

Only two recent buildings in Berlin can lay any claim to enduring architectural interest, and both of them are relatively small and designed by Americans. Frank Gehry’s mixed-use DG Bank building of 1995–2000 stands just within the Brandenburg Gate at the western terminus of Unter den Linden. This historic district imposes some of the severest design restrictions in Berlin, and it was strictly verboten for Gehry to indulge in either the billowing biomorphic volumes or reflective metallic skins of his post-Bilbao manner. Instead, he clad the rectilinear five-story office façade on Pariser Platz in a recessive limestone-and-glass composition of regular bays and pilasters that recalls the better US embassy buildings of the 1960s, a kind of late modernist stripped classicism. Only the outwardly angled windowpanes of the penultimate floor signal that this is no ordinary structure. In contrast, the building’s undulating rear façade, for the ten-story residential wing along Behrenstrasse, is more typical of the maverick master’s work, though only on the interior of the DG Bank was he really free to let loose.

There, in one of the most successful efforts since his epochal Basque masterpiece, Gehry has created yet another tour de force of organic architectural form. Carving out a large atrium at the center of the rectangular block, the architect covered it with a vaulted skylight in the latest reiteration of his familiar fish motif, a likeness reinforced by the scale-like pattern of the triangular panes. Beneath that sculptural roof he placed a conference center in the abstracted but still recognizable shape of a gigantic horse’s head, the contours of which are shaped with dull stainless-steel panels (see illustration on page 30). This naturalistic reference has no symbolic meaning, and in fact was an idea recycled from Gehry’s unexecuted Lewis house project of 1989–1995 for Lyndhurst, Ohio. Yet this oddly impressive interior manages to seem at once audacious and dignified. It both fits into its surroundings and is sui generis, a bold departure from the corporate blandness and brand-name sameness endemic to globalization and a particular blight on contemporary Berlin.

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