Incomplete Harmony


It seems wrong to have lived in Berlin for a while and not to have seen (or more importantly heard) the Berlin Philharmonic playing at the Berlin Philarmonie.  For clarity, the former is the orchestra, the latter their ‘home stadium’ (for want of a more appropriate term).

Anyway, fan as I am of Sir Simon R and his consistent approach to maintaining big hair over several decades, it was the building that I really wanted to experience, allegedly being one of Hans Scharoun’s greatest works.  For the nuts’n'bolts, Wikipedia has a little bit in english and a bit more in german.  Amusingly, the english version describes the Kulturforum (the large windswept carpark ringed by cultural buildings that include the Philarmonie) as a place “… that for decades suffered from isolation and drabness but that today offers ideal centrality, greenness, and accessibility.”  Mmm no, I think isolation and drabness are still two of the area’s key features.  Also, it seems odd that a public plaza that links the Tiergarten, the Embassy district and Potsdamerplatz, and has Mies’ Neue Nationalgalerie and Scharoun’s state library building as well as the Philarmonie, seems to lack anywhere decent to eat.

Forgive me for sounding like an uncultured hack who focuses entirely on the availability of food and booze rather than the Kultur, but virtually the only places around there are within the overscaled buildings of Potsdamerplatz itself – a place with all the atmosphere of an out-of-town shopping mall and multiplex. Which it essentially is.  (I remember my first trip to Berlin in the early noughties, rushing off to see the shiny new buildings of Rogers and Piano – reunited, sort of, for the first time since the Pompidou – only to find it a place that seemed entirely lacking in purpose or charm.  It was then I began to comprehend Berlin’s donut-ness: a big ring of city with a hole in the middle.)

So anyway, pre-performance, we sat in a themed restaurant in the Sony Centre (I think the theme was australian-aboriginal, but it matters not – it couldn’t have been less cosy if it was serial killer-themed) and watched the red-carpet opening of a dodgy hip-hop movie going on at the adjacent multiplex, to the excitement of a lot of press folk and a smaller number of teenage fanboys.  Bushido, whoever that is.**

Perhaps this quest for Gemütlichkeit appears irrevelevant in a blog about architecture and urbanism.  But the point I’m clumsily trying to make is that there’s nowhere in the neighbourhood that you can imagine housing anything cosy.  Of course in one sense this is unavoidable.  The combined forces of aerial bombardment, Russian tanks, Albert Speer (and his employer’s) megalomania, and of course the GDR’s ‘big fence project’, meant that everything in and around Potsdamerplatz dates from the 1990s, and most things in the Kulturforum from the 1960s.  But surely it could have been a bit better than this?  Perhaps, if the area survives for a good few decades more without being subsumed by sea or holocaust, it’ll settle in.  Maybe a few smaller buildings from the future of architectural fashion will subvert the overbearing Prussianism-meets-poor-attempt-to-recreate-Manhattan concept that currently fails so desperately here.

Of course, if you do know of somewhere nice nearby for a drink and a pre-gig bite, then

a) let me know, and

b) ignore all of the above, which will now be largely redundant.

Anyway, about the Philarmonie itself…

I was surprised that you couldn’t take photos of at least the entrance hall areas; fair enough in the auditorium, as flash photography while the orchestra’s doing its stuff can be distracting I imagine.  yet mysteriously, you can take pictures of all parts of the building if you take a guided tour – every day at 1pm, no booking required apparently.   I haven’t been on one yet, but a friend has, and she’s taken pictures and everything, one or two of which I’ve stolen and used here.

The Philarmonie’s own site has a virtual 3-D view thingey, and if you work your way into the online ticket system, you can scan around a view from each potential block of seats.  The Kulturforum’s crap website is here.

The auditorium itself was a tour de force of acoustic design at the time, and became the blueprint for many other concert venues around the world.  I love the way that there doesn’t seem to be a single right-angle; momentary confusion on entering the space quickly gives way to the realisation that it’s an arena ‘in the round’, with everyone looking down on the performers in the centre.  This might make you feel slightly self-conscious in the cheapest seats directly behind the orchestra, best avoided by buying the next-to-cheapest seat tickets, which we did.

What I found less impressive  is the sequence of spaces as you enter the building (really a single space, but a confusing one) which lies beneath the auditorium.  I was expecting a somehow more elegant integration of the structural elements, whereas actually the angled supporting columns seemed a little spindly and detached from the overall design, and I was left with the impression of being in a service basement, where all the architectural effort had been put into the design of the ‘big room’ above.  In fact the absolute opposite of London’s Royal Festival Hall from a decade earlier; an acoustically terrible performance space (apparently) but a vibrant and sucessful public area beneath and around it.  (This is not to imply that the auditorium of the RFH doesn’t look impressive, by the way, and has been much improved acoustically in a major update a few years back, but it definitely wasn’t an architectural benchmark in acoustic terms).

This is all based on a single visit to the Philarmonie, mind you. And I’ve not been into the connecting building of the Kammermusiksaal. Plus, all the spaces actually look much better in my friend’s photos.  Perhaps I went in the wrong entrance.

As mentioned, there are tours, and I’ll let you know if I’m going along (keep an eye on our Facebook group ‘Berlin Architecture Circle’). All tours guaranteed to be followed by a pub of some description, although in the case of the Kulturforum, we might have to get a bus to somewhere else.

*Although I am.

**I reserve the right to sound like my dad here, but his movie did look particularly poor, with Bushido himself posing for photos with the person who plays him, both ’street posing’ in an unconvincing manner.

I know what I did last summer.


I may have mentioned previously (at least twelve times) how I’m not getting out much lately to look at architecty things.  So in order to have something to blog about, I thought I’d employ some nostalgia.   Moments from the tale end of this summer in fact, when I was working at the Art Forum Berlin up at the Messehalle.  It’s part of that site which also includes the immense 1970s bulk of the ICC (International Conference Centre) as well as the almost-certainly-doomed Deutschlandhalle.

La la la, I’m putting  a line in here as the site design won’t allow me to space out the images to avoid visual confusion.  So no need need to read this bit.

Not knowing the building, I’d imagined that I’d be stuck manning a stand in some dismal artificially lit exhibition cavern, and have a rubbish time.  It turned out not; although the front of the ICC is all imposing overblown fascism, although you can’t help being grudgingly impressed by the entrance hall as the sunlight floods from high above – but carry on through to the back section (the restaurant area, usually my first port of call at any trade fair) and you suddenly find yourself in endearing postwar light-touch modernism.  To me it had the feel of London’s South Bank during the Festival of Britain (I hadn’t been born at the time – it was 1951 – but I’ve looked at lots of pictures, and my dad used to bore regularly on the subject when I was a teenager).  Anyway, it’s nice isn’t it?

I haven’t tried very hard, but haven’t found any information about the back of the building.  1950s?  1960s?  Let me know if you know!

Also, straight across the road, if you’re out and about in that direction, is Hans Poelzig’s Haus des Rundfunks* (House of Radio).  Not to be missed, although I only had time for a jog round during a quick lunch break, hence not many photos of it on my Flickr.

*It’s Rundfunks with an ’s’ by the way, because it’s in the Genitiv (Possessive) case.  Every second building in Berlin is a grammar test…

And finally, (from that particular jaunt), as you come out of the nearest U-Bahn up at Kaiserdamm, you can see a Hans Scharoun housing block across the road.  I recognised it as probably Scharoun, but guessed it as 1950s, maybe 1960s.  Actually, it’s 1928-1929.  Amazing really.

Was just browsing through my photos from ‘09, and have tonnes of this sort of stuff to blog, so won’t actually have to go outside again until spring.  Luckily, thanks to the gift of Christmas, I have a supply of chocolate that will last until May.  Happy New Year!

I took all the above photos by the way, and license them under a Creative Commons license, so you’re welcome to use them for non-commercial purposes (unlikely they’d be good enough for anything else…) but do credit me/my blog if you do use them on your own blogs/dissertations/Wikipedia etc (you know who you are!).

Das Haus der Kulturen der Welt vs The Royal Festival Hall


One is an iconic concert hall and cultural venue, a piece of seminal, forward-looking ’50s architecture set on the south bank of the river in a capital city recently devastated by war.

The other, by contrast, is an iconic concert hall and cultural venue, a piece of seminal, forward-looking ’50s architecture set on the south bank of the river in a capital city recently devastated by war.

I’m writing this post because every time I visit the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, (House of World Cultures) in Berlin’s Tiergarten, I’m struck by how completely different, and by how very similar it is to London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Friday night was a busy one at the HKW (as I’ll call it from now on) – a double bill of Horace Andy and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry / Adrian Sherwood.  A shame really that we didn’t get in (just went on the spur of the moment for standby tickets), although curiously one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent failing to get in somewhere.  A spectacular summer storm passed over, momentarily quenching the pleasant smell of pot smoke wafting up from the garden area forming part of the gig venue.

Anyway, the HKW was built as part of the 1957 Interbau, which also included the Hansaviertel.  The building was designed by american architect Hugh Stubbins and was a gift from the US – a built embodiment of the Marshall plan and America’s support for postwar european reconstruction. The main concert hall is effectively an independent box suspended from the spectacular arch which spans the whole of the building; in fact it’s the central idea of the design.

The RFH (as it’s often known) is a little older, built in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, on a tight budget in a bankrupt Britain still on rationing. The design is by Leslie Martin, Peter Moro, and Robert Matthews (founder of  RMJM) from the London County Council’s Architects’ Department.  The main concert hall is essentially an independent box sitting within the form of the larger building, which is only apparent at roof level when viewed from outside.

Images above by Jamie Barras (an impressive collection of London buildings on Flickr)

Images below by Mark TJ:

I rather like both buildings, to be frank, but I feel a little bit sorry for the HKW on occasions – generally the occasions when there just isn’t anyone much there.  The problem is twofold. Firstly, the HKW is in the middle of nowhere – handy if you’re Angela Merkel, less handy if you live somewhere in the rest of Berlin (of course due to Berlin’s recent history and ‘unusual planning issues’, the centre of Berlin is the middle of nowhere, but that’s a discussion for another day).  The second problem is that the Haupstadt is just not a very populous place as big cities go.  It often feels to me like a city built for a much bigger population, who promptly left, and were replaced by a smaller group of partygoers who’ve been squatting ever since and can’t believe their luck.

These days you can hardly move on London’s South Bank; a single stretch of river bank now plays host to a whole swathe of cultural buildings, venues, restaurants and the like.  So much so, that even north londoners make the fifty metre journey across the Thames to visit.  (They don’t go any further than the South Bank of course – you can’t get a cab back).

The HKW on an average sunday, on the other hand, rather reminds me of the RFH on a sunday in the late 1970s, when it too seemed a slightly lonely place, plagued at the time by my own personal demon of not having done my school homework for school the next day).

Both are beautifully carried through, full of that attention to detail, although ironically much of the RFH was not built to last, and the building in its current external form was reworked a few years later with a significantly different, stone-clad design.  In truth, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that actually the detailing of the RFH beats the HKW hands down.

The RFH is also a bigger building, feeling more generous with its space, which I guess is a little unfair to the HKW; presumably both were built to the size required by the brief.  But the HKW seems a little enslaved by its structural engineering – that great big arch with the curved hall beneath are the big idea.  The rest of the building is relatively unremarkable by comparison.

So it’s the Royal Festival Hall, isn’t it?  Perhaps if the HKW had been by a german architect, more like say, Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie not far away at the Kulturforum.  D’oh!  Actually this would have been a much better comparison wouldn’t it?  I love the Philarmonie, including its detailing.  Perhaps this has actually just been an exercise in homesickness, realising what I really miss about London – not the traffic, the cost, the 2 hour journeys to get from A to B, but maybe, on some days, the crowds; the sheer weight of people in a city bursting at the seams.

Ooh, just one other thing.  If (like me) you’d been generally uninspired by the various block-like government buildings around the Reichstag, try cycling (slightly drunkenly) past them late at night.  They look much better.

Right, off to photograph the Philharmonie…

Interesting Canal Stuff (and IBA Block 647, Part 2)


I had planned to do a page on the IBA block as part of my ongoing accumulation of IBA buildings (find your niche and stick to it…) but actually the section of the Landwehrkanal which Block 647 faces on to is far too interesting to keep hidden away as a dull reference page.  In fact, the stretch of the canal from Potsdamer Brücke west to Lützowplatz is a virtual history of twentieth century modernism.

(I agree, before you point it out, that these are slightly arbitrary start and finishing points; interesting erections abound here in every direction, but you have to draw a line somewhere).

As a bonus, the marvellous M29 bus route, runs along the north bank going west, and the south bank going east.  (If I mention it often enough, perhaps I’ll get free bus travel?)

Going east along the canal from Lützowplatz, the first thing you see, on the opposite bank, is Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus Archiv:

(thanks to Umschauen for these)

Further along, you come to a little footbridge by Brenner & Tonon, built as part of the IBA:

Next, on the south side, are a row of four IBA townhouse blocks, built to be (at the time) cutting edge eco homes, including a small winter garden to each flat.

No. 2, by Schiedhelm, Klipper & Partner:

No 3, by Pysall, Jensen & Stahrenberg:

Then no.4, by the now mighty practice of von Gerkan, Marg & Partner (they did Berlin’s enormous new Hauptbahnhof)

And lastly no5, which I seem to have lost a main image of, so here’s the door:

It’s not all that, is it?  The door to no. 2 is more interesting, come to think of it:

Anyway, enough of that.  Next, across on the north bank, are the beautifully measured curves of Emil Fahrkamp’s Shell-Haus (now Gasag), 1930-31:

Then there’s James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s extension of the Wissenschafts Zentrum (Science Centre) – glimpses of which below.  This was also an IBA project, by the way.

The north bank then becomes the southern end of the Kulturforum, if that makes sense, with the familiar site of the Mies Neue Nationalgalerie (Umschauen again -  thanks!).

I think I’ve previously mentioned that opposite this, on the south side of the canal, is a rather fine 1929 building by Loeser & Wolff, with a quite cool Foster-ish two storey extension on top.  To quote me: “Its facade is finely proportioned and detailed (as architecture critics would say) and I like it very much.”

As part of the Kulturforum, on the north bank, is Hans Scharoun’s Staatsbibliothek (State Library) – still currently being bothered by much scaffold as well as huge temporary ductwork, so not what you’d call photogenic, but an absolute must to see inside:

(Another piece of thievery from Flickr, that one by jmtp)

And finally, because I promised myself I’d include them at some point, some more IBA blocks, which sit across on the other side of Potsdamer Strasse.  I’m used to IBA blocks looking fairly unspectacular from the street, but often the ‘private’ interior courtyards of the blocks reveal something really special.  Hence my disappointment here; I’m certain these buildings are not without merit, but they didn’t appeal to me on the day when I took these shots last summer. I remember being in a very good mood, and at that time obsessed with the idea of collecting every single IBA building, trainspotter-style.  The idea ended there, they were just that uninspiring. I gave up halfway through, bought a Cornetto, and sat in the canalside park (also an IBA creation).

Georg Heinrichs & Partner:

Corner block by Jürgen Sawade:

and Hilmer & Sattler’s block, with a bit of tree, facing onto the park:

No interior courtyard shots, because as I said, they just didn’t register as anything special.  In fact I’m struggling to think of more to say on them, so will leave it there.

But do take the time to head down to this part of town, using the M29 bus of course.  My free travel pass awaits.