Das Haus der Kulturen der Welt vs The Royal Festival Hall

2009.07.18

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…