Between the Devil and the deep blue suits.


Have just been to the opening of same same but different,  a show comprising two projects by up and coming Swiss practice EM2N, at the Architektur Galerie on Karl-Marx-Allee.  It was rather good, and the free wine and pretzels were also not bad.  The two projects are ‘Toni Areal‘ – a conversion of a milk factory into an art school for 3,000 students, and a second vast neubau school project in Ordos, China, also for around 3,000 pupils.  Both projects are huge for such a young practice (founded twelve years ago) and on the face of it confidently done, in that understated but highly crafted Swiss late modernism.

But I’m coming over all ‘architecture critic’ on you; I felt a bit underdressed and overwhelmed amongst all the sharp-suited/coolly bespectacled architects and assorted in-crowd, and left well before the wine ran out.

I thought I’d take a back route home and cycled south, past the Hochhaus an der Weberwiese.  It’s a curious area, which I now realise I don’t know at all, between Karl-Marx-Allee and the ever wonderful Berghain (which, if you didn’t know, is the world’s best club – if you only have 48 hours to spend in Berlin, spend them all at Berghain). It’s like the other good Berlin clubs to the power of ten – where others occupy parts of previously abandoned factories, Berghain occupies all of a very big abandoned factory.  A strange place to pass by late on a sunday afternoon, with dazed survivors stumbling confused into the sunshine,  to the thunder-like bass throb of techno still rattling the windows.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

Anyway, I digress.  Between these two extreme nodes (immaculately dressed architects / sweat-drenched techno) are some apartment buildings clearly built as part of Karl-Marx-Allee, but strangely neglected.  They’re not in my miniguide to ‘the Allee’ (as I’ve just decided to refer to it) and are presumably considered of less greatness, by those in the know.  Hopefully, as is often the case, someone reading this who knows much more about it will leave a comment.

The blocks centre around the junction of Gubener Straße and Wedekindstraße:

I blogged very early on (well, about a year ago) about Karl-Marx-Allee and how much I liked it, views which have changed with time (it reads now as a bit naive), but clearly I seem to have an affinity for the underdog: I was slightly saddened by the contrast between the shiny new creations on display at the Galerie and the neglect of the buildings around the corner. Not everyone’s cup of tea, sure (well, in fact probably almost no-one’s cup of tea) but I’m drawn to them, because… well because no-one else is.  Which is just odd.

Hochhaus an der Weberwiese, Karl-Marx-Allee


Advice for exploring Berlin’s less well known architecture: always have a look round the back.

A good case in point is Hermann Henselmann’s ‘Hochhaus an der Weberwiese’ (tower block on Weberwiese), the prototype design for the rest of Karl-Marx-Allee.  It isn’t actually on the Allee at all – it’s sort of tucked away here, round the back. (Do you remember a time before Google maps? I presume we just got lost.)

Anyway, the design, built 1951-1952, comprises a ten storey tower connected to a low rise block. It’s obviously of a piece with the bombastic Stalinist wedding cake style that dominates ‘the Allee’, with neoclassical details created with ceramic tiling and a strident symmetrical street elevation.

But oddly, the massing of the building – high rise block with low rise adjoining block offset from the axis – echoes early modernism. Interesting, as Henselmann supposedly regretted his chameleon-like changing of styles to suit his political masters, and later returned to work such as the Haus des Lehrers / Kongresshalle down the road at Alexanderplatz. Which I like very much, and come to think of it, is also a tower linked to a low rise structure.

The other thing you notice about the setting of the Hochhaus is that it feels entirely unlike Karl-Marx-Allee, even though it’s so close. It stands on the edge of a small park, across from the back of the buildings facing onto the Allee’s six lanes of traffic, and feels like another place and time entirely. Almost like London’s Bloomsbury in fact, with Henselmann’s design having an oddly 1930s art deco feel to it, despite some of the detailing.

The location is also interesting for allowing a view of the different ages of Karl-Marx-Allee in one spot. Across the park, screening off the road, is one of Ludmilla Herzenstein’s blocks. Built in 1949-1950, it is extremely plain (in a good way), and has more in common with Berlin’s pre-war modernist estates.

Next comes Henselmann’s block, as the precursor to the other blocks on the main street, by Henselmann and others.

Finally, there’s a new block reaching completion, an inoffensive piece of commercial late modernism, but not unpleasant (I seem to be damning with faint praise here, and sounding a bit too much like Niklaus Pevsner).

And, of course, no 1950s east Berlin neighbourhood would be complete without some socialist realist art.

Erich Mendelsohn: the Mossehaus & the Metalworkers Union Building


Also see other post for Mendelsohn’s Einsteinturm in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.

Today we’re pretty used to the idea of putting modernist (usually high-tech) elements into buildings from previous eras; Foster at the Reichstag, I M Pei at the Deutsche Historical Museum, to name a couple of Berlin examples.

But in the early twentieth century the idea would have been almost unheard of. So how groundbreaking must Mendelsohn’s Mossehaus have been?

The original building of 1900-1903, by Cremer & Wolffenstein, was a neoclassical sandstone affair, the corner of which was badly damaged by post first world war rioting (it must have been pretty extreme rioting, but such were the conditions in Germany at the time, I guess).

Mendelsohn retained most of the building’s main facades, but completely rebuilt the corner, and added two/three additional stories, in a totally original, streamlined expressionist style.

What was also radical for its time was the focus on the corner of the building, seen by Mendelsohn as the focus of movement; at the junction of streets, as opposed to a ’static’ entrance in the middle of a facade.

Oddly, section of ‘original’ facade on the southern elevation which should date from 1903 has been replaced by a recent, bland, office curtain wall. Perhaps this part was lost in WWII and the whole elevation rebuilt, including the Mendelsohn additional stories?

Elevation on Jerusalemer Strasse

Elevation on Schützenstrasse – more recent, but why?

Following the Einsteinturm, Mendelsohn became hugely successful, running Germany’s largest architectural practice between the wars, with commissions including department stores in Stuttgart, Chemnitz and Berlin (Potsdamer Platz, demolished after the war).

It’s interesting that the Mossehaus was Mendelsohn’s first major commission following the Einsteinturm, and the expressionist ideas are evident. But by the time he was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s (he was a Jewish, successful, modernist architect, so not exactly popular with the Third Reich) he was producing buildings that we would recognise as entirely modernist. The Metal Workers Union building (Industriegewerkschaft Metall), at the southern end of Alte Jakobstrasse, is one of these.

Unlike the Mossehaus, which is currently occupied by Total, who don’t like you even peering into the entrance area, reception staff at the Union building allow access to the entrance area and main staircase (if you ask nicely).

Annoyingly, the staircase was completely scaffolded when I went; I’ll drop in again soon and replace the images with better ones.

The original commission was for a substantially larger building over two blocks, linked by a bridge; someone at Manchester Uni has done a quite cool video for the building.

The building has just been completely refurbished, and is classic ‘streamline moderne’ – long, long brass handrails, strip windows and expanses of white render. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lobby bears a striking resemblance to the interiors of his pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea – Mendelsohn’s only major building in England. The spiral staircase, with its sweeping handrails and vertical lighting system suspended throughout its height, seems near identical.

staircase.jpg Bexhill

And then Berlin…

Rear elevation, which fittingly enough looks out over Libeskind’s Jewish museum directly to the north.

Alte Jakobstrasse elevation. An unsettling image on show in the atrium shows the Union symbol replaced with a swastika in the same circle design during the 1930s.

Oddly, the atrium information boards also describe Mendelsohn’s Bexhill pavilion erroneously as being in Bexley (a part of south east London, in which it definitely isn’t).

The Hansaviertel vs Karl-Marx-Allee


In the east, Karl-Marx-Allee. A 2km long triumphal route of overbearing, neo-classical blocks that’s more Moscow than Mitte. On first sight, it has all the architectural subtlety of a wedding cake, with neoclassical features thrown uncomprehendingly onto the giant facades of soviet prefab-system blocks. Many of the buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee (previously Stalinalle, and originally Frankfurter Allee) seem hard to love. At Frankfurter Tor, the apogee of the street’s design, two huge towers top the nine storey blocks, forming a formidable eastern gateway to the city. Apparently inspired by Schinkel, they look awkward and oddly proportioned, like something stuck on top of a UK supermarket to obtain planning permission.

Karl-Marx-Allee towers


And meanwhile, over in the west, the Hansaviertel. A mix of blocks of flats and individual houses, designed by a virtual who’s-who of modernist architecture for the 1957 Interbau – an international housing exhibition. It includes designs by Arne Jacobsen, Walter Gropius, Max Taut, Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer. It would have even had a version of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation block (the first of which is in Marseilles), but this was located in nearby Charlottenburg as it was too large to fit on the Hansa site.

In the Hansaviertel (Hansa quarter, in translation), understatement rules, with clusters of assymetrical modernist buildings interspersed with green spaces. It’s a lovely location – the estate rises up out of the trees of the Tiergarten’s northern edge, with individual modernist houses giving way to taller blocks of flats, each set amongst trees and landscaping. There are no grand ceremonial routes here.

Egon Eierman

The Hansa ticks all the right design boxes; an impeccably dressed party guest, disdainfully eyeing the Allee’s vulgar Ossi gatecrasher.

So why is it Karl-Marx-Allee that I’m drawn to? Why that sense of fading grandeur as I cycle toward Alexanderplatz on a cold January night, the chandeliers of the Kino International twinkling through the freezing air?

It’s some of the later, individual buildings that really appeal to me; Cafe Moskau, the Kino International, and the Kosmos. A real sense of GDR glamour survives in them – they retain most of their original features, and the quality of the architecture prevents them becoming just kitsch.

Kino International

Surprisingly (to me at least) these buildings form part of the later (1960s) stage of the Allee’s construction. My initial impression was that it was a microcosm of Soviet architectural history, with early modernist intentions giving way later to overscaled neoclassical monstrosity. Actually, the Allee’s history is complex, and its architecture often wrongly attributed. The International and the Kosmos were both designed by Josef Kaiser and Herbert Aust, and I assume that they also did Cafe Moskau on the other side of the street.

A good place to start exploring is Henselmann’s prototype for the rest of the Allee, Hochhaus an der Weberwiese. Round the corner, back on the Allee, is Café Sibylle, a fabulous GDR cafe which also has a permanent exhibition about the Allee’s history.

There’s a good article in the International Herald Tribune, celebrating last year’s 50th anniversary of the Hansaviertel, describing how the area is once again becoming a hip place to be. Apartments there are sought after by a new generation of architects, designers and media folk, the angle being that this is no museum piece. Fair enough. But for me there’s something slightly self-satidfied about the Hansaviertel, confident in its coolly understated design (there’s nothing understated about the twin towers at Frankfurter Tor).

Hansaplatz, containing a theatre, small shopping centre and U-bahn station, has become quite run-down, and I’m guessing is yet to catch up with the ‘rebirth’ of the area. It does however include a small visitor centre with a lot of information on the Interbau and related topics.

The block by Niemeyer is his only German building (besieged, the day I saw it, by a group of Brazilian architecture students who took turns photographing each other sitting in the crux of its huge V-shaped support columns).

Niemeyer block

For me the most successful of the towers is the one by Hans Schwippert, although oddly there’s no entrance space or atrium at all – the separate entrance doors lead directly to the stairs and to the ground floor flats. For an Expo building, I had expected something grander: glass, steel and a couple of Mies Barcelona chairs \perhaps.

Hans Schwippert tower

The nearby Akademie der Künste, designed by Werner Düttmann, was built later than the Interbau, and the site was originally intended for other housing (but not, I think, for the Le Corb block). Being the kind of person I am, I loved the detailing – to the right of the entrance, rainwater is directed off the building at roof level then falls freely to onto an enclosed square of uneven stones concealing the drain.

Some more images here at Flickr.

Maybe my views are tainted because the architectural style (if not the quality of ideas) of the Hansaviertel became the default style of the western world for the next fifty years. Location is a factor too; Karl-Marx-Allee runs right through Friedrichshain, one of the livelier parts of the city, especially at night. As soon as you turn off into the side streets, away from the imposing Stalinist blocks, the true east Berlin urban fabric of late 19th century streets reasserts itself, with hundreds of cafes, bars etc.

Perhaps this is all being a little unfair; no-one who chooses to live in the Hansaviertel is looking for the edginess and nightlife that you find in the city’s east. But it’s also ironic that Karl-Marx-Allee was the grand statement of formal, centralised planning, but now lies at the centre of Berlin’s more ‘chaotic’ side; its nightlife and culture. The Hansaviertel, a demonstration of the west’s less dictatorial planning and its liberal values, feels much more the museum piece.

Trainspotting: The Hansaviertel

Here’s the complete list of architects who designed buildings in the Hansaviertel, although if you’re wandering about, the information is clearly set out on some location signs, and you can get a guide leaflet at the office for a couple of euros.

Hans Ch. E. Müller, Berlin
Günther Gottwald, Berlin
Wassili Luckhardt+Hubert Hofmann, Berlin
Paul Schneider-Esleben, Düsseldorf
Bezirksamt Tiergarten Amt für Hochbau Berlin
Willy Kreuer, Berlin
Ernst Zinsser + Hansrudolf Plarre, Hannover, Berlin
Luciano Baldessari, Mailand
J.H. van den Broek + J.B. Bakema, Rotterdam
Gustav Hassenpflug, Munich
Raymond Lopez + Eugène
Hans Schwippert, Düsseldorf
Werner Düttmann, Berlin
Otto H. Senn, Basel
Kay Fisker, Kopenhagen
Max Taut, BerlinFranz Schuster, Wien
Egon Eiermann, Karlsruhe
Oscar Niemeyer, Rio de Janeiro
Fritz Jaenecke, Sten Samuelson, Malmö
Alvar Aalto, Helsinki
Pierre Vago, Paris
Walter Gropius + The Architects’ Collaborative, Cambridge Mass. + Ebert, Berlin
Klaus Müller-Rehm + Gerhard Siegmann, Berlin
Ludwig Lemmer, Berlin
Paul G.R. Baumgarten, Berlin
Eduard Ludwig, Berlin
Arne Jacobsen, Kopenhagen
Gerhard Weber, Frankfurt/M.
Alois Giefer + Hermann Mäckler, Frankfurt/M.
Johannes Krahn, Frankfurt/M.
Wolf von Möllendorff + Sergius Ruegenberg, Berlin
Sep Ruf, Munich
Günther Hönow
Bodamer + Berndt, Klaus Kirsten, Berlin
Johann Heinrich StrackThe Interbau also included the Hugh Stubbins’, Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt to the east of the Hansaviertel, and the Corbusierhaus in Charlottenburg.

…and Karl-Marx-Allee: more trainspotting.

The earliest buildings, built 1949-50, are by Ludmilla Herzenstein, an associate of Scharoun.

The largest blocks, which include both pairs of towers, built 1951-52, are by architectural chameleon. And I use the term ‘chameleon’ advisedly; I was amazed to discover that the Karl-Marx-Allee blocks were by the same architect as the Haus des Lehrers and Berlin Congress Centre, just along the road at Alexanderplatz (links are to posts where I’ve blogged about both).

The remaining blocks are by various architectural ‘collectives’, individually headed by Egon Hartmann, Hanns Hopp, Kurt W. Leucht, Richard Paulick and Karl Souradny.

As previously noted, the Kino International, and the Kosmos (now a multi-screen) are by Josef Kaiser and Herbert Aust.