Direktorenhaus, and around.

2010.07.30

Events have led me to the recently-opened Direktorenhaus a couple of times lately.  It’s a “permanent exhibition space for the whole neocraft-art-versus-design debate” apparently.  Or, in other words, it’s a gallery space for design and craft-based work that isn’t quite pure ‘art’.  Anyway, well worth going to have a look, partly because of the exhibitions that they hold there, but also because of the buildings.

In fact, you could make a day out of it and see Koolhaas’ Dutch Embassy just a block away to the east. There’s nowhere much to eat/drink in the area – we once found ourselves on a cold winter’s day inside a rather odd hotel restaurant in nearby Nikolaiviertel (which let’s face it, is an entirely odd place to begin with).  The Wasserbetrieb’s staff canteen is open to the public, but Direktorenhaus hope to open a cafe soon on an upper floor of their building, which should be cool, and will have amazing views (see photos of amazing views, below).  We’re talking the bit around here. anyway – it feels out of the way, but is actually quite central.  Albeit ‘central’ in Berlin is oddly the bit with least in it.

The ‘Direktorenhaus’ itself is one wing of what was the old German Reichs Mint, built in 1935, and was basically just a license to print money… ha ha.  It’s now a part of the Berlin Wasserbetiebe (the Berlin water company) with the original buildings wrapped around some new ones, the most notable being by Christoph Langhof, 1998-2000.  Have just noticed some good shots and a bit about this over at the Deutsches Architektur Forum.  Anyway, am becoming scattergun, so here it all is in an orderly fashion:

The entrance is quite tricky to find.  It’s at Am Krögel. 2, so you go in on the side away from the river. And it’s helpfully unsigned.

PS – have accidentally downsized some of my images to about 4 pixels.  The best ones, annoyingly.  Damn Picasa and its strange export function.

Now, it should be noted that German architecture during the period 1933-45 is a complex business, with perhaps more continuity than many of the stripped neoclassical ‘banality of evil’ designs would suggest, albeit that modernism was relegated relegated to industrial buildings, where it survived at all.  And one should not forget the need to consider the context of the buildings and the horrors of the regime, to avoid becoming one of those weird people with an unhealthy obsession with the subject.   But, well, ooh, I love a good Nazi building, don’t you?

Something a bit scary greets you as you enter:

I guess it’s really just the facades – the interiors are less distinctive, although the staircase is lovely, and there’s the odd ‘overblown’ detail, like the neoclassical seat (see below, this bit is under refurbishment, they don’t normally leave coffee cups everywhere like this).

Those aforementioned views, possibly to be what you’ll see from the cafe:

The newer buildings immediately behind the Direktorenhaus, and to its right on the river, are by Joachim Ganz, and have some borderline-lame (in my opinion) wavy facade metaphors for water.  The most interesting bit is the inclusion of some apartments in the elevation onto the Am Krögel side, with each apartment having a mezzanine level with internal glazed rooms and winter gardens.

Then, round the front, is the more Christoph Langhof building, added onto the industrial part of the 1935 mint complex, but rather different from it. It has, in my mind, a mix of early Czech modernism, that weird style that’s being used to complete Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, and Blake’s 7/Doctor Who sets circa 1978. Which overall is a good thing, I think.

The coolest scifi door in Berlin?  A Dalek might suddenly come out.  It’s way cooler than the actually-not-very-good door in the Chinese embassy just down the river.

Categories : 1990s   2000's   Third Reich

Disappointment at Prager Platz (but enlightenment at the Technikmuseum).

2010.06.06

A lovely evening here in Kreuzberg, sat on the balcony watching the sun go down.  My partner (soon to be wife) is off on her hen night, so what to do?  A drug-fuelled night of depravity with a group of erotic dancers?  No, it’s Saturday night, I want to do something special.  So a spot of long overdue blogging.

I was on an errand the other day (back when it was rainy and cold here in Berlin, a period that lasts from roughly October until the end of May), and this errand took me through Prager Platz, another part of – you guessed it – the 1980s IBA.  Along with the development up at Tegeler Hafen,  it stands physically apart from the rest of the IBA programme.

It didn’t help that it was cold and raining of course, but there was something distinctly underwhelming about this particular piece of urban design.  Nothing wrong with the idea; the recreation of a 19th century square using contemporary architecture.  And I’ve long become accustomed, probably too much so, to some of the PoMo excesses of the aforementioned IBA.  But I found the Rob Krier block frankly a little scary – hard to put my finger on exactly why (perhaps Tragedy Hatherley can help here, whose way with words and seemingly colossal output always put my infrequent posts to shame).  Why though is there always something of ancient Rome about Krier’s buildings, often with nightmarish almost-but-not-quite-abstract sculpture.  Something a little too unrelaxed and self-consciously odd?

I tread carefully here, because there’s architecture that I’ve not initially loved, then have subsequently campaigned to save, but architecture the like of John Hejduk’s is absent here.

Part of the problem for me is that there was nothing good round the back.  So often with IBA buildings, particularly in Kreuzberg and Luisenstadt, further to the east, you get nothing very impressive on the street elevation, but much more excitement in the interior courtyards (the Höfe, to give them their correct plural-of-Hof name).  Secret gardens, cascading balconies, wavy elevations, overgrown ruins and the like.  None of that here, perhaps because this a richer and, pre-IBA, a more developed part of town.  We’re talking West-end, Wilmersdorf/Schöneberg, and actually the strength here is the understated and pleasantly sleepy1950s domestic architecture, which is beginning to exert a strange hold on me (more about this another time, except to say that I’ve started fantasizing about living in a well-to-do part of West Berlin of this period, rather than the parts that you’re meant to fantasize about).

So anyway, onto the buildings, architects and such things.  I include this kind of detail, in the probably errant belief that it lends my blog a little depth and class.  Or whatever.

The overall idea seems to have been jointly by Rob Krier and Gottfried Böhm, with Klaus Kammann acting as Berlin contact architect for each of the buildings.

Firstly, that scary Rob Krier block (you’ll remember him, brother of Leon, who is/was architectural advisor to Prince Charles -  both brothers big noises in the why-does-it-present-itself-so-like-Scientology New Urbanism movement).


In classic PoMo style, there are elements that at a glance appear to be structural, but then obviously aren’t.  A bit like a later James Stirling building, except not as good.  Like this bracket supporting the balcony, but actually just pretending to, ho, ho.


Next, the residential block by Gottfried Böhm, an architect with a long career with some good work. But not here, to my taste at least.  It’s quirky enough, but I was strangely taken with the idea that Richard Rogers could have done the same building in a High-tech stylee (if the British High Tech folk had been interested in such lowly things as housing back in the 1980s).  Still, I noticed recently that someone had tagged my blog on Delicious as ‘ugly Berlin architecture’ (I decided to be flattered) and this will add to their collection.

What to do with all those spare tiles? Oh, I know, let’s cover the whole building with them…

…and a building by Carlo Aymonino, who, unlike Rob Krier, actually is italian, although he hasn’t included any clay pantile roofs, rusticated balconies, false brackets etc.  It’s hiding behind a tree though, for some reason:

It seems that where the shopping centre now stands, there was a plan to build a municipal leisure pool, library and an adult education centre.  I didn’t venture into the shopping centre, but it didn’t look like any of these things would be located here.  Do correct me if I’m wrong.

Perhaps I’ll return to all of this at some future point in a different frame of mind, but for the time being, inspired by the aforementioned Mr Hatherley, I’m going to press on with a longer post than usual (which isn’t saying much) by switching subject to something I do like. Nothing to do with the IBA!  Plus, all photos guaranteed to depict a sunny day.

I was cycling about round the Tempodrome recently.  It’s a permanent, concrete version of a kind of big circus tent, which previously really did exist as an actual circus venue in various locations around Berlin, once hosting an event featuring both Westbam and Einstürzenden Neubauten, which must have been good.  The Neues Tempodrome is a faint echo of the original, being given more to Coke-sponsored major rock tours than anything more leftfield. It also has the Liquidrome beneath, but you can look all this up on Wikipedia if you want.  It was built, as many such big german things are, by GMP (von Gerkan, Marg & Partner).

The flower pots are very large, by the way.  I got my girlfriend to stand next to one for scale, but don’t like to feature her in the blog, so you’ll have to imagine her standing to the right of the closer one, being about the same height as it.

More interestingly, it is built on the site, and on the remains, of the Anhalter Bahnhof, one of the capital’s largest stations before the war, but which was demolished postwar after heavy bomb damage and lack of anywhere to need to trravel to from West Berlin.  If you live in Berlin you’ll be familiar with the bit that still stands:

But on the other side of the Tempodrome, there are remains of the station platforms and tracks, which rather reminded me of a recent post by the ever-reliably interesting Charles Holland at Fantastic Journal, telling of the self-consciously hip and not-so-hip reuse of abandoned urban industrial architecture.  The difference here being  that Berlin is virtually made of this sort of thing, with far too few inhabitants to pay attention to it all.  Not quite as self-consciously a piece of ‘Architecture’ as New York’s High Line, but the Anhalter Bahnhof tracks run into a series of derelict and semi-derelict spaces which previously formed one of the largest interchanges/good yards in Europe. Remains of the platforms can be seen, with some landscaping at the ‘neater’ Tempodrome end with beds of railway gravel marking out the route of the tracks.  The whole thing is being allowed to slowly turn into woodland, deliberately I assume.

I’m slightly baffled as to how the tracks are at the same level as the Tempodrome, far above the level of the front of the station; perhaps someone can explain…

I’ve come to believe that I’ll never be able to embed Google maps, but if you look here, you can see the Tempodrome, and the site of the Anhalter Bahnhof (the white circle in a rectangle, centre top) with the goods yards and tracks running through a large site to the south, still partly empty.  But a large part of the area, including the three vast ruined turntable sheds, have been incorporated into the Deutsches Technikmuseum.

As you pass by on the main road, the very prominent (and apparently very expensive) new building of the Museum looks impressive enough.  I guess any building with a Dakota bomber hanging off it would be impressive anyway, but I’ve recently realised that structurally the whole building is something rather fantastic.  Essentially, it’s a colossal pillar in the centre, from which the rest of the building (and the aeroplane) is suspended.  You might counter that this is a rather Grimshaw-esque approach; create a structural problem and then try to solve it.  Whatever.  But it does become more apparent if you explore round the back, where they’ve done this:

It appears to be a structural frame with the columns taken away, but you’re actually seeing the bottom end of the suspension rods, holding up the floors.

It’s by Ulrich Wolff and Helge Pitz, 1995-2001 by the way.  Apparently building costs were such that when originally finished, there was no money for anything to go in it.  But I say ‘apparently’ because architect bloke down the pub told me, and you can’t believe everything he says.

I also love that from the south, only the ‘head’ of the building is visible, appearing like some vast piece of abandoned german industrial machinery.  Built on top of a bunker.  Which I can’t believe wasn’t at least part of the intended effect.

Some other images included, as there’s all sorts of other recent and less recent structures nestling in the undergrowth.  The museum itself is also well worth a visit, if you’d like to see some of this from the other side of the fence.  Plus if you get a chance before the end of June, this looks very interesting.

Stadt & Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century

2010.03.31

I recently had a copy of  “Stadt und Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century” sent to me by Dom publishers – it’s taken me a couple of weeks I’m afraid, due in part to the (ongoing) ‘Hejduk Tower’ campaign.  These two things are related in a roundabout way, which I might mention later.

Anyway, I should firstly mention that the book itself is a thing of beauty – ‘lavishly illustrated’ as they say.  A detailed introduction gives an overview of Berlin’s development, with plenty of maps and images, and each of the twenty or so projects covered feature good photography and include sections and floor plans.

The book’s title, Stadt & Haus*, sets the theme; it aims to present the continuity of urban planning in the capital, highlighting a new style of specifically Berlin architecture which respects the past but is essentially modern.  The projects selected are hotels, offices, apartment blocks and an (apparently) new Berlin typology, the townhouse.  Public buildings, stations, museums, schools and the like are not covered here, which is fair enough – there seems to be an intent here not to create another guidebook featuring yet more photos of the Neues Museum.

The problem with such a selection though is that after a while you start to feel that you’re reading a brochure aimed at enticing people with a lot of money to move here.  The hotels are very expensive, the apartment blocks exclusive, and the townhouses colossal – presumably aimed at ambassadors of richer nations and the independently very wealthy.  The Berlin senate has made no secret of its desire to replace the city’s ‘poor but sexy’ image with that of a cool hangout for those with money;  I’d always dismissed this as hopelessly optimistic (from the senate’s point of view) but flicking through the projects here, you begin to think that perhaps it’s all running to plan.  I often wonder what could possibly be fuelling Berlin’s seemingly neverending gentrification, without the city having any apparent generator of wealth. The case remains open as far as I’m concerned, but this book provides some clues.

Perhaps Stadt & Haus is intended as an antidote to the ‘Architecture Now!’-style publications that cherry pick the best (or at least the most photogenic) new buildings from a city’s output, no matter how unrepresentative.  Maybe the buildings covered here present a more accurate picture of new architecture in Berlin?  It’s not the Berlin I recognise or am drawn to; to be fair the projects are mainly located in that ‘other’ Berlin that feels far from graffiti-tagged Kreuzberg; these designs are corporate Mitte to the core.  Even so, there is much that could have been included here, a selection of new apartments from Prenzlauer Berg perhaps, but which this book seems to be suggesting are not in the spirit of the ‘real’ Berlin, favouring projects like the ones below are:

Above: the Marriott Hotel on Inge-Beisheim Platz by Bernd Albers

Below: interior of the Concorde Hotel in Augsburger Str, by Kleihues & Kleihues

There are some interesting buildings – Chipperfield’s slightly scary apartment block at Potsdamerplatz (deconstructed Speer?), the ‘Slender-Bender‘ house by DEADLINE, cool late modernism by nps tchoban voss in Reinhardtstrasse (I refuse to link to them, as they have a Flash site) and the new terrace of townhouses on Kurstrasse:

These townhouses, by the way, are six to seven storeys, with lifts, and dining rooms that seat up to 30. To me, this is approaching a concept of ‘too much money’, in a city that’s basically broke, but what do I know.

Other areas of the city, and other building types are touched on, but as someone who lives here, I wanted to be told more. There’s a terrace of houses from the new Rummelsburger Bucht district of the city out to the east, where there are some interesting things going on.  Though in the project selected there’s still something slightly timid about its modern take on the Dutch Gable style, which could do with a bit of FATtening up, in my view. (The image below is at Rummelsburg, but not from the book, it’s just that I like it more…)

Overall though, the usual suspects dominate: Kollhoff, Kleihues & Kleihues, Hilmer & Sattler and co glorying in repetitive glazing and those big stonework Prussian facades, which, whatever your architectural taste, seem well made but just not very inspired.  Which leads to my only-slightly-forced link with the Heduk campaign and the IBA.  The introduction to Stadt & Haus suggests a strong continuity between the IBA planning of the 1980s – with its theme of reinstating the 19th Century urban grain – and the post-Wall policy of Critical Reconstruction which has apparently led to many of the projects set out here.  Yet it’s a connection I’m increasingly dubious about.  In West Berlin, the 1980s were a period of great experimentalism in housing; through the IBA, a huge range of approaches, styles and types were tried out by an equally varied range of architects from around the world.  Not all of these buildings were successful, some were not good, some were just bizarre, but the decade left behind a legacy that has still to be fully explored.  Berlin’s post-Wall period however, seems to be increasingly represented by highly competent buildings, efficient in design and professional in construction, but fundamentally dull. 

Stadt & Haus is arguably a more representative sample of Berlin’s current architecture than the highly selective choices of ‘archiporn’ that too often dominate the architectural press.  I guess that I’m just not a fan of this reality.

Stadt & Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century, by Philip Meuser, DOM publishers, 2010.

*Stadt & Haus has been translated on the Dom site as “City & House” although it’s worth noting that the German ‘Haus’ has a broader meaning, referring to a block of apartments or other substantial single building.