What's on


I’ve not been very good at this so far.  So much so, that I’d recommend going to read Baustelle, where they mention quite a few events, if you scroll through.  Their Twitter feed is also good -  in fact it’s all rather more up to date than my witterings about arcane 80s architecture and such like.

A couple of recent things that I would recommend though:

  • The gargantuan Modell Bauhaus show at the Gropius Bau, which I’ve recently mentioned, runs until 4th October 09.  There’s also Le Corbusier: Kunst & Architektur, running at the same venue, till 5th October.
  • … and because all the material from the Bauhaus Archiv is over at Gropiusbau, the building is empty, but open to the public!  Designed by Walther Gropius, whose great uncle designed the (Martin) Gropius Bau, in case you were wondering.  Until 4th October.
  • The Mythos Germania exhibition details Hitler & Speer’s megalomaniac plans to build a new german capital after winning the war, and is not to be missed. At Pavillon Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße 14 (close to the Holocaust Memorial, and runs until the end of 2009. See also my own post on this.
  • One that I’ve not mentioned before, as it’s not usually so directly ‘architecture’ related, but the Brohan-Museum is running an exhibition of  book designs by Henry Van de Velde (better known as an architect) – Henry van de Velde – Buchkunst, vom Jugendstil zum Bauhau (Book Art, from Jugendstil to the Bauhaus).  I’ve not been to the Brohan, but looks worth going to see its apparently fabulaous Jugendstil/Art Nouveau collection.  Runs until 20th September.

It’s always worth checking the following venues for architecture related things:

One that I’ve not mentioned before, as it’s not usually so directly ‘architecture’ related, but the Brohan-Museum is running an exhibition of  book designs by Henry Van de Velde (better known as an architect) – Henry van de Velde – Buchkunst, vom Jugendstil zum Bauhau (Book Art, from Jugendstil to the Bauhaus).  I’ve not been to the Brohan, but looks worth going to see its apparently fabulaous Jugendstil/Art Nouveau collection.  Runs until 20th September.

Victims, Perpetrators, and the Myth of Germania


Is the building of memorials the best way to remember either the victims or the perpetrators of the Third Reich?

I’m asking this, not because I want to turn this into a blog about war guilt (I’d be out of my depth) but because it still remains a critical issue relating to what has been built, what hasn’t been built, and what might be built at two sites in central Berlin.

The first, a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate, is the Holocaust Memorial, which occupies a large open site on the edge of the area formerly occupied by the Reich Chancellery. Currently, in an adjoining building, is an exhibition called ‘Mythos Germania’, focusing on Hitler and Albert Speer’s megalomaniac plans for rebuilding Berlin. More on all of this later.

If you walk a few blocks south of the Holocaust Memorial, to the junction of Wilhelmstrasse and Niederkirchnerstrasse, and look west, you’ll see this:

Topography of Terror

The most obvious thing is a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. This remnant formed part of the western side of the boundary, and it’s this western boundary which is now marked as a continuous line of cobbles across streets and pavements where it ran through the city.

On the right is a corner of the vast Reich Aviation Ministry (now the Finance Ministry), built in 1935-36 by Ernst Sagebiel.

Aviation Ministry (now the Finance Ministry)

After the fall of the Wall, it housed the Treuhand-Anstalt, the government agency whose job was to privatise East Germany’s state-owned economy. Its director, Detlev Rohwedder, was assasinated here.

The Topography of Terror

Immediately to the left of the wall is an excavated trench, housing a small, semi-enclosed exhibition known as the Topography of Terror. It’s appropriately named. In 1986, excavations on this apparently empty site exposed parts of the cellars of the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8 – the Gestapo headquarters. The ruins uncovered included several cells of the Gestapo jail.

This led to the Topography of Terror exhibition being founded on the site, initially intended to be temporary, but still currently in place, and receiving huge visitor numbers every year. (It was busy when I went, on a rainy April tuesday.)

Prior to the discoveries, a huge memorial had already been planned on the site, designed by Jürgen Wenzel and Nikolaus Lang, intended to cover the entire site with iron plates, punctuated only by rows of chestnut trees. But the plan failed to meet the initial brief (it should have included a recreational park) and had been abandoned by 1984.  For those who like to visit this blog for all things IBA related, it was this scheme that fell within the programme).

Following the fall of the Wall, it was decided that there should be a competition for a more permanent memorial and visitor building on the site; architect Peter Zumthor submitted the winning proposal. But from its proposed start in 1996, the project started to exceed its budget, and was beset by the technical difficulties of achieving the ambitious design. Staggeringly, the building was partly built, including the foundations and staircores, before being abandoned in 2000, later to be demolished.  I’ve read lots about who was to blame, but knowing how these things work (I’ve headed some much smaller-scale construction disasters in my time), I wouldn’t want to speculate.

Since then, there’s been a new competition, with a new winner – Ursula Wilms – and a much lower-key proposal for a pavilion and landscaping of the site.  The Zumthor design would have been much larger, and the visitor building  far more dominant.

The Tagesspiel editorial in January 2006 gave its approval to the new Ursula Wilms design. However, it also commented that “Compared to the special architecture of the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum, there will be no special site where the perpetrators are remembered.” In other words, not everyone was a victim; someone carried out these crimes, and this should be remembered in the form of structures given equal prominence to the existing memorials.  Perhaps.  The only problem with big iconic structures built to remember the victims or the crimes, is that they reduce complex issues to simple aesthetic gestures.  People like me would turn up just to look at the building.

The existing Topography of Terror exhibition has no iconic buildings or Starchitect involvement. There is no cafe. But  hundreds of thousands of visitors come and read the information boards, set out under a simple, open wooden structure.

The Holocaust Memorial

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, colloquially known as the Holocaust Memorial, is perhaps what the Topography of Terror seeks to avoid. It’s an extraordinary undulating field of giant concrete rectangular blocks, occupying a truly enormous site in the heart of Berlin, and was designed by American architect Peter Eisenmann. I won’t attempt to describe the memorial further, as it’s been better described and photographed elsewhere.

Holocaut Memorial

As with the issues at the Topography mentioned earlier, there have long been questions asked about whether a site so close to the ‘ground zero’ of the Nazi crimes (Hitler’s Chancellery, and the bunker where he met his end) should be a structure drawing attention to the perpetrators, rather than the victims. I can’t answer this, but instead would note that either way, a positive statement has been made by the federal government in giving over such a substantial piece of Berlin real estate to such a memorial.

For me personally the design is effective, in part de to its sheer size and visual repetition. One oddity though: the information centre beneath the site is accessed via stairs and a lift whose detailing seems incongruous against the perfection and simplicity of the concrete blocks. It’s of course necessary to have a disability-accessible lift, railings, security cameras, post boxes and other paraphernalia, but couldn’t this all have been next to, rather than in amongst, the blocks themselves?

Post blog note: it seems that although Eisenmann was involved in the design of the underground exhibition centre, his proposal was for a separate building containing this function, standing away from the main memorial – the Berlin government however insisted that it take its current form.

There is no cafe, at least not forming part of the memorial, although there was debate recently about the a longer renewal of temporary planning permission for the buildings facing onto the memorial from the east.  These do include some quite tacky cafes and gift shops.

Holocaust Memorial, entrance

Holocaust Postbox

Perhaps worse, there’s a quite horrible ‘Russian oligarchs and their girlfriends’-type nightclub which exits directly out across the road, beneath the back of the Akademie der Kunst (the yellow stripey building top right of photo above) creating a particulalry inapproprite mood if you walk past late evening.

Mythos Germania

… is the title of a current exhibition in the nearby Exhibition Pavilion, running until December. It centres around a scale model of Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer’s plans to rebuild Berlin as ‘Germania’, a new capital for the Reich, intended for completion around 1950.

No cameras allowed, unfortunately, so no photos.

I had been slightly worried that it would be filled with the ‘wrong sort’ of visitor – people with an unhealthy obsession with Nazis. But actually it wasn’t, and also isn’t ‘that sort’ of exhibition.

The model is fascinating (and ludicrous in the scale of its ambition – plans for the Volkshalle included a dome the height of today’s TV Tower) but it’s the surrounding information on the workings of Speer’s Germany that ultimately draws your attention.

Two things struck me:

1.The extent to which the plan was carried out, with large parts of central Berlin cleared (helped in part by the RAF, presumably).

2.The absolute complicity of Speer, and his vast building and military supply organisations, in the Holocaust. Labour for Speer’s plans was increasingly provided from concentration camps as labour ran short for the war effort.

Anyway, enough with the war and Nazis. A return to properly modern architecture for the next post, I promise.

Critical (of) Reconstruction


See also this link to a conference on critical reconstruction and the IBA, in Porto, Portugal, 4th – 8th November: http://berlim-reconstrucaocritica.blogspot.com/.  My original post below:

‘Critical Reconstruction’. A term used to describe the policy for rebuilding post-wall Berlin. The vast areas of waste ground left by the wall zones were to be infilled, by reverting to older street patterns, and by following a set of conservative building codes which limited the height, and (in places) the style of new buildings.

In Pariser Platz, next to the Brandenburg Gate, the building rules seem to have been at their most restrictive, with every new building complying with the required style of horizontal stone banding. Frank Gehry’s Deutsche Bank HQ has had to hide his signature shiny-curvy building behind a singularly uninteresting façade. The rebuilt Hotel Adlon is just an overscaled version of the original, and the recently-completed American Embassy, which has the prime spot overlooking the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Memorial, sets new standards for blandness. The only building that subverts the rules slightly is Michael Wilford’s British Embassy (not saying this just cos I’m a Brit) – angular structures in purple and blue appear to explode from a ‘missing’ section of the plain stone façade.


The vast new buildings of Potsdamer Platz, designed by a string of ‘big name’ architects, are curiously underwhelming;  the whole layout of the site was something of a compromise with the major site owners (I’ll save a rant about that for another day).

But the greatest loss of nerve is the Reichstag. “Surely” you’re thinking, “this is a triumphant rebirth of Germany’s parliament building in an assured high tech intervention by Norman Foster?” Or words to that effect.

Well yes it’s not bad. It’s still one of his best works, with his signature ‘techno bits inserted in an old building’ look, done well. But it could have been something altogether more radical.

I’ve not been able to find a good link or non-copyright-breaching image, so instead, here’s an artist’s impression (the ‘artist’ being me):

The Reichstag - as it could have been

The competition to transform the Reichstag into a new parliament building had three joint winners: Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava and Pi de Bruijn. But all three were subsequently asked to start over based on a much reduced brief, essentially requiring less floor space, contained entirely within the existing structure.

Foster won this ‘second’ competition with the design which was carried through – including the familiar spiral ramps inside a glass dome.


But his original design proposed a colossal independent roof structure, enclosing not only the Reichstag but a large space around it, even spanning across part of the river Spree. A raised podium would have covered the same area, cutting off the lower parts of the original building’s façades. The Reichstag would thus have been only a part, albeit the key element, of a larger whole; a literal representation that the new parliament would stand as something which accepted and incorporated the nation’s past, but at the same time would be something new and open.

It was a strong idea, particularly as the original 19th century building is considered by many to be a bit of a dog’s dinner. It was a not entirely successful attempt to merge a number of disparate styles, and couldn’t better represent the dead end that neoclassicism had reached in the years preceding the birth of modernism. Even its architect, Paul Wallot, admitted that he struggled with an ‘impossible’ task.

There was also the fact that the building was not in its original ‘intact’ state: it had been burned out in the 1930s, shelled by the Russians, and already refurbished in the 1960s.

So as architecture, it didn’t really bear comparison with the government seats of some other nations – Barry and Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, for instance. But in the end, conservatism prevailed, the competition requirements were rewritten to ensure that the building wasn’t radically changed. So that’s what’s now on the postcards.