Rebuilding Berlin — Yet Again

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – July 15, 1987

Rebuilding Berlin — Yet Again

For its birthday, the city showcases world architects

The 20th century has been crueler to Berlin than to most any other major city in the world. In architecture as in politics, Berlin is a birthplace of modernism — the kind of avenging romantic modernism that was determined to demolish the past and rebuild the future from scratch. And so again and again for a half-century after World War I, the city was razed wholesale for the sake of ferocious social ideas: first, the Utopian housing tracts of the 1920s; then the Nazis’ megalomaniacal neoclassicism in the ’30s; the devastating Allied bombing raids in the ’40s; the redoubled, misguided urban renewal of the ’50s and ’60s; and, of course, the Communists’ lobotomizing Wall. Berlin has been a city tragically suited to the before-and-after aerial view.

Now it seems that West Berlin, anyway, has come to its common senses. The city has found a means of regenerating the premodern urban-design traditions by which it grew, while at the same time creating the most ambitious showcase of world architecture in this generation. The occasion, fittingly, is this year’s celebration of the 750th anniversary of the city’s founding. From now through the autumn, hundreds of thousands of Berliners and visitors are to attend concerts, gallery exhibits, symposiums and street festivities commemorating Berlin’s birthday.

 Indeed, when President Reagan visits West Berlin this week, he may get a passing glimpse of the most extraordinary of all these observances: the building program undertaken by the International Building Exhibition (IBA), which was legislated into existence eight years ago by West Berlin’s government. IBA has developed more than 100 sites around the city, mostly in the dead zones and odd holes left in the urban fabric near the Wall and along the Landwehr Canal, which runs through the center of the city. On these sites, private developers, with government-subsidized loans, have now finished the majority of some $1.5 billion worth of new buildings, mostly apartments for about 35,000 middle- and working-class tenants.

 The project’s virtuous social agenda would be unremarkable without its world-class aesthetic aspirations. More than 200 architects from 15 countries entered IBA’s invitational design competitions, and the winners constitute a sort of international Who’s Who. West Berlin has or will soon have new IBA buildings by O.M. Ungers (West Germany), Hans Hollein (Austria), Rob Krier (Luxembourg), Mario Botta (Switzerland), Aldo Rossi (Italy), Oriol Bohigas (Spain), Rem Koolhaas (the Netherlands), James Stirling (Britain), Arata Isozaki (Japan) and, from the U.S., Charles Moore, Robert A.M. Stern, Stanley Tigerman, Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk. A museum show tied to IBA, “750 Years of Architecture and Urban Design,” is currently on view in West Berlin at Mies van der Rohe’s last great building, the National Gallery.

 It is a complicated creative task to design any building at all for Berlin. The burden of the past is heavy and confused. Powerful stylistic traditions compete and clash — baroque vs. volkisch, modernist vs. neoclassical, Karl Friedrich Schinkel vs. Walter Gropius — and each is politicized, freighted with connotation. Berlin is an ambivalent city, a city of uneasy architectural taboos. Albert Speer’s bombastic Nazi splendors must be condemned no matter how handsome they sometimes seem during this era of classical revival. The Wall, horrid as ever, has nevertheless become the great built symbol of the city, a folk-brutalist icon. The city that tore itself apart under the Nazis and again under the progressives is now unbudgingly preservationist.

 IBA stepped sensibly into this anxious muddle, instructing its architects to “pick up historical traces, respect the traditional layout and conserve the existing buildings.” Somehow blending in with the surrounding neighborhood is an obligation of all new buildings these days, the motherhood- and-apple-pie issue of contemporary architecture. But as a practical matter, it is not so easy to be contextual in Berlin, where the old patterns of streets and blocks and squares — the context — have been erased or ignored. Thus IBA’s first task was to unearth the archaeology of the modern city, to find and record the building history of each city block. In traumatized, amnesiac Berlin, the civic memory had to be re-created. The new IBA construction would take its lead from the historical residue.

 Buildings in Berlin traditionally rose no higher than six stories, and the IBA buildings have reestablished that reasonable city standard. Long facades are visually broken up into sections of congenial town-house proportions with clustered windows, projecting bays and, in some cases, peaked or mock-baroque gingerbread-house roof lines. IBA has revived other Berlin housing traditions: buildings come right up to the sidewalk; most of the new complexes are arranged around courtyards; and, despite the modest budgets, large public hallways are the rule.

 But the riskiest and most innovative principle, and one insisted upon by Josef Kleihues, an IBA director, was the guarantee of diversity among the buildings on a single block. In general, one architect would devise a schematic master plan for each block or neighborhood, and several different architects would execute the buildings. Coherence was ensured by the master plans (and the overall IBA guidelines governing density, size and layout); architects of disparate sensibilities working independently provided the physical quirks and dissonances that enliven cities. It is encouraging and slightly incredible that a big-city government, with its bureaucratic instinct for conformity, could accommodate such an unpredictable kind of patchwork pluralism.

 Most of the IBA buildings were designed between 1979 and 1984, at the peak of international postmodern fervor. Rather than returning to neoclassical forms, as postmodernism has generally meant in the U.S., the IBA architects have tended to borrow from the early 20th century avant-garde. Aside from Kleihues, Rob Krier is probably more responsible for the results than any other architect. He was master planner for three important IBA blocks. While none of Krier’s IBA architecture is great, all of it is good. His best is the main building (of nine) of a rather formal housing estate near the Tiergarten, West Berlin’s big central park. The main facade, an outthrust white shield, could be the refurbished fragment of an ancient Roman circus. But in pure postmodern fashion, the metaphors are freely mixed: facing the long central lawn on the interior is a handsome pair of neo-medieval towers in red brick, and windows copied, it seems, from a 19th century factory.

 Behind the Krier shield sit two rows of four buildings of modest size: five stories, five apartments to a floor. The most extravagant is by Hans Hollein, a ((pink and blue and yellow and red)) box with broad, flaring eaves and lights embedded in column capitals — the largest Memphis-style object ever constructed. The best of the lot is Aldo Rossi’s low-key construction of red brick and yellow block. The colored bands recall Schinkel, the octagonal clerestory recalls Rossi’s own floating Venetian theater, and the exposed I- beam “lintels” over the windows remind us that architecture is about construction as well as decoration.

 IBA’s two most controversial projects are by Americans, mannerists at extreme opposite ends of the architectural spectrum. One is a sprawling apartment complex in a suburban resort town by Charles Moore (with his partner John Ruble), the other a cramped commercial and residential building overlooking the Wall by Peter Eisenman. The Moore buildings at Tegel are, as his critics have charged, Disney-like, a mite overeager to please. But Tegel is a resort town; the complex was meant to be a playful place, and it is easy to play along with Moore’s California-cum-German-romantic palette (pastel peach and blue), the dormers and gables that crop up without warning, the classicized little plazas and passageways. Two other romantic American architects, Robert Stern and Stanley Tigerman, have designed wildly baroque villas to be built next door.

 Just as Moore, sunny and prolific, is easy to like, Eisenman, prickly and abstruse, all but curries the disfavor of his peers and the public. His building overlooking Checkpoint Charlie is, but for its adherence to the local height standard, willfully anticontextual, an asymmetrical collage of gray boxes among beaux artsy commercial buildings. Like every Eisenman work, it is a hermetic abstraction, a portentous recapitulation of De Stijl that comes off less as homage than as labored parody. As an object, it is pleasing (and familiar) enough: blue and white grid overlaid on red grid overlaid on grids of white window mullions, with the building’s axis cocked just enough to suggest that something important and subtle is going on. What the architect intends, perhaps, to be the structural equivalent of a Borges story is instead an overgrown Rubik’s Cube. Eisenman has built another of his trademark brainteasers here, and proximity to the Wall is supposed to invest it with special significance.

 There are dozens of other intriguing IBA buildings. The water plant at Tegel by Gustav Peichl is a gorgeous, articulate piece of industrial architecture in the early 20th century German tradition. Just west of Mies’ National Gallery, James Stirling’s social-science center, a compound consisting of three pieces (the largest a low-rise circular building, reminiscent of Stirling’s museum in Stuttgart), will be finished later this year. Frei Otto’s Okohaus is a winsome sop to the Greens, West Germany’s radical party of pacifists and ecological zealots. In the middle of West Berlin, within a bare-bones superstructure to be built by the government, back-to-the-land devotees will put up their own huts and grow their own vegetables.

 For IBA, deciding which architects would be invited to compete was, not surprisingly, a highly political process. “We didn’t want big-scale ’70s architects like ((Helmut)) Jahn,” says Gudrun Hamacher, an architect who is a member of IBA. “They didn’t fit. We wanted architects.” In fact, IBA got just about everyone it wanted to participate (notable exceptions: Robert Venturi, the prototypical American postmodernist, and the high-tech Britons Richard Rogers and Norman Foster). Local protectionist sentiment ran high, but as it turned out — indeed, as it was probably intended from the beginning — foreigners won the competitions disproportionately. “The pressure from Berlin architects was very hard,” says Hamacher, but the influx of renowned Auslander, she says, “has been a fine influence on Berlin architecture. Berlin is isolated, like an island, and so this outside influence has been very good.”

 Berlin’s social visionaries have not often been open to such influence. The city held its first two modern architecture expositions when Mies was still a Berlin architect, in 1910 and 1931, but those were mere gallery exhibits of plans and models — vast schemes, many of them, but safely confined to the drawing boards. It took National Socialism to carry out the demolition and reconstruction of Berlin neighborhoods. The Nazis may have hated the stylistic innovations of the architectural avant-garde, but when putsch came to shove, Albert Speer and Walter Gropius shared a contempt for the dense, accreted idiosyncrasies of the old-fashioned inner city. It was the modern duty to impose a new orderliness — an abstract, machine-made order before 1932; a brutish, pseudo-ancient order after.

 During the last years of World War II, most buildings in central Berlin were destroyed. Postwar planners, in a kind of survivors’ frenzy, pulled down much of what remained intact, finishing with bulldozers and wrecking balls what the bombs had begun. They clung to their modernist faith, bedazzled by the idea of starting anew. The war had given their ahistorical impulse — Erase the past! — maniacal urgency. The denuded cityscape was regarded in the ’40s and ’50s as the war’s silver lining, a great opportunity. New buildings would be high-rise, set far apart and back from the streets. Density would be low. Technocrats would rule.

 Berlin’s third great architecture exhibition, the Interbau of 1957, was the high-water mark of this slightly mad, modern abstractionism, and the first such exhibition that produced a thicket of real buildings. “Planning for the City of Tomorrow” was the theme, and the results were as blandly anodyne as the motto suggests. A whole section of the city was turned into an urban- renewal proving ground, an amorphous campus where highly evolved notions of citified density were abandoned: each forgettable high-rise was an isolated Objekt plopped in sunny isolation on a lawn.

 During the ’60s, the Wall was meant to stop Easterners from heading West, of course, but it also severed the western half of the city from Berlin’s rich historical center and deprived West Berliners of access to the East’s many parks. What is more, the cutoff of laborers from East Berlin prompted West Berlin to undertake a crash program of apartment building to attract new workers from West Germany and abroad. The main result was slapdash, tired- looking Alphaville architecture, Interbau without airs.

 Against this background, the singular hubris of IBA was to try to have it both ways — a large-scale building program like those of the ’20s and ’50s, but with the strong concern for tradition and diversity that has predominated in the late ’70s and ’80s. The ambitions were grand, in true German style, but not grandiose. Indeed, Kleihues himself has written that IBA is “ultimately doomed to fall short of the aims it has set itself.” Yet those aims were liberating because they were antimonumental. Berlin has lived (and nearly died) through all the various 20th century dreams of how cities ought to be. IBA, to its everlasting glory, had instead a clearheaded vision of how good cities are, and set out to restore the rules of scale and diversity that made them that way.