KSA Vienna ’09: Berlin [TXT]

[ Ruins of the Berlin Wall ]After spending 5 days relaxing in Basel, I flew to Berlin to begin the KSA study abroad program. We were in Berlin for a total of five nights: one of our longer stays. Urbanistically, Berlin is the most interesting city we visited, due to its post-war partitioning and subsequent development post-unification.

Rem Koolhaas’s essay on the Berlin wall (Field Trip: (A)A Memoir: The Berlin Wall as Architecture, in S M L XL) demonstrates the huge potential Berlin holds for speculative architectural theory. Koolhaas treats the wall not as a simple border or an object, but as a fluid zone whose contraction and expansion through space (and over time) supports (or denies) various geometries and various means and methods of construction. He treats the Wall as a kind of parametric equation: a certain thickness in plan is required for a simple barbed wire fence… a little more for a concrete wall… yet more for two walls flanked by guard towers… and he shows how the wall snakes through the city, a dynamic work of anonymous architecture that imposes certain programattic effects through geometry, a trait Koolhaas attempts to recreate (though with perhaps nobler intent) in his own work.

[ Diagram of the Berlin Wall ]The phenomenon of the Wall is, I think, the most interesting feature of Berlin’s urban landscape. Dividing the city for years, it caused Berlin to lose its center, and to develop more as a network of nodes, a fact represented well by the Berlin subway map, which still retains vestigial traces of the divide, with lines that had to be stitched together after the reunification. The centers of activity in Berlin remain split – the East retains some Communist “charm” and has become a somewhat seedy center of youth culture, while the West has largely soldiered on as a contemporary city par excellance.
With the wall in place, post-war architects were able to create a dialog – or at least a monologue – as architectural projects for West Berlin could be seen either as beacons of hope for those suffering under Communism, or as glaring examples of capitalist ostentation. Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic and Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery are products of this period of post-war/post-wall development in West Berlin (completed 1963 and 1968, respectively).

[ Mies Van der Rohe’s National Gallery ]

[ Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic ]These projects were built close to the border between east and west, and can be understood as statements about the freedom the West Germans enjoyed under capitalist rule. The Berlin Philharmonic features a theater-in-the-round configuration, the stage engulfed by the audience. This and the multiple access paths from the open lobby below to the main auditorium volume serve to deny the theater a clear heirarchy, an architectural move that supports Scharoun’s desire to give every audience member a decent seat – an ambition in theater design found as early as Palladio’s Teatro Olympico.

[Andrea Palladio/Bertotti Scamozzi, Teatro Olympico]

In Palladio’s design (perhaps attributable to Scamozzi, designer of the elaborate background setpiece), trompe-d’oleil roads radiate from the center of the stage, away from the audience. The center road provided the nobles and VIPs with the ideal perspective, but the innovation lies in the flanking streets, where the perspective trick is most effective for those in the cheap seats on the sides of the theater. Scharoun’s theater picks up the goal of egalitarian planning, but takes it a step further in the wake of a war caused in part by massive assemblies of the populus: the theater divides the audience into numerous small sections, preventing their coallition into any larger, more dangerous whole.

Mies van der Rohe attempts to reconcile the iconographic neccessity of a new national gallery with an experiencial progression that attempts to make sense of the role of the public in the new German republic. While classically-proportioned and set atop an imposing plinth, the National Gallery is subtly subversive. The facade facing East Berlin is monumental, apparently approacable on axis, and symettrical. One would imagine the approach to be comprable to Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altesmuseum, (whose work is a precursor of both Albert Speer’s Fascist neoclassicism and Mies’ modernism), but this is not the case. Approaching the building from the West, you must ascend a stairway that runs up the side of the plinth. The building reveals itself at an odd angle: you must traverse the barren square to find the entrance, forcing independence and responsibility on the visitor. Once inside, the empty gallery space seems to await a great new movement; the art of the past has been relegated to the basement. This public void acts as a kind of sign of transparency. The pavers align to the same grid as interior tiles, the roof structure, and window mullions, as if drawing equivalence between the interior and exterior: architecture that has nothing to hide.
Unfortunately, recent post-unification developments in Berlin have not had quite the same theoretical richness (or aesthetic beauty). With the wall gone, the center of the city is available once more for real estate development, most of which has occurred (apparently) by comittee, Postdammerplatz providing the best (worst) example. Masterplanned by Renzo Piano and featuring buildings by prominent international architects, the resulting square lacks character. Clad unifromly in a terracotta tile that has little to do with context or history, this coporate wasteland is devoid of life, looking more like Columbus, Ohio than the center of one of Europe’s greatest capitals.
Luckily, Berlin remains a lively, exciting city: you only need to venture across the border. East Berlin is home to hip bars, dance clubs, independent businesses, and an exciting streetscape. Whether this is due to or despite its long isolation and recent reconnection is a question I’ll leave open for now….
Next up: Day Trips from Berlin: Dessau, Leipzig, Potsdam, and Wolfsburg


  • doctorcasino

    Nice synthesis. As a general unsolicited suggestion: try to be explicit about who's saying what. The parts that are you will shine a lot brighter when you identify the parts taken from Jeff (as you do for Koolhaas)…

    I maintain that part of why Potsdamerplatz is such a disaster has to do with the speed of execution (and, in a related vein, the short historical distance between then and now). Everything got executed at once, and maybe seemed diverse at the time, but now just looks like the state of the art of 1996. (Except the Richard Rogers building, which is something more spectacularly awfulsome.)

    Meanwhile, there hasn't been enough of an opportunity for things to get altered, screwed-up, bulldozed, redone, etc – give it a hundred years maybe. Whenever someone proposes to do something vicious to the big octagon block, I can't imagine there'll be much resistance. The big movement for "critical reconstruction" (ie wack historicism and maintaining of lot lines/cornices) has already pretty much spent itself, with the Dutch Embassy maybe being the last major project that had to grapple with it in any substantial way. Of course, I haven't asked any Germans if they feel buyer's remorse about Potsdamerplatz but I'm just assuming they think it's as awful as I do….

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