had been deemed too redolent of imperial domination to survive and was dynamited in 1950.
Determined to establish a new city centre to rival the now-abandoned
Potsdamer Platz, the East Berlin authorities replaced the Schloss with a new seat of parliament for the GDR – the Palast der Republik (1973-76). A hulking rectangular block of white marble and bronze-tinted glass, it was also a social centre for East Berliners, with a function hall, restaurant, café and cavernous foyer hung with a thousand lights.
The Palast was joined by narrow, rectilinear blocks for the governing SED party’s headquarters and the foreign ministry, all taking a defiantly Modernist form to indicate the GDR’s firm break with the past and making three sides of a square facing the Altes Museum. The group constituted a new civic forum, but this was just a part of a much grander plan.
To the east, across the river Spree, Alexanderplatz was expanded on Corbusian lines. A hotel tower (part of the Soviet-run Interhotel chain), teachers centre and congress hall were erected on a wide pedestrianised plaza flanked by monumental housing and retail buildings. Marx-Engels-Forum then connected Alexanderplatz with the civic forum; together, over a kilometre of architecture sounding the glory of the GDR, a communist reality crushing the fascist dreams of Hitler and Albert Speer.
This heroic effort was crowned by the fantastic 368 metre Fernsehturm (various, 1965-69), a concrete tower topped with a sphere which is in turn crowned with a spiked transmission mast. Enabling television and radio broadcasts to the GDR, the tower also contained a revolving restaurant and an observation lounge in the sphere, both still in use today. The sci-fi architecture continued at the base, where great concrete roofs, folded like paper darts and angled to the skies, cantilevered over the surrounding pavilions and entrance hall. Wilfully playful stairs inside and out and funky interior design completed this ‘Ossie’ Pop-techno-fantasy that aimed to out-future the West.
The past was not entirely closed to the communists. Much later, shortly before the Wall fell, the mediaeval streets of an entire city neighbourhood around the nearby Nikolaikirche that had burned in the war were replicated in faux-historical style. Inns, flats and hotels comprised this attempted resurrection of an irretrievably lost world in the shadow of the old Berlin town hall. Astonishingly, though, its buildings were assembled from crude prefabricated concrete panels which no amount of pastel paint, hanging baskets or cobblestones can disguise. The result is grim in the extreme, a ghastly parody of an misremembered past which today generates imagined thoughts of warm beer and enforced cheeriness.
The West had already used architecture as a weapon even before the Wall was built with American Hugh Stubbins’s startlingly lovely oyster-like Congress Hall (1956-57) floating on an artificial lake just behind the Reichstag, and Egon Eiermann’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachsteskirche (memorial church) finished the year of its construction. By 1965, the slick Europa Center (Helmut Hentrich and Hubert Petschnigg) with its curtain walled tower had landed next door to the latter.
Denied its artistic heritage by the loss of access to Museumsinsel, West Berlin promptly began the Kulturforum deep in its own territory. Hans Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie (1960-63, completed 1978-81) and Staatsbibliotek (State Library, 1967-78) with their joyful, upturned forms and rippled cladding drew on individualistic European architects like Alvar Aalto, a statement in itself. Other buildings were added. Ultimately this programme duplicated all the cultural venues of the East, leaving today’s reunified city remarkably well provided for in this arena.
But it may be that the GDR had the last laugh, architecturally.
Many visitors to Berlin use Tegel airport. Opened in 1974 in what was then the West and hardly touched since, Tegel’s design is very much of its period with a geometric plan, deeply-set windows with radiused corners and acres of plastic. Dating from a time when affordable international travel was still novel, its unusual ‘snowflake’ layout maintained the pre-war concept of aircraft within walking distance of the terminal. Arriving by vehicle, passengers enter a designated door, go immediately through check-in and then security (with both stages staffed by the same employees) and end up at their gate with their aircraft just beyond the windows. Those awaiting departure see those arriving at the same gate walk right past them, albeit separated nowadays by glass.
With multiple ironies the control tower of this Western gateway to the world uncannily resembles the observation towers that stalked along the Wall for so long to help keep people in, whilst in 2012 Tegel will close, replaced by an expanded Schönefeld, at the time the only airport which served the East.
It should be remembered, however, that amusing as this architectural propaganda war can seem with decades’ distance, far more was at stake at the time.
As recently as the mid 1970s, the West German government was contracting with private developers to build public fallout shelters in West Berlin, albeit that their existence was not advertised.
Thus shoppers parking their cars under the gleaming new Karee mall on Kurfurstendamm in 1974 would probably have been unaware that two floors below the West’s premier shopping street was a bunker fully equipped to house thousands for two weeks, sealed in by four airlocks and kept alive by generators, a well and stored food.
But living in this place this would have been a long way from the stories many would have heard their parents relate when talking of the previous war.
Those taking refuge in the Karee shelter at a time of international crisis – up to 3,600 – would find themselves inhabiting a concrete box of a few hundred square metres with a ceiling only a couple of metres above their heads. They would sleep on fold-down metal cots stacked four high with no bed linen. Whilst there was ventilation, there was no cooling, and so the temperature would reach 30 degrees with 90 per cent humidity. Toilets were provided at a ratio of around one between 100; bathrooms had no locks, no doors and no mirrors, to minimise suicides. A euphemistically-named treatment room would administer valium on demand. The bodies of those who died of radiation sickness would be stored in the airlocks. And two weeks was not only the minimum period of confinement (the external doors would not be opened once they were closed) but also the maximum, as the diesel fuel needed to run the generators and the air filter cartridges for the ventilation system would last no longer.
Less than one per cent of Berlin’s population had a shelter space.
The legacy of the mentality that produced such horrors as the Wall and the Karee shelter is still being addressed.
On Museumsinsel, the Neues Museum was completed in 1855 to designs by Schinkel’s student Friedrich Stüller to house the overspill from the Altes Museum. Using new iron technology in its structure and steam engines in its building, it also used new theories of museology in its presentation. The collections of ancient artefacts were shown not in neutrally-decorated galleries but rooms finished in the style of the periods in question, including Egyptian columns, astrological ceilings and frescoes, to provide a rich educational environment.
Closed in 1939, the museum was blasted in the war. An entire wing was destroyed, the main stair hall gutted and many items lost. The arrival of peace saw the building left virtually untouched. Trees grew in roofless halls, Casper David Friedrich’s Klosterruine Eldena bei Greifswald come to life, and the weather degraded what remained, though some columns and sculptural pieces were removed to storage. Safeguarding works were undertaken only in the late 1980s, just before reunification.
In 1997, British architect David Chipperfield was appointed to restore the Museum. Two years later, the entire Museumsinsel was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a masterplan was developed to embrace all of the buildings requiring attention, aimed at restoring each and re-presenting them for a new century.
Chipperfield’s intentions for the Neues Museum proved highly controversial from the beginning. Eschewing the expected option – as found with, say, the Frauenkirche in Dresden – of rebuilding in exact facsimile, he proposed instead keeping those fragments of the original building that had survived and encasing them within a new envelope. This would follow the essential outline and spirit of the old, using a new palette of contemporary but ‘noble’ materials, sympathetic to Stüller’s. Crucially, the passage of the old through time would be on display and the joins with the new made distinct. In this Chipperfield was, appropriately, following principles found in present-day artwork restoration, and also in the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments’ Venice Charter, the guide for architectural responses to such matters.
Work began in 2003 and was completed in 2009, whereupon the museum was opened to the public for a brief period before the exhibits were re-installed. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with thousands streaming through the newly made museum. Reopening proper came a few months later, and the one millionth visitor was welcomed after only one year.
Navigating Stüller’s and Chipperfield’s spaces in the Neues Museum is to navigate through layers of time and memory, with the poignant evidence of each exquisitely embedded in the next.
The wounds of the past are obvious, but tenderly engaging in their revelation of this architectural corpus. Saucer-domed ceilings now have exposed their hollow-pot bones, forty thousand of which were made anew. Frescoes are filmed to walls. Columns are flayed, chunks of fluted stone cladding clinging to patches of cement applied to raw matrix.
The new materials are few: concrete, of white cement and Saxonian marble chip aggregate, encountered polished where touched, rough-cast where not; bronze, for fixtures and fittings; glass, clear for windows, frosted for balustrades; small-scale wood block work for ventilation covers. The concrete, in particular, is mesmerising in its simplicity and tactility. It is used as marvellous tapered columns on the top-most floor and wherever else structure is absent, with both variants found together on the monumental new main stair. Reclaimed bricks, left bare, clad interiors, bridging the new and the old.
As well as the main stair, Chipperfield has re-imagined two other great volumes, intended by Stüller to simulate architectural features from antiquity. The Greek Courtyard now impresses with its scale and the play of light through a new glass roof. The only decoration is the remains of a terrifically energetic allegorical frieze depicting the eruption of Vesuvius and the burial of Pompeii – astonishingly, if co-incidentally, appropriate. Its counterpart, the Egyptian Gallery, has its overall look cooled and its levels re-thought, whilst preserving the intent of what came before.
The Neues Museum is a spectacular, beautiful achievement that engages the senses and the mind. It teaches history and what that meant for this place in a unique manner. It captures Berlin’s shifts of time in brick and stone, just as Friedrich and his fellow Romantics captured Germany’s in oil and water.
Berlin’s present has been shaped by the question asked repeatedly, after 1945, 1949, 1961 and 1989; the question of whether to rebuild.
Through the events of these years and the architectural reactions to them, Berlin has become a place where the Reichsbank, which masterminded the seizure of valuables from the victims of Nazism, is now an extension of the Federal Foreign Ministry; where an exact replica of a corner of Schinkel’s