Sunday, May 30, 2010

Großstadt Hinterland

Recently, I was on a panel with prolific vernacular-architecture hack John Thompson, where we were collectively asked this question. In his wearyingly predictable presentation about how Le Corbusier Ruined Everything (by using rationality in planning, rather than good old fashioned common sense) Thompson showed a slide of East Berlin from the TV tower, following an image of it before 1939 as a dense and oh-so-vibrant district of Mietskaserne. This was an object lesson in how mainstream urbanism seldom bothers to visit the places it glibly stigmatises, as the districts he was pointing to - northern Mitte, Friedrichshain - are fantastically (ew) 'vibrant', full of activity, culture and interest, easily among the most culturally active places in Europe, albeit in the quiet, depopulated manner of everything in contemporary Berlin.

I'd gladly write about how wonderful this part of Berlin is, but unfortunately I already did so a few years ago, with the requisite over-excitement. So in what will be yet another pointlessly enormous triple-vinyl concept album of a post (and the last of them, for a while) we will be leaving this area, which, while being utterly wonderful, is also an undeniable instance of Hipster Urbanism, to explore the western and northern outskirts of Berlin, centring on the suburban settlements built during the Weimar Republic, this time with added lurid Expressionism (I fancied a defend-the-indefensible defence of Potsdamer Platz too, but that's for another time...) The area rebuilt by Berlin's historical avant-garde has very little connection with its current avant-garde, who live either in the Mietskaserne districts of Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg, or in the prefab DDR expanses of Mitte and Friedrichshain. All of the places mentioned below are quiet, even by Berlin standards, but they suggest Berlin managed, at one point, to square a few circles - collective and individualistic, suburban and urbane, humane and futuristic, verdant and minimalist...So we will start with the Great Man himself.


There are two stations serving the Olympic Stadium built in Nazi Germany for the 1936 Olympics, one stern neoclassical S-Bahn and one perkily modernist U-Bahn; and there are two huge, vast, inescapable object buildings in the area, which surround themselves with massive swathes of open space, to create the requisite levels of amazement - the stadium itself, and the Unite d'Habitation, or Corbusier-Haus as it's known today.

Le C designed several of these, after the most famous in Marseilles. I can't speak for the others, but this one is every bit as calm, idyllic and verdant as planned, with what is no doubt the same hint of exclusivity in the original scheme. In strict architectural and planning terms, there seems to be absolutely nothing here that differentiates this one from the many lesser Unites that borrowed from it, in London and elsewhere. The difference is first one of detailing and extraneous frippery. Not only is there the painted panels inside the brises-soleil, there's also all this:

This one explains the building, especially the fact that it is 'individual-collective'...

While the rest constitute some of Le Corbusier's private games and obsessions - the Modulor Man, the boxing figure used as the measure for all things in his personal system of proportion, plus lots of rather cabbalistic geometrical/abstract symbols, maps and patterns.

Mainly, though, this is one very well-kept and well-designed but fairly standard modernist block. This one 'works', even on Thompson's terms because it is, as Blairite urban regeneration schemes always say, 'A Place Where People Want To Live', ie a desirable place, a place with cachet, a place with class. Nonetheless, the state of it is pretty stunning - even the windy void under the pilotis is sparkling.

Another very nice touch is the series of portholes at the top, which provide a viewing area, so you can see how low-rise most of Berlin is, especially in the way that the main vertical accents are TV towers - the Fernsehturm of the DDR, and Weimar's Funkturm, a beautifully odd post-Eiffel structure in its own right.

Then, going past the following Weimar house, which has been given an unfortunate UPVCing, you end up at one of the few monuments to the Third Reich to have been restored, rather than demolished.

The entrance is marked with this deeply peculiar building of indistinct provenance, a sort of Swiss/medieval/conservative modern hybrid, probably a cafe/restaurant built at the time of the station.

The stadium itself is a pure De Chirico-scape, empty, dreamlike, dominant, sinister, with the surrounding area planned as a gigantic plaza to induce maximum levels of awe. For some reason it's the acceptable face of Nazi architecture, hosting guided tours and World Cup finals, though it sums up Nazi ideology as well as anything else built in that period - encased in thousand-year rustication, a blank and faceless version of Rome with the attendant kitsch public sculpture, a convincing and unnerving attempt to stop history dead.

I would have assumed at least that these Arno Breker boys would have been given the chop, but here they are, as homoerotic as ever.

The new spaces are sinister enough in their way, an infrastructural solution with built-in surveillance, probably dating from the 2006 World Cup. I was in Berlin that year, and recall with a shiver of horror the globe of the Fernsehturm redesigned as a giant football, and the relief when I found it was temporary. At this point, apparently, people started flying German flags in their windows - disturbing enough, though thankfully nowhere near as prevalent as it is in the UK.

The U-Bahn station predates the stadium itself, designed in 1929 by the U-Bahn's architect Alfred Grenander. Suburban Londoners will recognise it as one of the main inspirations behind the Piccadilly Line stations of Charles Holden, who travelled here in 1930 looking for inspiration...

Even the brickwork and the symmetry is incredibly similar, although here, for once, the English architect might have been superior - inside the vestibule there's none of the utopian tricks with light Holden would use in the arse-end of Enfield.

The platforms are still quite fancy, though, curved and elegant, top-lit in the middle like an Arcade.


Despite being the Metropolis, the Groszstadt of 1920s Europe, Berlin didn't really do skyscrapers, perhaps considering it all a bit crass. There were a few high-rises built circa 1930, which are far more confident and sharp than anything being built anywhere else, but they stop at around 15 storeys, and weren't built as a cluster, making them harder to notice. Predating them all is the Borsigturm, designed in 1922 by one Eugen Schmohl, as the central point of a gigantic engineering works in the northern district of Reinickendorf. Like a proper skyscraper, the height was dictated by the limited space in the (suburban) area. When we visit we find a man playing a hurdy-gurdy at the bottom, as well he might.

The district is twinned with the London Borough of Greenwich, and as an industrial heritage conversion it compares weirdly with Woolwich Arsenal - here is something both more arty and more crass, a mess of the contextual and the completely alien. On one side, there's In Keeping. This is Germany, and the area is either neo-Hanseatic or Expressionist, so being in keeping involves more unashamedly modern design - ie, a bit of post-Libeskind symbolising the breaking of worlds, or something. It's very silly, but so is the original tower. While most Weimar Berlin high-rises are Cartesian skyscrapers, this one is the headquarters of the wild-eyed, wild-haired villain in a Fritz Lang film, the irrationalist underside of Weimar Modernism glowering out over the steelworkers underneath.

Many of the consumers pottering around here may indeed be ex-steelworkers, or the children thereof - no hipsters from London, New York and Tokyo here, but ordinary Germans enjoying a weekend's entertainment, in this strikingly non-contextual out-of-town cinema.

The original factory buildings are full of vaguely masonic insignia:

But the new building which shares the Borsigturm's ultra-sinister Bosses' Expressionism makes no reference to it whatsoever - a similarly utilitarian carpark, which through its eminently rational tilts and symmetries seems like a bloated organic creature, the lair of some family of gigantic insects. The sheer amount of cars winding around it strengthen this impression of random, unthinking autonomous insectoid motion.

The rest of it is a business park, which looks like all other business parks. But the arty pretensions of the scheme remain, as with the retention of one of the industrial structures as a ruin, an ornamental husk.

From here we get the U-Bahn slightly further south, to another collision of the utlitarian and the dreamlike...

Expression and Objectivity in the African and English Quarters

By this point we're in Reinickendorf, and a series of streets named alternately after places in Africa and Britain. Berlin, as those familiar with the subject will know, is a city where the politics of street names is decidedly intense, as you'd expect of a city that has alternately had an Adolf-Hitler-Platz and a Leninallee. Unlike the rest of the Eastern Bloc, streets named after revolutionaries, or the Paris Commune, all retained their names, due to the continued strength of the left here (although anything named after Lenin went, and Dimitrovstrasse became Danziger Strasse recently, to the justified alarm of some Poles). The 'African Quarter' was laid out and named when Germany administered, with great brutality, various African countries, but by the time it was built up in the '20s said colonies had been lost. As it is, the area outside the tube station is devoted, in nomenclatural terms, to two dubious things - colonialism, and social democracy at its bloody inception.

As people tend to forget that Social Democracy, as a thing separate from Communism, was to a large extent born when the SPD's leadership voted for the First World War, then when a revolution ended that, the new SPD government had the revolution's leaders shot and chucked in a canal. This is why the Social Democratic tendency to act as if they are historically guiltless rankles a bit. This is the Friedrich Ebert Siedlung, one of the largest social housing estates built in the '20s, though not one of those favoured by UNESCO. Most of it was designed by 'centrist' modernists Mebes and Emmerich, but one of the designers was Bruno Taut, a libertarian socialist who was prone to quoting Karl Liebknecht, one of those Ebert had killed. Weimar Berlin is not a simple thing.

A monument to the man himself is at the estate's centre. Like all the Weimar-era estates, this still feels very blue collar, without an assymetric fringe in sight (apart from ours).

The basic idea is very very simple - minimal architecture, lots of planting, with the architecture not doing anything so silly as imitating nature.

The entrances to the blocks of flats have the chic asymmetries the haircuts lack.

Just how much this architecture owes to painting and upkeep can be ascertained when you see the one or to they jollied up, presumably to impress UNESCO. Just down the road is some very similar housing by Mies van der Rohe, but I'm afraid we disdain Mies on this blog. This sort of thing is very nice, but in outer Berlin there's a lot of it, and the domineering mentalism of the Borsigturm had put us in the mood for something with a little less Sachlichkeit. This we found just round the corner, in the Mullerstrasse Siedlung, designed for municipal tram workers in 1926-7, by Jean Kramer, an architect known - if he's known at all - for designing Europe's first traffic light at Potsdamer Platz (recently rebuilt).

It makes the Borsigturm look postively Sachlich, so ferocious is its Expressionism; this is architecture as the Ruskin of The Nature of Gothic would have understood it, wilfully twisted, melodramatic, grand guignol, where the intricacy of the workmanship and the pointed, scraping direction of the forms is all.

There's several blocks facing the street, but the real action is at the back, where twin towers stand out, a scream of Caligari horror adapted, rather staggeringly, for the purposes of social housing. You wonder who lives on the upper two floors - some misshapen maniacal character, plotting to create some monstrous fusion of organic and machinic.

By the late 20s the Neues Bauen, with its prohibition on ornament, basically had power in urban politics, with Bruno Taut as the main municipal architect, abandoning his earlier utopian expressionism in the process - so it's amazing to see this extravagant example of extreme overornamented Amsterdam School-style holding on so late. But like the Neues Bauen, it's deeply utilitarian - the (much less aesthetically wrought) tram sheds where the tenants worked are built-in, at the back, and they're still there, used by the local buses - we tried to take pictures, but were curtly dissuaded.

The argument against this sort of thing, from the leftist social architect, is: how do you expect workers to live in these bizarre, grotesque nightmares! In these top floors, shaped like the eyes of Brothers Grimm monsters! You're just building them into your fantasies! The counter-argument from the leftist social architect is: how do you expect workers to want to build your smooth, Taylorised blocks, where the slightest display of irregularity or craftsmanship would be airbrushed out of existence, where everything strains to look machine-made? Crazed this might be, but at least it's human! You're just building them into your fantasies! It's a labour theory of architectural value.

That said, there's something obsessively precise in these buildings, and a proper Ruskinian would note that it bears the marks of a controlling architect, planning out every bit of weird, irregular geometry. The way the vegetable forms are mounted by neoclassical figures supports that impression...

A short walk from here is the 'English Quarter', where the main road is Bristolstrasse, which leads to Oxforder Strasse, Corker Strasse, Dublinstrasse, Edinburghstrasse...there's something about the '20s Expressionist redbrick here which might seem at least slightly British, but with that obsessively patterned brickwork recurring in a way you wouldn't see in 1920s Bristol.

It's a Germanic version of England as the heart of the industrial revolution, rather than the confused and nostalgic nation it was by this point. The figures mounted on the corners of the buildings continue from Mullerstrasse, seeming vaguely Popish this time.

The scheme subtly bridges the all-out Ludwig Meidner howl of Mullerstrasse into Schillerpark, the first Victory of the New Building Style in the German capital - a small estate designed by Bruno Taut in 1925, swapping glass mountain cathedrals for low-rise red-brick blocks of flats.

Like the Olympia-Stadion U-Bahn, it's an inadvertent precursor of the mild-Modernism of 1930s Britain, with the main difference being the superior quality of the workmanship here, and the lack of the Evelyn Waugh exclusivity of their equivalents in Surbiton and Enfield. We stop and sit down on one of the benches here, to nurse our blisters, and ponder whether we'd want to live somewhere as quiet, idyllic and ordered as this.

Here, Taut was clearly trying to create something inbetween the intricate workmanship of Expressionism and the clipped, rectilinear precision of the Neues Bauen, and that sense of compromise is probably why it was so extremely influential. A short walk from here, though, and you have the Neues Bauen, the nascent International Style, at its whitest, purest and most rectangular - the Weisse Stadt, designed by Otto Rudolf Salvisberg and Bruno Ahrends.

Very influential on 1930s Tel Aviv, this one, and not just because of the name.

This estate was one of the most genuinely 'social' of those built in the '20s and early '30s, sponsored by the SPD city government directly, and not through the various trade union building societies that Martin Wagner, the 'Red Planner' of the city, used to raise money for his schemes. Wagner left the SPD in the early '30s, claiming that his ideas were unworkable under capitalism; but one of those who shared this view, the Communist theatre director Erwin Piscator, rented a flat here. His famously chic apartment here, extensively photogaphed and remodelled by Marcel Breuer, was allegedly the subject for Brecht's short story 'North Sea Shrimps', an allegory in which the white-walled apartment is desecrated with food and paint by an irate old comrade of the tenant. There is, depending on your view, something either incredibly inspiring or slightly unnerving about the sheer purity and brightness of this place...

...but the central point of it, a concrete entrance/bridge/apartment block, is undergoing renovations at the moment, leaving it much less sparkly than the rest. The Taylorist clock is left in place, above the graffiti.

Mendelsohn and Metropolis (1)

Architecture is not pop music, but were I forced to choose a Favourite Architect in the World Evah, a Desert Island Architect as it were, it would be Erich Mendelsohn, another figure who bridges expressionism and the sober New Building. I would say this, being an irretrievable adherent of Żydokomuna, but nonetheless. All of his buildings have a breathtaking futurist rush to them which was very influential on streamline moderne, '30s cinemas and a 'jazz modern' which to a superficial glance may seem superficial, flashy; but on close investigation they all have complexities, secrets, eccentricities. The photos above and below are of the same project, a headquarters for the Metalworkers' Union, who still occupy it. The front thrusts itself forward, with red flag flying from the frontage, and that's all well and exciting. At the back is something as clipped and mechanistic as anything in The International Style; but this being Mendelsohn, he can't resist going for a bit of Fritz Lang, with the almost panoptic central glass staircase. This building is next to lots of the 1980s IBA schemes written about so fascinatingly by Architecture in Berlin that I'm not going to recapitulate them here; instead, we're going to take a tour of failure.

The weirdest Mendelsohn building in Berlin is Mossehaus, a place with a deeply complex history. The 'Spartacus uprising' was an outbreak of fighting in 1919, where the revolutionaries were lured into a provocation by the SPD government; of their leadership, Luxemburg opposed the rising, Liebknecht supported it, but both got thrown in the Landwehr Canal after it failed. The insurrectionists were based in the newspaper district, where they were bombarded; in the process, the front of the Mosse newspaper offices was blown apart. In 1922, Mendelsohn designed a new frontage and two extra storeys; more proletarian fatalities were added to the total when the experimental concrete construction collapsed, killing several workers. Ms Pyzik thinks this place is kitschy, what with its Eagle feathers at the corners, and I suppose it is, resembling Cadillac fins as it does. It still knocks my socks off, though, one of the most powerful statements of modernist architecture as rupture. That's lessened just a little by what happened to this building after 1945 - hard up against the Wall, it was neglected and then restored in the early '90s; one wing of the Baroque building that Mendelsohn squats upon had lost its detailing, so was remodelled in the stern, bland Prussian style of 90s/00s Berlin. So Wilhelmine bombast, Weimar futurism and post-Wende revanchism are all embodied in the same structure - but I think you'll agree the second of the three wins out.

The reason why Berlin is a very nice place to live, attracting extensive 'creative class' (ew) emigration from the UK, the US, Japan and provincial Germany, is that it has no real financial district. This makes a huge and palpable difference - power is in Frankfurt, resting with the European Central Bank, and Berlin knows it. Most diplomats and ministers opposed moving the Capital back here, preferring to stay in Bonn, and so there are two now central areas which try to conjure into existence some sort of high-end metropolitan monetary hub. There's the Diplomatic Quarter round the Tiergarten and the Reichstag, and that press district beseiged by the Spartacists. Both of them feel wholly empty and depopulated, ghost towns that have had a huge amount of money spent on them. The few interesting 00s buildings are here, too - Sauerbruch Hutton's very confident and perky GSW tower, for instance...

...which looks in turn at the clumsier, kitschier gold-plated tower of the Bild-Zeitung...

...but the area around Mossehaus makes the failure of the confidence trick abundantly clear. Look at this photograph of it in the 1920s, as just one block in a bustling Groszstadt street, and then compare with this view of its surroundings:

...this is where the regeneration of the area stops abruptly, even after 20 years of reunification. There's a disconnected block with visible bomb damage, with the point where the Wall cut through it easily spotted:

...and facing that, there's the massive East German towers of Fischerinsel, which were apparently built to screen the Wall from the ceremonial spaces of the DDR capital, although they will have afforded their tenants very nice views of West Berlin in the process. I've visited this building a few times over the last six years, and always it appears surrounded by some vague building work which is never completed.

Lots of the area is fenced off, but if you hold your camera above the fence, what you see is this:

....a view of authentic Berlin Wall undergrowth and mess, and millstones and random pieces of masonry sit around, waiting to be put back into something. They got off lightly - they could have been incorporated into this:

What you can see above is the Schutzenstrasse Quarter, designed in the early '90s by Aldo Rossi. I've written before of my interest/puzzlement in Rossi, and there's more of him in the PhD; but I've never seen a single building of his that doesn't make me feel profoundly ill. It could be worse, there's also the Asda brickwork of this effort up the road. I can see what he's up to here - re-using some of the buildings which survive near the Wall, adding new ones with a similar roofline and filling in the gaps, with the colour and the differences in registers and fenestration designed to draw attention to the scheme's artifice, without wanting the sense of aggression and rupture used by Mendelsohn, when he patches up damaged buildings just up the road; in the process he tries to create a locus, a 'quarter', distinct but part of the surrounding area. But it all seems so pat, so obvious, and so basically conservative. Mendelsohn attacks the imperial city, shoves something alien into it, wants you to feel the difference; 70 years later, Rossi tries to reconstruct the imperial city, only this time making it friendly. You can add to that the irritating, and recently very common device of trying to simulate the diversity! of a block built up over decades by different landowners in one fell swoop, for a single client. This place at least deserves its depopulation.

Mendelsohn and Metropolis (2) Kino-Siedlungen

This is the Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz, the former Kino-Universum, commissioned from Mendelsohn by UFA in 1926, and where he proclaimed there would be 'No Rococo Palace for Buster Keaton'. It's now run by a leftist theatre company, which is very pleasing. We visited this place on Mayday, before making our way to Kreuzberg. I won't say much about that experience, only to state that contra Emma Goldman, if you're dancing it probably isn't a revolution; but we did see a very interesting reversal of urban priorities in the Groszstadt. This theatre/cinema is in the Ku'damm, the Oxford Street of West Berlin, the consumerist showcase that so embarrassed the Communists in the '50s. It was completely deserted, with barely a soul on the street, and not much on the road save for the speeding riot vans. After we followed these vans to Krezberg we realised where all the people had gone.

My predictable sniffiness about anything Kreuzbergerlich is worth another post that would get lots of comments, but instead, let's ponder Lehniner Platz. It's a complex, not just a cinema - the Kino is flanked on another side by a restaurant (now a bowling alley) and shops, which lead you to a luxury siedlung, significantly taller and more urban than the socialist housing in the outskirts. It essentially uses the cinema as an organising principle for the whole estate, in the sense both of having a cinema at its heart and through being deeply cinematic itself, an area ideally filmed by Fritz Arno Wagner. The only other place I've seen this outside of Berlin is at Bermondsey Square, a luxury apartment complex in south London, which was the subject of this horrible piece of class colonialism. I was hired (and paid, thank you) to talk about Pabst's Threepenny Opera at said cinema, symmetrically enough, though I didn't regard it as a 'safari'.

The curved walls of the kino and the bowling alley draw you into the housing complex; in parts, it is as clipped and rationalist as anything else in the '20s...

...until Mendelsohn breaks it up with a series of repeated semicircular windows, which on the street façade are detailed in brick, animating a (currently nonexistent) metropolitan bustle in the manner Tafuri called 'inebriating' - the brickwork returns to that of the cinema itself, suggesting maybe that the balcony-dwellers are as much an object of spectacle and voyeurism as the people on the flat screen.

There are in fact several housing schemes in Weimar Berlin which are built around cinemas. All of them were part of speculative, metropolitan developments, implicitly opposed to the suburban socialism being built by the city authorities on the outskirts - here we have a conjunction of spectacle and speculation which is very neat for historians. On occasion, these places would be designed by actual cinema set designers - the Kino-Babylon was designed by Hans Poelzig, who did the sets for Der Golem. It's on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, which was certainly not called that at the time.

The housing blocks surrounding it are even more 'jazz modern', with all their fluting and ostentatious thrusting, but they lack the sheer expansiveness and force of Mendelsohn. At one corner now is a chic nouveau Brutalist building, which was apparently opposed by local preservationists, who thought it should have continued the style established by Poelzig. Who certainly wasn't interested in continuing the style of his imperial precursors...

One last bit of Metropolis, by which time our feet were practically bleeding. This is the Atlantic Garden City, in Gesundbrunnen, Rote Wedding, designed by Rudolf Fränkel in 1929.

Like lots of things in Berlin, the Atlantic Garden City is built around an absence - the Lichtburg itself, a supercinema with a floodlight on top, in what some have speculated was a possible inspiration for Albert Speer's 'Cathedral of Light', although the similarity with Nazi architecture stops there.

The restaurant at the centre of the development is full of photographs of the cinema that was once here, but which was bombed out of existence by the Allies, and these are photographs of those photographs. This being Berlin, I wonder if there might be some attempt to try a kitschy rebuilding of it sometime...

...because when we there, the place was very eagerly selling itself - an estate agent had a small crowd around it, and panels outside detailed just how wonderful and historically significant this Weimar enclave was/is. As it happens, this is pretty much a historical footnote, a particularly compromised deco/moderne/expressionist/biedermeier melange, although one with a definite panache. What interests me about this place is what it might have thought it was when it was built. That name - Atlantische Gartenstadt.

I'm writing a thesis, you see, on Americanism in Berlin and Moscow in the '20s. It's three-quarters finished, and it doesn't find its way into the blog very often; I like to keep some things secret. But this here is a weird summation of the ideas jangling around in it (you'll have to take my word for this) - it's a 'garden city', so hence a green, ostentatiously planned alternative to the ad hoc spec city of capitalism; and in that, it's like the Taylorised suburbia of the Weisse Stadt. Except, this is commercial Berlin, not communist, as the gigantic cinema suggests, and so it can't have the rural or retro connotations of the garden city on its own - it's the Atlantic city, it's American! The country of skyscrapers, Keaton, jazz! So these are tall and properly urban blocks, supposed to be spectacular as the New York skyline - although creeping up only as far as seven storeys rather than seventy. the same time, it recapitulates Expressionism, full of jagged details and ornamentation which evokes Die Brucke, not the bauhaus. The 'garden' element comes out in the trimmings to the entrances, not in any actual 'gardens'. Nature is represented, not planted. other corners, automobile streamlining takes over, albeit still with a hint of the grottoes of Der Golem. It tries to be an architecture of motion, technology, nature, the garden and the Groszstadt all at once. As for actual motion, the U-Bahn station, built around the same time, is another of Alfred Grenander's spacious, bright, colourful caverns. You can see there an advert for DEGEWO, a building society founded by white-collar trade unions in 1924, who built and still own various Weimar estates; their stuff is relatively conservative for the time, although Google Translate still maintains that 'the goal: the housing problem should be solved socially and masses should arise for the affordable accommodation.' But no matter how avant-garde the buildings designed at the time might have been, an underlying family-values conservatism is revealed by the advert. Berlin doesn't remain Berlin, it reads, as it tells you that property can help you 'achieve your goals'.