Berlin has been awash with museum and gallery reopenings and renovations in recent times. Stephen Hitchins picks out the most eye-catching
Words by Stephen Hitchins
‘Willkommen in Berlin.’ Berlin ought to collapse under the weight of its past. It has produced more history than it can consume – and more history than the rest of us can easily digest. Dealing with the past, its 20th century alone was scarred by revolution, tyranny, genocide and partition, each remembered in the solemn monuments and museums that dot the city today.
But there has always been another Berlin, a blank slate and haven for people with free spirit seeking cheap rent, likeminded souls and perhaps a second adolescence. This is a metropolis of edgy galleries, smoky bars, empty streets and casual liaisons; of learning German, internships and soulsapping battles with the paperpushers of the Ausländerbehörde, the immigration office. It is a wonderful city. And despite all the restrictions that we live under these days, a great deal has been happening. Not least, the new airport is finally open; there are new offices; a new multi-faith place of worship is under construction; and the National Gallery by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe has been renovated – at last. Here follows a round-up of the biggest and best projects.
Neue Nationalgalerie and the Museum of the 20th Century
The facade of Herzog & de Meuron’s Museum of the 20th Century. Image Credit: HERZOG & DE MEURON
The showrooms are shut, the streets only recently coming back to life. After almost a year of Covid-19- related restrictions, a gallery’s ability to display and sell contemporary art has had to adapt. Brick-and-mortar galleries that once validated the reputations of contemporary artists and the prices asked for their works are beginning to close, permanently. Art fairs have gone online, and the private galleries have had to rethink and adapt. Meanwhile, the past is always present.
The five-year renovation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, led by David Chipperfield, has been completed. No beginner at less-is-more architecture – or less-is-more anything, for that matter – the gallery is still a triumph. The building had not undergone any major works since it was completed in 1968. One of Mies’s last major projects and the only building erected in Germany after he emigrated to the US, this is not so much a reinterpretation as a repair job, with glazing replaced, the steel structure recoated and re-welded, and the concrete structure restored. This much-fetishised modern monument is a hopeless museum where, in order to maintain the purity of its form, the art is buried underground. The architecture is all lobby and absolutist statement. It is due to reopen in August. Here’s hoping.
The ground floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie, where Mies’s staircase leads down to the artwork it houses
It will be connected via a tunnel to a new Museum of the 20th Century, which is being built next door. Taken together, the two buildings will offer a comprehensive overview of 20th-century art. At one end, a huge window will frame a view of the Nationalgalerie, while the main entrance will face Potsdamer Straße, where two huge sliding doors will be used to advertise exhibitions. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, this bizarre barn-like structure with perforated brick-wall facades and a pitched roof will complete the Kulturforum district near Potsdamer Platz. The site has been awaiting this final piece of its architectural jigsaw since 1998. The collection of cultural buildings includes the two concert halls of the Philharmonie on Herbert-von-Karajan Straße designed by Hans Scharoun – opened in 1962 and a model for a generation of music venues – and the Gemäldegalerie, designed by Hilmer & Sattler to house one of the world’s leading collections of European paintings, from the 13th to the 18th centuries – including Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer – made up from two collections brought together when the museum administrations of East and West reunited.
House of One
Construction began in May on the House of One, a place of worship for Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Image Credit: THOMAS BRUNS
A new type of sacred building with Jews, Christians and Muslims all worshipping together under a single roof – imagine that. But it will happen this year in a building that will be home to the world’s three primary monotheistic religions. It will be built on the foundations of Berlin’s oldest church, which once stood on Petriplatz. This faith centre is the product of a grassroots group of three religious communities. The initial idea came from the Protestant church community St Petri-St Marien, which then joined forces with the Jewish community of Berlin, the rabbinical seminary Abraham-Geiger-Kolleg, and the Muslim initiative Forum Dialog. It will be the ultimate expression of diversity in unity.
An open competition for the design was won by the Berlin studio Kuehn Malvezzi, a firm known for the design and reorganisation of a number of contemporary and historical art collections, and, particularly, preservation issues for listed buildings such as: the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, the Museum Berggruen and the Museum of Decorative Arts (both in Berlin), as well as the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Brunswick. The House of One will be a contemporary expression of religious life expressed in an equally modern architectural language, one that will include an 8m-high hall set to contain the archaeological findings connected with the original church. Before the foundation stone was laid in May this year, over 4,000 skeletons had been recovered from the site.
The last vestige of the Anhalter Bahnhof: its entrance portico. Image Credit: STIFTUNG EXIL MUSEUM BERLIN, FOTO: RENÉ ARNOLD
Earlier this year, an international architectural competition for the Berlin Exilmuseum was won by the Danish architect Dorte Mandrup. The idea for the museum can be traced back to the work of photographer Stefan Moses, who from the 1950s onwards took pictures of migrants. His portraits form the basis of Deutschlands Emigranten, a book that features around 120 biographies.
Dorte Mandrup’s vision of the Exilmuseum on the site of the old station, so often a terminus of political emigration. Image Credit: THE EXILE MUSEUM, DORTE MANDRUP A/S. ILLUSTRATION BY MIR
Scheduled to be completed in 2025, it is to be built on a site that has stood empty for 75 years, where the Anhalter Bahnhof railway station used to stand on Askanischer Platz. The project forms a backdrop to the ruins of the former station’s main portico, which was the city’s largest railway terminus, where countless persecuted people boarded trains in an effort to flee the country. Current movements of refugees and migrants sharpen the public’s sensitivity to themes such as expulsion, emigration, exile and genocide. A memorial of the past and a vehicle for future awareness and solidarity, the Exilmuseum’s core project addresses the years 1933 to 1945, but it also keeps an eye fixed on the present, bridging the gap between Nazi-era expulsions and exile in our own times. The overarching issue is human experience, uniting stories of exile from different eras and places. In a minimal but forceful gesture, the softly curved facade makes use of millions of yellow bricks like those that covered the site after the Anhalter Bahnhof was destroyed by bombing in 1943.
Oscar Niemeyer Haus
Completed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1957 for Interbau, a social housing initiative, and ‘an open air museum of modern architecture’, this was one of 48 projects designed by a prestigious group that included Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier. The only non- European in the team, Niemeyer’s design is a concrete frame construction resting on chunky V-shaped pillars in a typical modernist solution. Tucked beneath the building are the entrances clad in small red and blue mosaic tiles. It is a reinforced concrete cross-wall construction, cast on site, with open facades behind loggias to the west and continuous strips of windows to the east. All 78 apartments have balconies, retractable orange awnings and glass patio doors. Several apartments cut right through the building from east to west, and therefore cannot be reached by the corridors – only via the six interior stairwells and the lift tower that stands away from the building. It is possible to visit, and is certainly worth passing by for a quick look.
Architect Franco Stella rebuilt the Humboldt Forum from its original Berlin Schloss construction plans. Image Credit: CHRISTOPH MUSIOL
Located at the dead centre of Berlin is a building that pretends the past never happened. The Humboldt Forum, Germany’s equivalent to the Louvre and the British Museum, finally opened with a ceremony just before Christmas. Conceived 20 years ago, the opening was digital, and then it had to close again. There was a modest live-streamed tour of the exhibition spaces, with short statements by curators and other leading figures from the project. It deserved better; it deserved a party. It was very anticlimactic, and not what one of Europe’s most expensive and ambitious cultural undertakings deserved. And yet, the public is still sceptical about the whole idea.
Housed in a reconstructed baroque palace designed by the Italian architect Franco Stella, the Humboldt will eventually showcase thousands of ethnological artefacts, many of which were acquired during the colonial era. Historically, Germany came to empire-building later than other European powers, but its colonial activities involved atrocities just as lamentable as every other. Many of the objects in the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’s collection were gathered in a spirit of scientific inquiry as explorers brought objects back from around the globe to preserve and learn from them, but countless items were, as with all other colonial powers, seized by force or through coercion. As if there was not enough cause for criticism from anticolonial voices, the building and its site provides yet more ammunition.
Like the exterior, Stella’s interior combines ornate neoclassicism with sleek minimalism. Image Credit: ALEXANDER SCHIPPEL
The original Berliner Schloss was built by the Hohenzollern dynasty in the 15th century, then expanded by Frederick III in the 19th. Left in ruins after 1945, Marx- Engels Platz (now Schloßplatz) was used as a parade ground by the East German state before the palace was demolished in 1950, and the Volkskammer, its parliament, was erected. A bronze-tinted glass and marble showcase, the Palast der Republik, opened in 1976 as an image of democracy. After reunification, however, lawmakers voted to tear it down and construct a facsimile of the original schloss, or palace – a decision many still see as an erasure of East German history and ‘Westification’ rather than reunification.
Reconstructed to the original palace plans – with original statuary reinstated as well – Stella inserted one minimalist Mussolini-lite side. The latent undertone of a fascist aesthetic in a reconstructed imperial palace in the centre of Berlin is unsettling, where any attempt to create a neutered neoclassicism shorn of detail but not historic association is a tough ask.
It is vast: 42,000m2. It has more exhibition space than the whole of Berlin’s Museum Island. The interior is sleek, but there have been so many problems that, however unfairly, it has been compared with Berlin’s disastrous new airport (page 104). It is late, over budget, still unfinished and beset by defects. At €677m, it is one of Europe’s most expensive new cultural buildings in an era when expensive cultural buildings have gone out of fashion. Resistance to the Humboldt Forum stemmed from the horrors of the Nazi regime, which bred cynicism towards patriotism, big statements and big projects. Yet just like anywhere else, Germany has a responsibility to look back on its crimes and to open itself up to world culture. This is a tough one.
Designed by David Chipperfield Architects, the James-Simon-Galerie is an intelligent contemporary addition to Museum Islands. Image Credit: STAATLICHE MUSEEN ZUBERLIN/DAVID VON BECKER
Seen from the Schlossbrücke, the James-Simon-Galerie can appear to be little more than a set of steps and a delicate colonnade. Named after a great patron of Berlin museums, this is an extremely discreet modern addition to the Museumsinsel, or Museum Island, Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s ‘cultural acropolis’. It is the first new building there in over a century. David Chipperfield Architects’s design problem was how to navigate the dangerous waters of Berlin neoclassicism in the wake of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the eddies of Albert Speer – the architectural memories of empire and totalitarianism, respectively – and to harbour the building in the city’s difficult history. With its belvedere and temple, it reconciles the past with the present, achieving both a reflection of the past and a timelessness that will endure. That is rare. Caught between discretion and visibility, it is practically impossible to see the scale of the building. Nevertheless, it lifts the curtain on a piece of architectural theatre that connects the Neues, the Altes and the Bode Museums in an archaeological promenade, and pulls together the various layers of building, bringing some clarity to the complexity of classicism. It may aim at a kind of neutrality but it is anything but. Chipperfield is too experienced a director not to take advantage of the last scene in the play. His first proposal would have been executed in glass. Thankfully, it was rejected. If he was alive to see it, Henri James Simon – who, among other things, gifted the famous Nefertiti bust to the city – would be happy.
Kadawittfeld’s update of the Komische Oper will include multiple new surfaces. Image Credit: KADAWITTFELDARCHITEKTUR
At the end of 2020, the German studio Kadawittfeldarchitektur won the competition to renovate, modernise and extend the Komische Oper near Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz. While a proposal by REX, the New York firm of Joshua Ramus, a former partner at OMA New York, received a great deal of media attention – chiefly, one suspects, for a couple of its Instagrammable ideas, especially one huge cantilevered section over an ‘ever-changing public square’ at the corner of Behrenstraße and Glinkastraße – it was the Aachen-based outfit that held off 62 other competitors, including OMA Rotterdam and Rem Koolhaas.
Kadawittfeld boasts an exceptionally wide-ranging portfolio of projects such as: the recently completed redesign of the former Deutsche Bahn head office building in Cologne, now used by the European Aviation Safety Agency; a major upgrade to the central station in Salzburg; a research and development facility for Adidas at its headquarters in Herzogenaurach, and a grandstand for the dressage stadium in Aachen. Today, the Komische Oper is a slightly timeworn complex, incorporating a variety of listed structures completed at numerous periods between 1890 and 1980. It will be remodelled, refurbished and extended with a variety of facades to a series of stacked elements, a new differentiated structure of small-scale volumes to give the building a more human scale, and various balconies, loggias and planted roof terraces. It is expected to be completed in 2029. The new design is something of a chameleon, a cultural metamorphosis, a building of diversity and innovation, a reflection of musical theatre itself.
3XN’s tessellations for the Cube’s exterior are maintained inside as well
At the end of last year, the Danish architecture studio 3XN built an office building on Washingtonplatz finally completing a master plan for the area drawn up 30 years ago by Oswald Mathias Ungers. Ungers was an architectural theorist known for his rationalist designs and love of cubes. The sculptural centrepiece to the square alongside the Spree river faces the entrance to the Hauptbahnhof. Cube Berlin, as 3XN refers to it, has a double-skin facade, cross ventilation, rooftop solar panels and an automated heating and ventilation system that is highly energy efficient. Clad entirely in glass, the faceted triangular relief pattern creates outdoor balconies for the offices on every floor. With unique facades in all directions, the complexity of the appearance is made up by articulating just 12 different glass elements.
The building’s triangular cuts presage a highly energy-efficient office block that completes the Washingtonplatz master plan
The studio is previously responsible for the flowing form of the International Olympic Committee headquarters outside Lausanne, a building that was all about movement and transparency, flexibility and sustainability. At the end of 2020, 3XN unveiled a proposal for two interconnected office towers at Broadgate for British Land, which are characterised by triangular patterns that combine solid and glazed sawtooth-shaped facade modules reminiscent of the building in Berlin. Angles again dominate the practice’s design for the tallest timber office building in North America in Toronto’s Bayside area near Lake Ontario, which features huge zigzagging windows, staggered roof terraces and diagonal cuts in the middle of the structures that mark out communal areas inside the buildings.
Long overdue, the airport only opened for business last October. Image Credit: GÜNTER WICKER
Last October, Berlin’s new international airport opened, a decade behind schedule and three times over budget. The timing, right in the middle of one of the worst crises in global travel, could not have been worse. Dogged by technical difficulties, incompetent planning and dizzying management changes, it was already a laughing stock and a national embarrassment; a gleaming empty monument to a bygone era of mass tourism and global mobility that Covid-19 seemed to bring to a screaming halt.
Passengers navigate the leviathan. Image Credit: GÜNTER WICKER
Established to cater for up to 55 million travellers a year, this vast and expensively appointed temple of travel is flooded with light, finished in dark walnut panelling and glossy sand-lime floors, sits on top of a new railway station, and is a white elephant looking for a place to hide. Berlin has fewer international connections than other leading European cities and, of the more than 100 long-haul connections to Germany last year, only seven went to Berlin. Only 10km from the centre of town, the old Berlin Tegel airport would be perfect for times like these.
Monument to Freedom and Unity
Milla & Partner’s bowl monument is designed to be dynamic, able to react alongside the people that view and engage with it
A design competition called Citizens in Motion was won in 2017 by the Stuttgart-based firm Milla & Partner. It was for a memorial to honour the peaceful reunification of Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. However, the project was rescheduled several times, and it was only in the middle of 2020 that the Monument to Freedom and Unity, a 50m-long kinetic structure, finally broke ground. It is being built in the centre of the city, where the historical axes of Unter den Linden and the Humboldt Forum meet.
Freedom and unity are not static conditions. They need to be constantly redefined and require continuous commitment, hence the bowl, which tops out the monument, is a platform designed to move slowly and gently once 20 or more people are standing on it – a reminder of the joint actions within a divided state that transformed a country. The chequered history of the location is all around. Having survived the war unscathed, an equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I was removed by the East German state in 1949, but the monument’s plinth remained: this new perspective on the notion of a memorial is being erected on it.
For the dramatic world, the pandemic is a long night of the soul. What is a theatre without an audience? Management has been forced to reconsider that question. Even without box-office revenue, most have continued paying artists, sometimes with no expectation of any product or performance in return. Home to the Berliner Ensemble, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm now has a prophylactic seating arrangement. 70% of capacity has been taken out in order to reopen for business. It is a sad sight. The alternative was no theatre at all.
The socially distanced seating in the Berliner Ensemble’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Image Credit: MORITZ HAASE
The inhospitality of most contemporary, purpose-built theatre architecture to the socially distanced imperatives of Covid-19 is a question of both public health and architectural convention. But it may well be that drama performed in the open air – precisely the healthful environs Vitruvius envisioned – better exemplifies the way forward. At the same time, a long-standing resistance to digital streaming – partially based on a fear of discouraging live attendance – has weakened. Cameras capture the performances, which may later be broadcast. Whether the death of liberal arts education, our decreasing attention spans and the financial realities of the theatre will continue to afford plays a place in culture, only the future can tell.
OMA’s glass behemoth is a monument to the power of Axel Springer’s increasingly digitalised publishing empire. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU
A faceted glass atrium diagonally bisects the latest addition to publishing giant Axel Springer’s group of buildings on Zimmerstraße, a street that previously separated East and West Berlin. With 52,000m2 of workspace for 3,000 employees, the entirely-open terraced floors have been designed to act as both a symbol and tool of the company’s transition from print to digital media. This theatrical gesture of ten staggered, cascading floors is planned around a soaring atrium criss-crossed by glazed and open bridges.
In a traditional newsroom dominated by smoke and typing journalists, everyone was aware of what their colleagues were doing and of the collective aim: a single issue, with one deadline. The genius of print is that it is a cheap, physical, hyper-accessible embodiment of a complex collective effort, for which, so far, digital has been unable to find an equivalent.
The vast newsroom atrium, with multiple levels, regions and open plan zones, connected by an intricate lattice of walkways and bridges. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU
Architectural offices are similar in that they produce complex assemblies and selections from radically different sources of information. Architects know all about speed, precision and the critical need for a smooth flow of detailed instruction. Both have suffered from the consequences of digital working: the relationship between the worker and a computer, isolating people in a bubble of introverted performance, inaccessible to collective overview. Here in Berlin, OMA has attempted to produce, insofar as it is possible, a building that broadcasts the work of individuals for shared analysis, an alternative to the formality of traditional newsrooms.