Chipperfield is wrong about Berlin

GSW Headquarters Berlin, 1991-99 by Sauerbruch Hutton

GSW Headquarters Berlin, 1991-99
by Sauerbruch Hutton

It is tempting to see David Chipperfield’s eulogy to Berlin – in opposition to London and other cities – as sour grapes. The English architect is after all engaged in two particularly protracted protests from heritage groups regarding his plans for the Shell Centre and the extension to the Geffrye Museum. In Berlin meanwhile he can do no wrong. He is currently exhibiting in the Neue Nationalgalerie and building all over the city. Yet sour grapes doesn’t quite explain it all. His speech quoted in the Guardian and then printed at length therein shows that he fails to appreciate what a huge lost opportunity Berlin was and how it has become an even more staid architectural environment since. If we we look at the architectural history of Berlin since the Wall came down, later even than the International Bauaustellung which brought Rossi and OMA to West Berlin, then we can see that Chipperfield’s speech is more about himself than the city.

Berlin in the 1990s appeared to offer huge prospects to architects from all over the world not simply because of the reconstruction required but because of the intoxicating context in which any work might be done. Architects rocked up in the city expecting a new economic boom and an enlightened architectural culture, given the exciting times in the city’s music and art scenes. As we known the boom was short-lived and the city’s brief construction period ended quickly. A far greater catastrophe however was the sudden arrival of a highly conservative planning culture which sought to level out the huge range of architectural expression that existed in both the former East and West and turn Berlin into “another European city”. As if such a thing existed.

Yet this is what Hans Stimmann attempted to do. Stimmann stood like a colossus over the city’s planning department particularly during the years of 1999 and 2006 when he was the Berlin’s Senates Building Director or Senatebaudirektor. During this time Stimmann, lambasted by braver architects during his tenure, genuinely attempted to create an architectural and planning normalisation of a place in which the great ideological forces of the 20th century had expressed themselves in dramatic architectural form. The Fehnseturm The Funkturm. The Hotel Stadt (now the Park Inn). The BfA Hochhaus. Gropius’s Wohnhochhaus.

Chippefield in his speech suggests that Berlin maintains “strange physical proximities and rich social overlaps that have elsewhere been smoothed out by urban gentrification.” This would be laughable if he didn’t actually clearly mean it. One of the very real truths of gentrification is not its smoothness but its jarring inconsistencies. The empty housing estates that the mothers of E15 are trying to reclaim are adjacent to the Olympic Park, the largest regeneration project in Europe. The inconsistencies that Berlin produces are all due to its 20th century history – something that should be revealed, explored and developed upon – and nothing to do with what Stimmann attempted during his reign at the head of planning. He attempted as much as was possible to level out the inconsistencies of urban living in formal terms, and by doing so, apparently end them.

Throughout his reign Stimmann insisted on a uniform building height in the centre of the city which may not have had as detrimental effect on the Mitte as the Royal Air Force or those that built the Wall but it was still impressive given that his tools were planning advice and committees rather than bombs and concrete blocks. His banalisation of the complex relationship between the different modernisms of the East and West was attempted under the guise of a vaguely historicist but ultimately ahistorical agenda. Afraid perhaps of addressing some uncomfortable truths about Berlin’s history in the 20th century his vision of the city was to return to a 19th century urban grid and planning regulations that may have suited the Eixample in Barcelona in the 1860s but not a city dealing with the most extreme effects of World War II and the Cold War simultaneously.

The idea is as unappealing as it is ridiculous. Walking through the Mitte today is like being trapped in a filing system. Other failures such as Potsdamer Platz and the ludicrous ideological motivated destruction of the Palast der Republik – one of the greatest acts of historical censorship that has occurred in post-War Europe – happened on his watch; architectural acts determined to deny that Berlin is a cosmopolitan city with a dramatic history and astonishing varied architectural patrimony. Which history is Chipperfield talking about in his speech; the German romanticism of the 19th, or the ugly real history of the 20th century which Berlin is formed by?

Yes, I can see the great value in Chipperfield’s work on the Neues Museum, we should not mistake this conservation work on a single complex of buildings for a manifesto on the city’s urban structure as he apparently does. One of my favourite buildings in Berlin is the GSW Tower by the Anglo-German practice Sauerbruch Hutton. What SH did at the GSW was attempt to address the monumental scale of Berlin’s architectural patrimony, like the Treptowers did, but make it operate on a human scale. It is a bold gesture, a colourful slab block which is caught best looking from west to east with the towers around Alexanderplatz framing it. It is part of Berlin’s recent past. It took SH a decade to build mainly because Stimmann kept trying to kill it. So when I read Chipperfield saying that “we should admire what has been achieved since 1989” I can’t agree.

I love Berlin but not the one that Chipperfield champions. He presents its contemporary architectural culture as a construct in the battle against capitalism,  a triumph of architecture over image, but it is nothing of the sort. Its just the product of a pretty short sighed but very old fashioned conservatism. When he says Berlin is engaged in “a continuous process of self-description” what he in fact means is that the planning culture in the city is constantly trying to constrain and confine architectural expression according to a bizarrely outdated set of formal obsessions which appear to be finally, thankfully faltering. Chipperfield says:’Berliners don’t know whether the arrival of Frank Gehry and his twisted tower on Alexanderplatz will be the beginning of a bright future or the end of an innocent era.’

Now I quite like some of Gehry’s work but even I have to concede it is hardly the most avant-garde expression of the city’s breath-taking individuality; its almost mythical singularity. To me the arrival of the tower marks nothing but a massive missed opportunity. Even after Stimman’s demise Berlin’s architectural culture is only just emerging from a false historicism, focused entirely on its 19th century patrimony. Chipperfield’s classicism fits with this agenda all too easily. It is a pleasant irony therefore that he is getting clobbered by the heritage lobby in London. Perhaps the motivation of the entire speech is his chagrin that London’s version of architectural heritage involves protecting existing things like the views of a parliament building and an old boozer rather than offering lucrative conservation jobs on bombastic 19th century institutions to architects.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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