Without Berlin Palace and without Palace of the Republic: Dieter Urbach, Marx-Engels-Platz, view from South-West on the dome and the Fernsehturm, montage, 1972 © Dieter Urbach/Berlinische Galerie
Modernism with a cummerbund
by Ralf Wollheim
Jun 1, 2015

Laughing women in short dresses or bikinis are relaxing in front of gigantic slanted high-rises and the sky is tinted dark blue. Trendy and flamboyant, the image for the flyers and brochures on the exhibition “Radically modern – urban planning and architecture in the 1960s” at Berlinische Galerie is a smart choice. For Dieter Urbach’s collage will readily reveal the small red flag only at second glance. This is how sexy East Germany aspired to be – with spectacular architecture and sunny days all around. As it is, Josef Kaiser’s proposal for this “Großhügelhaus” was never actually realized. The buildings, 1,000 meters long and with a triangular cross-section, were intended to provide housing for 22,000 people and workspaces for a further 10,000.

Not so different

This mixture of high-flying plans, utopian thinking and building styles never previously witnessed tended to shape the happy media image of architecture in the Sixties. This is juxtaposed with the large housing estates, monotonous facades and plans for a car-friendly city that spelled the – decidedly grayer – reality in 1960s Berlin. The exhibition includes countless seductive graphic designs destined to present building projects in a most favorable light. Quite surprisingly, the most effective montages, which could just as easily be Pop art collages void of any agenda, were done in East Berlin. This was also true of the graphics for the East German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, likewise by Dieter Urbach, in which the streamlined autos seem almost more important than the architecture. This fits the thrust of the exhibition, namely that architecture was not so different at the time between East and West Berlin – for all the fundamental political and ideological loggerheads. The curators wanted to avoid the Cold War rhetoric and therefore limit themselves to strong images as analogies, among other things to restore a purportedly trashed East Modernism. This corresponds to an essentially aesthetic formal view that eschews the most important edifice of the 1960s: The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, does not pop up in the exhibition at all.

In the very first room, two large aerial photos of the almost completely destroyed heart of Berlin set the scene, showing the dramatic state of things in both parts of the city. After the first reconstruction projects in the 1950s, which were diametrically opposed to each other, the one being the pompous Stalinallee in the East, the other the Constructivist/Modernist Hansa Quarter in the West, architecture in the East and West started to move in the same waters. Instead of glorious sets of turrets and towers built to dominate the city, as in Moscow in the 1940s, slender and more effective high-rise blocks went up in East Berlin.

Similar faith in progress

Capitalist models, such as the Rockefeller Center in New York City or the Europa-Center in West Berlin were given a clear ideological makeover by relying on artistic frontages. For example, Haus des Lehrer on the central square at Alexanderplatz was given a “cummerbund” as were many other buildings – in this case a mosaic that emphasized the edifice’s political purpose in monumental murals in the style of Socialist Realism, thus setting it off from the commercial buildings in the West. In terms of footprints, the projects in the East and West were not much different. After a slight time delay, high-rise blocks, glass curtain facades, sculptural shapes and broad urban freeways also came to shape the face of the heart of the East German capital. You have to look very closely to discern whether a photograph of a dominant roundabout flanked by high-rises is Ernst Reuter Platz or an early phase of Alexanderplatz. Both are indebted to a similar faith in progress that sought to structure the urban future in a rational, scientific manner. Turning away from the pre-War and by extension Nazi lineage drove both sides in their architectural attempt to head for a regained Modernism in the later post-War years.

The special projects on show, namely Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie and Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie in the West, and government buildings such as the State Council Building and the futurist TV tower in the East, represent on both sides 1960s structures of an undisputed high architectural quality. And there is much to be discovered here, such as the “Umlauftank” for the “Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau und Schiffbau” realized in Tiergarten from 1967-74 by Ludwig Leo along with engineer Christian Boës, or the science buildings by Fehling+Gogel in the West and the concrete shell structures for the Ahornblatt restaurant designed by Ulrich Müther in the East (since demolished). These unusual constructed fantasies along with those utopias that did not get realized but had already been cast as beautiful drawings make a visit to the exhibition more than worthwhile.

Standardizing on both sides

Under the slogan of “No Fear of Monotony”, mass residential construction was also the order of the day, and this has continues to shape the face of Berlin today. A wall with more than 40 different photographs of perforated and grid facades in Berlin forms the basis for a challenge for viewers: Which building stood where. After all, the two sides of the city were not far apart as regards rationalizing and standardizing residential construction, either.

Ursula Müller, who curated the show, wants to sharpen our awareness of the details and quality of 1960s architecture, and she has truly succeeded. For example, several artistic pieces in the main hall take their cue from the aesthetics of that now long past decade. Bernd Trasberger makes use of charming details, such as the serial ceramic elements of the façade of a Hertie department store, and Beate Gütschow takes fragments of brutalist architecture to create monstrous hybrids.

Radikal modern - Planen und Bauen im Berlin der 1960er Jahre
Until October 26, 2015

Berlinische Galerie
Alte Jakobstraße 124-128
10969 Berlin

The catalog, in English and German, is published by Wasmuth Verlag and costs 29.80 euros in the exhibition or 38.00 euros in bookstores.

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All a question of representation: Residential towers for 22,000 inhabitants can look this sexy. Josef Kaiser’s “Grosshügelhaus” project in the notable presentation by Dieter Urbach. Photo © Berlinische Galerie
Appartments were requested in West and East: Heinrich Kuhn, buildings by Chen Kuen Lee, Märkisches Viertel, Senftenberger Ring 80-86, 1970 © Heinrich Kuhn/Sabine Krüger
The East German Ministry of Foreign Affairs designed by Josef Kaiser – shown here in a collage by Dieter Urbach – was demolished back in 1996. Photo © Berlinische Galerie
UFOs in West Berlin’s bland district of Steglitz? A tower with several levels that links the interstate to a subway station - Ralf Schüler and Ursulina Schüler-Witte designed it, complete with viewing platform. Photo © Berlinische Galerie
In 1968 Manfred Kunze invented the city of the future. Even under Communism, traffic ruled the city in the year 2000. Photo © estate of Manfred Kunze
The competition for the urban design of Leninplatz also came under the motto of: “Giving the city a leisurely look while raising densities”. Photo © Berlinische Galerie
Rolling sidewalks on Kurfürstendamm were meant to get pedestrians off the street. A proposal by Georg Kohlmeier and Barna von Sartory. Photo © Berlinische Galerie