The exhibition on “Kultur:Stadt” at Berlin’s Academy of Arts presents 37 different cultural projects: museums, libraries and opera houses, not to mention smaller edifices and initiatives. Not all are as spectacular as Zaha Hadid’s opera house in Guangzhou, which first put the city in South China on the international map[Jeremy Ga1] . It would seem not to be all that important that the city does not have an opera company of its own. In the case of projects of this size, the content and agenda are apparently secondary.

The race to curry international favor through architecture started with the Sydney Opera House. The striking shape of the sail-like roof slices became the city’s landmark, but also symbolizes cultural life in Australia and has long since been known the world over. Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano designed a similar icon of cultural life with their Centre Pompidou in Paris. Today, its machine aesthetics still seems futuristic and is an obligatory part of any tourist route, while the other precursors of the trend on show in the exhibition (Kulturhuset in Stockholm and Interaction Centre in London) were soon forgotten.

That said, Centre Pompidou also stands for the transformation of an entire district – the exhibition’s curator Matthias Sauerbruch is interested not just in good architecture, but also in the impact of cultural buildings on cities, their inhabitants and those involved in the respective projects. At the latest since the success of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao the belief in the value of such iconic buildings seems to be beyond all doubt. In Bilbao it was not just Gehry’s signature architecture but first and foremost the extensive infrastructure measures for the port, the subway and the airport that initiated the transformation of what was once a steel and shipbuilding city. The foreshortened portrait of urban redevelopment by reducing it to the symbolic power of a single spectacular building is a media misconception that has brought plenty of jobs for the architects who can deliver the corresponding sensational structures. In particular, ambitious cities in Spain were prepared to splash out in this regard.

Peter Eisenman’s monumental project for a “Cultural City” in Galicia has since been discontinued, whereby simply the upkeep of the buildings already realized (and empty ever since) are costing Santiago de Compostela millions each year. By contrast, Sauerbruch regards Hamburg’s Elbe Philharmonic Hall, which is likewise controversial given the costs, as an important urban project. He considers the viewing platform between the old quayside warehouse and the new concert halls above it to be a new and significant public plaza in Hamburg. The project as designed by Herzog & de Meuron is on show in the form of a magically illuminated model.

The main exhibition hall does not include plans or photos of the respective projects – only fascinating models, designed in a great variety of ways: there are the seemingly simple DIY models used by OMA/Rem Koolhaas to the elaborate topographical presentation used by Peter Eisenman to the classic wooden model used by Max Dudler.

Visitors to the exhibition can rely on a tablet computer to find out more about the projects and this medium delivers a veritable wealth of materials. There are entire photo spreads, detailed floor plans and maps, project descriptions given by the architects and the curator – and even film clips shot specially for the show. In actual fact, this kind of presentation offers many a crucial insight into the relationship between such cultural projects and the respective city and population. In the film, for example, Rem Koolhaas’ spectacular library for Seattle shrinks from some huge cultural machine into the involuntary center of life of the users. For in his film, Cyril Schäublin portrays three users, who are all homeless and visit the library each day to spend their time reading or to search for jobs on the public computer terminals. All three describe the library as their “home”.

A library in a Medellín slum and the Inner-City Arts center in Los Angeles are portrayed similarly dramatically and of existential necessity for the respective city’s inhabitants. What at first glance looks simply like an architecturally interesting project, demonstrates its social relevance at the latest in photos or films.

One section of the exhibition entitled “The city as palimpsest” shows how old buildings can be allotted new uses, but without erasing all traces of the past. Such buildings range from the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which today looks like a raw shell, an appearance that however makes it a fascinating, pulsating space in which to present contemporary art, to the Berghain club in Berlin. The latter, a monumental former power plant, is not only known for its hedonistic Techno parties, but also for contemporary music events, for which the sound system is ideally suited. In the corresponding film by Steffen Köhn wild animals wander through the empty rooms and turn the ruinous, postindustrial charm of the spaces into a kind of second nature.

The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen likewise stands for transformation and cultural use after the discontinuation of coal mining and processing in the complex’s halls. In this case major, not always successful investments were made with a view to transforming the complex into museum facilities, such as the Ruhr Museum in the former coal washing plant. Yet precisely in cities seeing drastic economic changes, projects by and with its inhabitants can contribute to positive developments. The exhibits barely relate to architecture, but rather to the influence of cultural commitment on the city and its districts, and it suddenly becomes clear that Detroit, Dortmund and Berlin are not so very different after all.

The other new and converted buildings for universities, museums, book warehouses and libraries presented highlight the diversity of possible state or civic interventions and the effects on the respective city and its cultural life. With numerous lectures and discussions, the exhibition offers a wealth of illustrative material for future decisions, and not only for the politicians in Berlin, where numerous new cultural projects are up for discussion.

Akademie der Künste, through May 26.
Berlin, Hanseatenweg 10
Aubsequently at Kunsthaus Graz
The catalog Kultur:Stadt costs 40 euros in bookstores.
Blog on the exhibition at

An integrated community center offers a social venue in the Inner City Arts Centre. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
The Bilbao defect
by Ralf Wollheim
May 12, 2013
The users describe the Inner-City Arts Centre in Los Angeles as their “home”. Photo © Iwan Baan
Since the success of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao the belief in the value of iconic buildings seems to be beyond all doubt. Photo © David Heald / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, NY
The exhibition „Kultur:Stadt“ presents 37 different cultural projects, including the Guggenheim Bilbao. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
The Seattle Central Library was designed by the architecture firms OMA and LMN. Photo © Philippe Ruault
The Parque Biblioteca España in Medellín was designed by the architect Giancarlo Mazzanti. Photo © Iwan Baan
The library in a slum in Medellín is an important social meeting point for the local residents. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
Herzog & de Meuron present the project "Elbphilharmonie Hamburg" with the help of a magical glowing model. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
The former power plant Berghain in Berlin is not only known for its Techno parties, but also for contemporary music events. The exhibition shows the work "Underground station Berghain East" by artist Mathias Bechtold. Photo © Ralf Wollheim