Space // A Revised Look at a Radically Modern 1960s Berlin

By April Dell // Sept. 04, 2015

After a ten month hiatus for renovations, Berlinische Galerie reopened in May with Radically Modern: Urban Planning and Architecture in 1960s Berlin, an exhibition that aims to stimulate a fresh perspective on an era of modern architecture often labelled unsightly and inhospitable. In the first ever comprehensive exhibition of significant architecture from this post-war period, Radically Modern investigates the aesthetics, motives and legacies of this urban development boom on both sides of the freshly erected wall. Boasting over 300 works by over 30 architects, city planners, photographers, and artists, the exhibition delivers a view of a forward-looking and inspired Berlin at a significant urban planning turning point, and one that has left its traces all over the city.

Viewers are introduced to a scarred post-war 1960s Berlin in the midst of the ‘Economic Miracle’ through an assortment of photographs, models, and texts. Radically Modern builds up an image of an ambitious and productive period of urban planning, where a focus on the future means a chance to start over. A distinct departure from the megalomaniacal Nazi architecture characterises the style of International Modernism adopted by both the East and West. Simple, geometrically stylised forms typify the designs, where form follows function. However, alongside the momentum for change was an acknowledgement of historical preservation, as seen in the images of the old-meets-new composite-style reconstruction of the Reichstag and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche.

The second room, and my favourite part of the exhibition, houses the creative and ambitious proposal designs for a city of the future. Here we see the unrestrained imagination of the architects, with designs fuelled by the social and structural need to modernise, and the reimagining of identity. UFO-like buildings hovering above intersections, pedestrian conveyor belt tubes crossing above roads, and 90 meter-high giant glass domes are reminiscent of science-fiction imagery from the same period. There is an attempt to redesign not only aesthetic and form, but the use of urban space as well. Looking to photographs of the TV Tower and the ‘Bierpinsel’ tower restaurant, I think for the first time that these bizarre structures are successful realisations of this sci-fi vision. The most ambitious and unique unbuilt design is Engelbert Kremser’s vision for the Europa-Center, a warped layering of floors forming a flowing mass that almost appears to move. This style of ‘Organic Architecture’ engages and responds to the space around it, in contrast to the monolithic, classical forms favoured in the Nazi era. While imagining the future, these artists and architects utilised pop-art methods of the time, with exaggerated halftone printing effects, photomontage, and collage. Happy shoppers and classic cars are pasted in front of the ambitious structures, in what are not only architectural drafts, but cultural artefacts and works of art in themselves.

Both East and West emphasized modernism in their revisioning of the city. Radically Modern profiles two important hubs constructed during the sixties: Alexanderplatz in the East and the Kulturforum in the West. What most would consider now a cluttered and aesthetically confusing area, Alexanderplatz once looked like a coherent and modern, architecturally curated space. Surrounding the futuristic TV Tower and entrance building at its base are buildings whose simple, geometric forms appear quite striking in the black-and-white photographs. In the West, on the other hand, the architecture of the Kulturforum – including the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Philharmonie, and the Staatsbibliothek – stands the test of time, largely helped by a lack of further development retaining much of the architect Hans Scharoun’s original vision for an urban landscape. Still surrounded by open spaces, these buildings are as impressive and appealing now as in the models and photographs. The Neue Nationalgalerie, in particular, with its glass-walled exterior, strikes me as an early example of an international trend still popular today.

The buildings for which 1960s architecture is most criticised are the giant residential estates. This is the most thorough section of the exhibition, where the curators work hardest to change minds. Radically Modern attempts to cast a favourable light on these imposing structures as pieces of architectural history, worthy of preservation, by contextualising them alongside the city’s modernist architectural icons of the period. Seen through uncluttered and stylised black-and-white photographs, simplified models, and birds-eye-view plans, the buildings do take on a beauty in their simplicity and repetition of geometric forms. The architects, including Martin Gropius and Werner Düttmann, were aware of the critique of monotony and tried to achieve a serial diversity through varying details in height, form, and from above, often an interesting tessellated pattern or unsymmetrical grouping. While the architects’ visions are clearly visible in the exhibition materials, in reality it is difficult to recognise these subtle design features in the face of such giant, mostly uniform structures.

If the aim was to make viewers stop and think about a piece of, perhaps very familiar, architecture and consider its design, then Radically Modern is a success. I certainly gained a revised appreciation for buildings I hadn’t previously taken the time to look at. Armed with the exhibition app, you can take a tour of the city, comparing the then and now, and reading information bites about the architects and construction. The exhibition encourages viewers to investigate and take part in the debate it hopes to reopen. To refresh your perspective of Berlin architecture, head along to Berlinische Galerie (showing till October 26th) and check out the Radikal Modern Blog for related articles and events.

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