vonFridey Mickel 13.09.2015

Context is Half the Work

Seeing comes before words, and culture can be defined at any given moment.

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For the July / August 2015 edition of ExBerliner, I interviewed Director Thomas Köhler about all the changes that came to the Berlinische Galerie after its year-long renovation hiatus. What didn’t make it into the interview was a side discussion we had about the museum’s exhibition ‚Radically Modern’, featuring (for the first time ever) an exploration of Berlin’s architectural development in both east and west sides of the city over the past century. Our discussion is a bit “insider”, yet still interesting in terms of the exchange of two long-term citizens of the capital city – one German and one American – and how Berlin’s architectural landscape speaks to its inhabitants on an everyday basis, not just its role in the legacy if international design….



The emotion in ‘Radically Modern’ is really nice! It’s exciting to see how it ties into the artworks and even this painting from Evol, somebody totally present in Berlin around 2005, whom you don’t see much these days. I feel the same about the architectural video from the 1920s. There‘s always talk about Berlin changing but it’s not about becoming some final product, instead it’s just in constant flux.

It still goes on and on, still a city in transition. It will never be done, I guess. We find that shocking as well, that even buildings constructed in the late 80s are starting to be taken down already. This is city is really re-thinking itself over and over again. It doesn’t stop and that’s why we organized this show. It’s a quite important show for the public’s collective memory. Many buildings constructed in the 1960s tend to disappear or are changed drastically so you no longer recognize them. We believe that there’s so much elegance and visionary qualities in them and they shouldn’t be ignored or taken down. This was one of our main motivations with the show.


I like how ‘Radically Modern’ brings together both East and West Architectural developments in the city…

That’s something that was important in the show. That in Berlin, two systems were confronted with each other and that they were competing. East and West competing, but at the end of the day, both styles were rather similar. It started very differently, with these Stalinistic, decorated Facades, and on the other side, Hansa Viertel, which was considered to be the more democratic form of architecture but then later in the sixties, the style in East and West were very much alike, inspired by international projects, namely Oscar Niemeyer or Mies van der Rohe in the US. You can clearly see in the show how these two systems produced quite similar forms in architecture. Berlin is one of the only places where this confrontation existed. We intentionally didn’t label if it was an ‘East’ or ‘West’ building; we even conceived walls where these buildings are simply confronted, without saying where they are. That’s another important step. 25 years after the re-unification, it maybe doesn’t really make sense anymore or maybe ‘not ok’ to distinguish that drastically between the two parts of the city anymore.


I see the vision in the 1960s modernity and the show’s advertising leans towards them; but let’s talk about the ‘radically modern’ in Berlin’s ‘Altbau’ constructions. They tore down most of Berlin around 1900 to build these buildings, which were at the time a vision of the future. The only areas still existing from before this time are the Nikolaiviertel and Rixdorf. These ‘modern’ buildings were built to grow and shrink with the families living there. The Prenzlauerberg flats, which now, for instance, house only nuclear families, were broken down into mini flats (each family taking a room and the hallway becoming an extended vain of the ‘Treppenhaus’). They were meant to hold for a couple hundred years but then WWII came, followed by the ‘Nachkriegszeit’, Wirtschaftswunder, etc….

It’s interesting to observe how a society acts in general, in regard to architecture – how popular these ‘Altbau’ buildings, built around 1900, are today. There’s so much romanticism in that movement. Also, if you think about the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace today – what kind of sign is that for our contemporary society, to do a completely fake palace in the middle of a city, instead of keeping a really fine building like the Palast der Republik?  I’ll never understand this ignorance of the past.


but I think that’s a real German thing, no offence.

you Americans also take down so many things…(smiles)

I think it’s a German thing to have to have this Empirical Palace… to be a real German city.

It probably is very German. The German society was very traumatized by the destruction during the Second World War. It’s basically about a loss of identity. Perhaps by reconstructing things – fake historical buildings—they’ll get back something glorified from that past. In some German cities like in Dresden or Braunschweig, palaces were reconstructed without that public attention we had in Berlin. In most cases, it didn’t work out so well. Dresden is a positive example, while Braunschweig is very bad (they reconstructed the Palace and inside is a shopping mall.) Again, my question: what does that tell you about the society doing it?


Maybe it’s not about this; maybe we are investing too much personal feeling into it—the love for the Palast der Republik, for instance. But at the same time, it’s like a time capsule in a way. This is what German society is / was at that time, not just the visual architecture but the public attention and acceptance of it, good or bad.

The next generation needs to later analyse what was built in the years before it. ‘Radically Modern’ underlines the importance  of architecture for the perception of a city’s people– constructing identity, daily confrontations, whether we like it or hate it. Many places in Berlin either still are or can seem to be very hostile, even when they’ve been re-inhabited for decades now.


Let’s look at it from the inside and from the outside. I’ve been here for a while and I am really connected to my neighbours, which entails an access to buildings and spaces in Berlin. It’s not about this game of ‘who’s been here the longest’, its more about how the people constantly coming here connect with Berlin society and how they see it without so much personal history. ‘Radically Modern’ speaks to me about these two different types of connection. There’s supposedly a housing crisis here, but if you just connect a bit, you can find a decent flat. Still, it’s just about connecting to Berlin. This sounds random but it plays into the perception of the city landscape and architecture; such as the way the Palast der Republik looked and felt to a tourist versus how it feels to me, both because it used to be THE East German governmental building (the 1960s iconography and all that entails) AND that I used to go to techno parties there when I was really young, and remembering the foxes that used to live there.

So many ‘new’ Berliners have moved here in the last ten years. To them, it’s completely an experience to see these parts of the city and to analyse the architecture built in the sixties. For the others who have lived abroad or in West or East Germany, it’s a very precious experience as well. It’s about a re-discovery of the sixties as well, but the architecture hasn’t always been very well received. It was always more about the fashion, the art and the music, while the architecture was viewed as being too brutalist, inhuman, even hostile. We hope with this show to change this perception a bit.


All images ©MARLEN MUELLER, Courtesy of Bureau N, Berlin


BERLINISCHE GALERIE/ Alte Jakobstrasse 124 – 128 / 10969 Berlin

We – Mo 10 – 18

8  / 5 euro day entrance


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