Embassies, as you’d expect, often seem like a physical representation of their country, intentional or not.  It’s especially true in Berlin, where so many were recently purpose built (as opposed to say, London, where embassies have taken often taken over existing buildings).

If you’re not aware already, Berlin’s embassy district, to the south of Tiergarten, is a must for any archi-minded tourist as it provided an opportunity for each nation to show off through the medium of architecture.  The US, France and the UK have theirs not far away, around Pariserplatz, but some have located away from the pack.  In the case of the Dutch (see previous post) they probably felt a bit more ‘urban’ and relaxed on the east side of town.  They’re not a major power broker, but they’re close enough to the action.

But this doesn’t explain the siting of the Chinese embassy, a further few hundred metres east, on the other side of the Spree, the Chinese.  It seems slightly stranded.  Perhaps, as a newcomer to global power, it didn’t have an existing site that was large enough to reclaim when the wall came down.  I say ‘large enough’, because although the embassy goes largely unnoticed in this odd location, it’s actually colossal.

I cycle past it a lot on my way into the centre of town, and didn’t realise what it was for a while; it’s clearly not a building bothered about what people think of it.  In fact, a less welcoming structure is hard to imagine.  A while ago I stopped to take photos, expecting the police guarding the entrance to ask me what I was doing (I made ready to stand my ground over civil rights if they tried to stop me), but actually they seemed if unbothered, perhaps even slightly embarrassed on behalf of the sheer unfriendliness of what stood behind them.  The only saving grace is that directly across the road is a rather good chinese restaurant.

The embassy (on the right) from the river

and the front, but not really the entrance.  The pedestrian entrance is at the side, and has something ‘cheap sci-fi’ about it:

Enough already about a building I don’t like.  As if to counteract the oppressive effect of the embassy, directly across the river stands something far more inspiring.

It’s an office for the Sozialverband Deutschland, Rolandufer 6, by Léon Wohlhage Wernik Architekten.  The most interesting bit is the interior, where the atrium becomes a sort of greenhouse.

By a bit of a coincidence, Léon Wohlhage Wernik actually did the Indian embassy here in Berlin, as well as offices for the state of Bremen, both worth a visit.

(Final image by snooker68 on Flickr).


Dutch Embassy, Berlin, by Rem Koolhaas/OMA

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I only like writing about arcane housing projects from the eighties.  I do, but I occasionally cast my gaze elsewhere.  By way of proof, I finally got round to visiting the Dutch Embassy the other week, and here are some photos of it, although it was a bit of a grey wet day and I couldn’t be bothered to cross the river to get a better long shot.

Post-blog note, 2014: eventually I did:

Some architecture critics seem to be turning against Koolhaas and his progeny; one that I read recently described the Dutch embassy as, in essence, a ‘first year student project’.  (Interesting how ‘first year student project’ is a popular term of criticism these days – see recent comment on my Am Kupfergraben 10 / David Chipperfield post).  Anyway, I’m not very good at ‘reviewing’ buildings – I think it’s hard to make a definitive judgement on a building when it’s still ‘settling in’ to the landscape, but it succeeds well in its function here I think, or at least in projecting an image of the Dutch how I’m guessing they like to be perceived – slightly bonkers, but cool.

The embassy is very much a performance, a visual onslaught of slanting shapes, contrasting textures and theatrical lighting effects.  In fact Berlin architecture over the last eighty years has a strong tradition of theatrical lighting effects, from Hans Poelzig to, er, Albert Speer, and beyond.  That ‘Droog’ look of chandeliers and concrete is about to go out of fashion I suspect, so it will be interesting to see how the building feels in a few years time, when it’s no longer considered cutting edge.

In contrast to Rem’s slightly newer Casa del Musica in Porto, (I mention this ‘cos I was there a few days later) the embassy has less of the ‘just landed alien’ about it, and fits into the surrounding context, at least in terms of height and massing.  Koolhaas apparently aimed to turn the traditional Berlin model of a block with internal courtyard inside-out, resulting in a rather strange arrangement;  the main building is separated from the west and north sides by a kind of free-standing defensive wall, containing services and the ambassador’s quarters (actually, his number two) connected by a tier of footbridges.

The main building is essentially a ramp spiralling upwards through eleven staggered floor levels.  This may be a ‘first year student idea’, but it’s carried out with panache, and without feeling like you’ve come very far, you’re suddenly on the top floor.

If you want to visit, free guided tours are available, by contacting receptie@bln.nlamb.de. You need to give at least four working days notice, as well as your full name, nationality and passport number for each visitor, plus a contact number for the group.  It’s at Klosterstraße 50, 10179 Berlin.

Anyway, some images.  Don’t mind anyone using these, by the way, but would be grateful if you could credit me and/or put a link.  I’ve come across a few elsewhere recently.  Surprising as my photography is pretty amateur…


A strategically placed plant avoids people banging their heads as the floor/ceiling height unexpectedly reduces:

Some fellow visitors are shown the opening in the outer wall through which you could see the top of the TV tower.  If it wasn’t raining.

A sofa in reception, which I think is by Future Systems

Model – note the separate ‘outer wall’.

More images on our Flickr.

Architektur clips

I came across this site recently – a collection of architecture related video clips, mainly Germany based, with quite a few Berlin gems.

Best is this one – a beautifully shot short film about Ostkreuz station, soon to be rebuilt.  The soundtrack, of Berlin’s minimal-click-house grooves, is perfect.

Other Berlin-related goodies include Libeskind’s recent courtyard infill to the Jewish Museum, a New York / Berlin comparison (filmed on the Spree, from my favourite boat) which looks at the upside of Berlin’s bankruptcy, Berlin’s Hungarian Cultural Institute in action and much more.

That’s another day filled then…


Hip to be square?

I’ve previously blogged about the fact that Berlin is in the process of losing one of its O M Ungers buildings. Though he was not universally popular as an architect, this is a great loss, I believe, as well as a symbolic one:  it marks Berlin’s transition from the Critical Reconstruction of the 1980s and 1990s into a new period defined by the free reign of developers.  I hope I’m wrong about this.

Anyway, this will leave two Ungers buildings that I’m aware of in Berlin – the other block which he did as part of the IBA, and a court complex at Hallesches Ufer (no.62).  It’s an unassuming building at a glance, not helped by my customary camera phone low-res, low quality images.

As with many of his works, the square and cube are repeated devices in, and you might even say the basis of, the design.  Windows, cladding, plan form, elevations, sections, structural grids

The plan form is interesting too – the newer Ungers building wraps around three sides of the older courtbuilding, with prominence given to the largest cube form of the building, in which the main court chamber and council rooms are located.


Integration of the new and old buildings accounts for some of the labyrinthine quality of the building, but not all of it.  The problem for me is a suspicion that at times Ungers is less the master of the square and more a slave to it.  Can plans and sections based on fundamentally squares always be the best solution?  And if the square is so fundamentally important, what happens in locations where it just can’t be achieved? The staircase at the back of the entrance hall just can’t be tamed, and the grids go awry, as one example.

Even the bike racks confirm to the ‘tyranny of sqaures’

BERLIM: Reconstrução Crítica

Just back from a very rewarding conference in Porto on “Berlin: Critical Reconstruction“, an event covering, well, just about everything I’m interested in here Berlin.

Speakers included Alvaro Siza Viera, together with other architects who have built, or competed to build, in Berlin, as well as film makers, planners and commentators.

A big question was whether ‘Critical Reconstruction’, i.e. the carefully planned and controlled reconstruction of post-wall Berlin established largely by J P Kleihues through the International Building Exhibition of the 1980s, is now dead.  Strong arguments were put that this was the case – that Critical Reconstruction as a policy had worked when money was pouring into Berlin in the 1990s, with investors and architects having to bend to the will of the city authorities, but is now failing, due to the city’s current desperation to attract any construction investment, however gaudy the proposals.  Understandably, this theory was rejected by those representing Berlin’s planning authority.

It was interesting to hear Siza refer to ‘rich IBA’ and ‘poor IBA’ rather than the official ‘Neubau’ and ‘Altbau’ labels, referring, I guess, to the fact that much of the Altbau work was in the much poorer district of Kreuzberg, as opposed to the Neubau townhouses across in Tiergarten. (For examples compare Siza’s own Bonjour Tristesse block with the buildings at Rauchstrasse.)

I could write for hours on the whole thing, but will resist doing so as I don’t want to deter any readers not passionate about architectural theory.  Instead, will just mention what a beautiful city Porto is, and that in the short period I was there I just had time to see Rem Koolhaas’s spectacular Case da Musica, as well as the finely crafted new metro stations (by Siza’s partner Eduardo Souto de Moura).

The venue for the conference, by the way, was Siza’s own building for the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art.

Need to upload the images I took shortly, in the meantime have stolen a couple from z.z on Flickr.  Actually, well worth a browse: http://flickr.com/photos/89707735@N00/sets/.

One of the Metro stations, Casa da Musica, Serralves Museum:

I went on a tour of Rem’s Dutch embassy here in Berlin last week, by the way, so a post on that forthcoming, with lots of comparisons with his Porto building.

Talking of bunkers…

Speaking as a pedant (although I admit to numerous mistakes on this blog, which I try to put right when spotted) I’ve noticed all sorts of errors in press articles about the Boros collection – a rather fabulous conversion of one of Berlin’s best looking bunkers into a private gallery, for millionaire Christian Boros. Completion was earlier this year.

So just for the record, the bunker was built in 1942 to a design by Karl Bonatz for the Reich railroad company.  It wasn’t designed by Albert Speer (there are no surviving Speer buildings in Berlin, as far as I know).  It wasn’t built personally for Hitler, and it wasn’t part of Hitler and Speer’s plans for Germania.

The conversion was done by Jens Casper by the way.  Boros Collection home here.

Needless to say there’s a zillion good images if you just pop ‘Boros collection’ into Flickr, but a couple of images here (before and after conversion).