Incomplete harmony.

It seems wrong to have lived in Berlin for a while and not to have seen (or more importantly heard) the Berlin Philharmonic playing at the Berlin Philarmonie.  For clarity, the former is the orchestra, the latter their ‘home stadium’ (for want of a more appropriate term).

Anyway, fan as I am of Sir Simon R and his consistent approach to maintaining big hair over several decades, it was the building that I really wanted to experience, allegedly being one of Hans Scharoun’s greatest works.  For the nuts’n’bolts, Wikipedia has a little bit in english and a bit more in german.  Amusingly, the english version describes the Kulturforum (the large windswept carpark ringed by cultural buildings that include the Philarmonie) as a place “… that for decades suffered from isolation and drabness but that today offers ideal centrality, greenness, and accessibility.”  Mmm no, I think isolation and drabness are still two of the area’s key features.  Also, it seems odd that a public plaza that links the Tiergarten, the Embassy district and Potsdamerplatz, and has Mies’ Neue Nationalgalerie and Scharoun’s state library building as well as the Philarmonie, seems to lack anywhere decent to eat.

Forgive me for sounding like an uncultured hack who focuses entirely on the availability of food and booze rather than the Kultur, but virtually the only places around there are within the overscaled buildings of Potsdamerplatz itself – a place with all the atmosphere of an out-of-town shopping mall and multiplex. Which it essentially is.  (I remember my first trip to Berlin in the early noughties, rushing off to see the shiny new buildings of Rogers and Piano – reunited, sort of, for the first time since the Pompidou – only to find it a place that seemed entirely lacking in purpose or charm.  It was then I began to comprehend Berlin’s donut-ness: a big ring of city with a hole in the middle.)

So anyway, pre-performance, we sat in a themed restaurant in the Sony Centre (I think the theme was australian-aboriginal, but it matters not – it couldn’t have been less cosy if it was serial killer-themed) and watched the red-carpet opening of a dodgy hip-hop movie going on at the adjacent multiplex, to the excitement of a lot of press folk and a smaller number of teenage fanboys.  Bushido, whoever that is.**

Perhaps this quest for Gemütlichkeit appears irrevelevant in a blog about architecture and urbanism.  But the point I’m clumsily trying to make is that there’s nowhere in the neighbourhood that you can imagine housing anything cosy.  Of course in one sense this is unavoidable.  The combined forces of aerial bombardment, Russian tanks, Albert Speer (and his employer’s) megalomania, and of course the GDR’s ‘big fence project’, meant that everything in and around Potsdamerplatz dates from the 1990s, and most things in the Kulturforum from the 1960s.  But surely it could have been a bit better than this?  Perhaps, if the area survives for a good few decades more without being subsumed by sea or holocaust, it’ll settle in.  Maybe a few smaller buildings from the future of architectural fashion will subvert the overbearing Prussianism-meets-poor-attempt-to-recreate-Manhattan concept that currently fails so desperately here.

Of course, if you do know of somewhere nice nearby for a drink and a pre-gig bite, then

a) let me know, and

b) ignore all of the above, which will now be largely redundant.

Anyway, about the Philarmonie itself…

I was surprised that you couldn’t take photos of at least the entrance hall areas; fair enough in the auditorium, as flash photography while the orchestra’s doing its stuff can be distracting I imagine.  yet mysteriously, you can take pictures of all parts of the building if you take a guided tour – every day at 1pm, no booking required apparently.   I haven’t been on one yet, but a friend has, and she’s taken pictures and everything, one or two of which I’ve stolen and used here.

The Philarmonie’s own site has a virtual 3-D view thingey, and if you work your way into the online ticket system, you can scan around a view from each potential block of seats.  The Kulturforum’s crap website is here.

The auditorium itself was a tour de force of acoustic design at the time, and became the blueprint for many other concert venues around the world.  I love the way that there doesn’t seem to be a single right-angle; momentary confusion on entering the space quickly gives way to the realisation that it’s an arena ‘in the round’, with everyone looking down on the performers in the centre.  This might make you feel slightly self-conscious in the cheapest seats directly behind the orchestra, best avoided by buying the next-to-cheapest seat tickets, which we did.

What I found less impressive  is the sequence of spaces as you enter the building (really a single space, but a confusing one) which lies beneath the auditorium.  I was expecting a somehow more elegant integration of the structural elements, whereas actually the angled supporting columns seemed a little spindly and detached from the overall design, and I was left with the impression of being in a service basement, where all the architectural effort had been put into the design of the ‘big room’ above.  In fact the absolute opposite of London’s Royal Festival Hall from a decade earlier; an acoustically terrible performance space (apparently) but a vibrant and sucessful public area beneath and around it.  (This is not to imply that the auditorium of the RFH doesn’t look impressive, by the way, and has been much improved acoustically in a major update a few years back, but it definitely wasn’t an architectural benchmark in acoustic terms).

This is all based on a single visit to the Philarmonie, mind you. And I’ve not been into the connecting building of the Kammermusiksaal. Plus, all the spaces actually look much better in my friend’s photos.  Perhaps I went in the wrong entrance.

As mentioned, there are tours, and I’ll let you know if I’m going along (keep an eye on our Facebook group ‘Berlin Architecture Circle’). All tours guaranteed to be followed by a pub of some description, although in the case of the Kulturforum, we might have to get a bus to somewhere else.


*Although I am.

**I reserve the right to sound like my dad here, but his movie did look particularly poor, with Bushido himself posing for photos with the person who plays him, both ‘street posing’ in an unconvincing manner.

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