Stadt & Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century (31 March 2010)

I recently had a copy of  “Stadt und Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century” sent to me by Dom publishers – it’s taken me a couple of weeks I’m afraid, due in part to the (ongoing) ‘Hejduk Tower’ campaign.  These two things are related in a roundabout way, which I might mention later.

Anyway, I should firstly mention that the book itself is a thing of beauty – ‘lavishly illustrated’ as they say.  A detailed introduction gives an overview of Berlin’s development, with plenty of maps and images, and each of the twenty or so projects covered feature good photography and include sections and floor plans.

The book’s title, Stadt & Haus*, sets the theme; it aims to present the continuity of urban planning in the capital, highlighting a new style of specifically Berlin architecture which respects the past but is essentially modern.  The projects selected are hotels, offices, apartment blocks and an (apparently) new Berlin typology, the townhouse.  Public buildings, stations, museums, schools and the like are not covered here, which is fair enough – there seems to be an intent here not to create another guidebook featuring yet more photos of the Neues Museum.

The problem with such a selection though is that after a while you start to feel that you’re reading a brochure aimed at enticing people with a lot of money to move here.  The hotels are very expensive, the apartment blocks exclusive, and the townhouses colossal – presumably aimed at ambassadors of richer nations and the independently very wealthy.  The Berlin senate has made no secret of its desire to replace the city’s ‘poor but sexy’ image with that of a cool hangout for those with money;  I’d always dismissed this as hopelessly optimistic (from the senate’s point of view) but flicking through the projects here, you begin to think that perhaps it’s all running to plan.  I often wonder what could possibly be fuelling Berlin’s seemingly neverending gentrification, without the city having any apparent generator of wealth. The case remains open as far as I’m concerned, but this book provides some clues.

Perhaps Stadt & Haus is intended as an antidote to the ‘Architecture Now!’-style publications that cherry pick the best (or at least the most photogenic) new buildings from a city’s output, no matter how unrepresentative.  Maybe the buildings covered here present a more accurate picture of new architecture in Berlin?  It’s not the Berlin I recognise or am drawn to; to be fair the projects are mainly located in that ‘other’ Berlin that feels far from graffiti-tagged Kreuzberg; these designs are corporate Mitte to the core.  Even so, there is much that could have been included here, a selection of new apartments from Prenzlauer Berg perhaps, but which this book seems to be suggesting are not in the spirit of the ‘real’ Berlin, favouring projects like the ones below are:

Above: the Marriott Hotel on Inge-Beisheim Platz by Bernd Albers

Below: interior of the Concorde Hotel in Augsburger Str, by Kleihues & Kleihues

There are some interesting buildings – Chipperfield’s slightly scary apartment block at Potsdamerplatz (deconstructed Speer?), the ‘Slender-Bender‘ house by DEADLINE, cool late modernism by nps tchoban voss in Reinhardtstrasse (I refuse to link to them, as they have a Flash site) and the new terrace of townhouses on Kurstrasse:

These townhouses, by the way, are six to seven storeys, with lifts, and dining rooms that seat up to 30. To me, this is approaching a concept of ‘too much money’, in a city that’s basically broke, but what do I know.

Other areas of the city, and other building types are touched on, but as someone who lives here, I wanted to be told more. There’s a terrace of houses from the new Rummelsburger Bucht district of the city out to the east, where there are some interesting things going on.  Though in the project selected there’s still something slightly timid about its modern take on the Dutch Gable style, which could do with a bit of FATtening up, in my view. (The image below is at Rummelsburg, but not from the book, it’s just that I like it more…)

Overall though, the usual suspects dominate: Kollhoff, Kleihues & Kleihues, Hilmer & Sattler and co glorying in repetitive glazing and those big stonework Prussian facades, which, whatever your architectural taste, seem well made but just not very inspired.  Which leads to my only-slightly-forced link with the Heduk campaign and the IBA.  The introduction to Stadt & Haus suggests a strong continuity between the IBA planning of the 1980s – with its theme of reinstating the 19th Century urban grain – and the post-Wall policy of Critical Reconstruction which has apparently led to many of the projects set out here.  Yet it’s a connection I’m increasingly dubious about.  In West Berlin, the 1980s were a period of great experimentalism in housing; through the IBA, a huge range of approaches, styles and types were tried out by an equally varied range of architects from around the world.  Not all of these buildings were successful, some were not good, some were just bizarre, but the decade left behind a legacy that has still to be fully explored.  Berlin’s post-Wall period however, seems to be increasingly represented by highly competent buildings, efficient in design and professional in construction, but fundamentally dull. 

Stadt & Haus is arguably a more representative sample of Berlin’s current architecture than the highly selective choices of ‘archiporn’ that too often dominate the architectural press.  I guess that I’m just not a fan of this reality.

Stadt & Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century, by Philip Meuser, DOM publishers, 2010.

*Stadt & Haus has been translated on the Dom site as “City & House” although it’s worth noting that the German ‘Haus’ has a broader meaning, referring to a block of apartments or other substantial single building.

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