“It was as if the surface was holding everything together.”

In their exacting Germanic determination to be as faithful to the original as possible, his Berlin team were in danger of being more Miesian than Mies himself. The big surprise, for an architect renowned for his attention to detail, was quite how badly the building was made. “It was like opening the bonnet of a Mercedes and finding …” Chipperfield’s voice trails off and he gives a look of disgust. Walls that looked like solid oak were actually cobbled together from bits of plywood, the concrete under the granite slabs was shot to pieces, and when they took the ceilings down, the electrical and mechanical systems were a mess. “It was as if the surface was holding everything together.”

The curse of Mies van der Rohe: Berlin’s six-year, £120m fight to fix his dysfunctional, puddle-strewn gallery, Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

I lived in Poland in the late ’90s and I remember finding out that the Rynek Starega Miasta in Warszawa – Warsaw’s old town market square – had been entirely rebuilt in replica after its destruction in World War II by the Luftwaffe.

The desire to return it to the way it was, to rebuild the accumulation of history it contained at the frozen moment when it was destroyed, was understandable. We will rebuild what was taken from us.

I’ve never been convinced that this approach is desirable. It is not a memorial. Instead it attempts to recover the past, and erase the moment of destruction. It is the consequence of a deep pain and loss. The urge is understandable, the implications strange and disturbing. An extreme form of reasoning might suggest it is an attempt to recreate the conditions that led to its destruction in the first place – a form of nihilism.

The more obvious interpretation is that it is an attempt to reset the clock, with the implication that a different possible decision is contained in the apparent reconstruction of the past. Ersatz buildings for an alternate future history.

Instead grinding against the actuality of historical consequences, creating a fracture between the recreated desire and the information in the world. Creating different consensus realities.

And I note that while the externals are subject to this law, it’s rare the internal engineering eschews the comfort and regulations of modern materials and design.

Façadism, it’s called.

I was reminded of Rynek Starega Miasta in Warsaw by a recent visit to Berlin, and three different buildings, each grappling with the past in different ways.

Das Humboldtforum

A concrete building with windows, and the foliage of a tree, partially shown on the left. in the reflection of the windows, a telecommunications tower.
East façade of the Humboldt Forum with the Alexanderplatz Fernsehturm telecommunications tower reflected in the windows

The first is the Humboldt Forum, which presents two different façades to the world. The façade facing the street is in keeping with the baroque façades of the Enlightenment that give Unter den Linden its character, displeasing to my mind: wide and straight for the military, allowing parades of strength, rapid troop movement, minimising the possibility of ambush, baroque insitutions for the Arts and for the improvement of the people, down the sides: pure Enlightenment distilled.

The façade on the Spree is modernistic, plain, reflecting the design principles of the immediately preceding building that had occupied the site, the Palast der Republik .

Photograph taken from a boat, in the foreground is the boat rail, and the river. The picture is of an extremely regular, four-floor, concrete modernist facade of a building, bearing the words Humboldt Forum above the first floor. Partially visible on the right, is the other face of the building, with baroque window pediments and stylings.
The Humboldt Forum: two-faces

I have no love for the recreation of the baroque street façade, and the building itself is a compromise in the debate between two nostalgias, not one. However, it plays its tensions out in its external form.

Interlude – Memories of the Future: Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg “Willy Brandt”

Newly opened, but already memorable to me because of this @yorksranter post What if reality was more like software? Visit to a failed smart city, which starts with the words: I took these photos of Berlin’s forever-delayed airport terminal this summer. That was in 2017. Anyway it opened with superb timing in 2020.

Willy Brandt Airport – Terminal 1

It was very empty. I guess I was travelling at weird times. Also I was quick off the plane. Nice airport. All that wood and space and light.

Coming back, there was a long trek across tarmac past some continuing construction work to get to Terminal 2. Oh, and there were only water fountains in Terminal 1, not Terminal 2. I wandered down an empty corridor to an empty gate and filled it up from the toilet sink tap, as the airport staff had suggested.

Oh and the toilets look weirdly like locked restricted zones so some people were unsure whether they were open or not?

Maybe… abandoned, unfinished, plague stricken, the airport left stranded like an oxbow lake when we decided reality should reset from the previous commit, uploaded in the stary rynek in old Warsaw town.

Nice airport though. Very light.

Waiting at Terminal 2

Die Neue Nationalgalerie

Die Neue Nationalgalerie

A history of its travails here. These all stem from the complete indifference of architect Mies van der Rohe to the function of the building he was designing, resulting in a building pathologically opposed to the successful display of art within its walls.

Even more impressive, David Chipperfield’s attempt to maximise the amount of Mies while still allowing it to function as an art gallery, with only partial success:

“You see so many Bauhaus buildings where the window frames have been remade twice as big to improve their thermal performance,” says Chipperfield. “We obviously couldn’t do that here.” The solution was to replace the single 16mm panes with two sheets of 12mm glass laminated together, made in China and each weighing 1.2 tonnes. The compromise was allowed, provided the upper gallery never shows paintings in summer or winter when the temperatures are too extreme. The ghost of Mies lives on.

The curse of Mies van der Rohe: Berlin’s six-year, £120m fight to fix his dysfunctional, puddle-strewn gallery, Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

The attempts to invisibly engineer the architectural intent of Mies and the function of the building, despite money and intent, are in the end impossible to reconcile, so the only way to accommodate them has been to build a new gallery, more functionally accommodating to art, allowing the Neue Nationalgalerie to continue to function as a quixotic folly. Something has gone badly wrong here.

I quite liked it.

On the day I visited, the gallery itself was very difficult to access due to construction work on the new gallery, no art was visible above ground, it was all in boxes, with construction workers readying the interior for the new exhibition. It wasn’t even clear it was open.

This seemed entirely appropriate.

Die Neue Nationalgalerie
Die Neue Nationalgalerie
Die Neue Nationalgalerie, construction taking place inside, St Matthäus-Kirche reflected in the background

Interlude – Ghosts and Legal Entities on Potsdamer Platz

In 2001 I stood on a muddy barren bit of wasteland in Potsdamer Platz, from which Romany gypsies and other itinerant, displaced or precariously positioned people had just been evicted so that the bright new commercial and financial future buildings of Berlin could be established. Daimler, Sony, Beisheim, PwC, EY, KPMG. Writing that I am reminded of the opening chapters of Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, as the titans of German industry and finance prepare to meet Hermann Göring:

There were twenty-four of them, near the dead trees on the bank: twenty-four overcoats in black, brown, or amber; twenty-four pairs of wool-padded shoulders; twenty-four three-piece suits, and the same number of pleated trousers with wide cuffs. The shadows entered the large vestibule of the palace of the President of the Assembly – though before long, there would be no more assembly, no more president, and eventually no more parliament. Only a heap of smoking rubble.

A company is a person whose blood rushes to the head. We call these legal entities. Their lives last much longer than ours.

Around the table were Gustav Krupp, Albert Vögler, Günther Quandt, Friedrich Flick, Ernst Tengelmann, Fritz Springorum, August Rosterg, Ernst Brandi, Karl Büren, Günther Heubel, Georg von Schnitzler, Hugo Stinnes Jr., Eduard Schulte, Ludwig von Winterfeld, Wolf-Dietrich von Witzleben, Wolfgang Reuter, August Diehn, Erich Fickler, Hans von Loewenstein zu Loewenstein, Ludwig Grauert, Kurt Schmitt, August von Finck, and Dr Stein. We’re at the nirvana of industry and finance.

Vuillard, Eric. The Order of the Day (pages 2, 6 & 10). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition


Just off the Ku’damm, down from KaDeWe (omg that foodhall), is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. The church tower was bombed out in 1943. German architect Egon Eiermann won a competition to build an entirely new construction. There were objections. So he ended up retaining the bombed tower, and built a new church to one side, a new bell tower on the other, with a separate chapel to the side and below it.

Gedächtniskirche – main church on the far left, original tower in the middle, bell tower surrounded by scaffolding, chapel behind. Fortifications around the Christmas Market being put up after the terrorist attack here in 2016.

The new church itself, concrete and impenetrable on the outside, provides a revelatory experience on the inside.

Interior of the new church building of the Gedächtniskirche

Not entirely voluntarily Eiermann separated out the experienced and the new, the memorial and the modern into four separate buildings, relieving the overall group of a need to absorb the contradictions and instead making them legible, capable of interacting with each other.

It was by far my favourite of the buildings I saw.

I don’t want to moralise though. There is no should in these matters, and I’d far rather these designs find their way through the messy paths of civic approval and compromise than someone come in and dictate how things should be done. And the debates around theoretical frameworks for reconstruction glancingly and clumsily knocked about here have been rehearsed more fully and in greater depth elsewhere. This is merely a travelogue.

We do learn something about a given culture and society from the decisions manifested in these buildings though.

Civic objections to the destruction of the past may overrule architect and artistic decision making, in order to enable political decision making and therefore funding. Civic opinion will divide between the progressive, the nostalgic, and of course the indifferent, but this will always result in an element of nostalgia, or perhaps more fairly the conservative or conservationist sentiment, expressing that long-term ‘partnership between the living, the dead and the unborn’1 from Roger Scruton’s gloss to Burke’s Preface to Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Anthology of Prefaces ed. Alasdair Gray.. Regardless, such pragmatism will always mean an element of the nostalgic dragging at the contemporary in the commissioning of civic structures and reconstruction.

And yet.

The Neues Nationalgalerie shows that single-minded artistic intent can produce a building a modern building so immediately magnetic that will spend a lot of money and energy to repair something that doesn’t work properly to try and hide the fact it doesn’t work properly.

The Gedächtniskirche is, I think, better for the compromise, it’s monument to destruction becoming part of the literal vernacular with its popular name der hohle Zahn – the hollow tooth.


My main takeaway? Berliners/Germans have spent a lot of money very recently on civic, artistic and cultural buildings and infrastructure.

Postscript: Civic Building and Marvel Civil War

On a river trip, we passed through strange, peaceful, utopian civic architecture, the structures in which post-war, liberal, federalised consensus would be managed. Lots of excellent canteens, I’m sure. They are very appealing in their sense of calm, the perfectly placid structures and colonnaded, ‘governing planet’ sci-fi angles and planes and sense of space.

When I got back home, tired, I thought I’d limber up for the new Black Panther film by watching Captain America: Civil War. And lo, what do I see but superheroes and supermonsters smashing up this serene architectural locus of postwar Eurogovernance.

I don’t really trust the buildings really, go for bricolage, the bits in between, acquired, stuck on, undesigned, unfunded. You can see the centre from the margins, but you can’t see the margins from the centre.

Author: diasyrmus

A melancholy emblem of parish cruelty.

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