Berlin: Modern Classics

Part Two: Postwar Modernism

The Internationale Bauausstellung (Interbau), or International Architecture Exhibition, is a German project carried out with the purpose of introducing new concepts in architecture and urban engineering. In 1957 it was organised in Berlin. In its framework the Hansaviertel area, located next the Tiergarten Park in West Berlin, was thoroughly redeveloped. The overall plan was managed by Otto Bartning. Gerhard Jobst and Willy Kreuer won the urban design competition. Only world-famous architects were invited to design the individual buildings. Among them were Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Max Taut, Pierre Vago, and many others. The green spaces, too, were designed by internationally renowned landscape architects.


13. Interbau: Walter-Gropius-Haus

Händelallee 1-9, Hansaviertel
Walter Gropius, the Architects’ Collaborative & Wils Ebert, 1957-1961

The apartment block planned by Walter Gropius contains 66 flats divided between 9 floors. The ground plans of the flats are based on those drawn by Gropius in 1929-1931 for the Siemensstadt Housing Estate.

The flats are accessed via four separate doorways, tower-like stairwells and elevator shafts, which define the northern façade of the building. The staircase towers are built partly inside, partly outside the building’s body. Their height is emphasized by vertical grooves.

The southern façade is remarkable for its curvature and richly differentiated structure. The protruding balconies have white, sail-like balustrades with coloured and glazed elements.


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The balconies of the southern façade are divided into groups of four, which creates a distinctive pattern on the façade. This means that on the ground plans of different flats the balconies are positioned differently. Such an arrangement stands in sharp contrast with the formal and functional rigour of the Bauhaus housing projects realised by Gropius before World War Two.

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Another special feature of the building is the design of the narrow sides. Typically, linear apartment blocks have windowless narrow sides, but here Gropius ‘twisted’ four flats at both ends. The resulting protrusion of the loggias of these flats gives the building an attractive side view.

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14. Interbau: Alvar-Aalto-Haus

Klopstockstraße 30-32, Hansaviertel
Alvar Aalto, 1955-1961

The apartment block planned by Alvar Aalto contains 78 flats. These are divided between eight floors: 8 flats on the ground floor and 10 on each of the remaining floors. The concrete walls of the façade are covered with light rectangular expanded clay plates. Narrow balconies typical of apartment blocks are here replaced by deep patios which, considering the proximity of nature, help to blur the line between an urban housing estate and a country villa. The patios are located in front of the living rooms but are also accessible from other rooms. One apartment was originally furnished with Aalto’s furniture.

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15. Interbau: Oscar-Niemeyer-Haus

Altonaer Straße 4-14, Hansaviertel
Oscar Niemeyer, 1954-1961

The apartment block planned by Oscar Niemeyer contains 78 flats. It has a concrete frame that rests on V-shaped pillars.

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The façade consists of rectangular loggias, but their uniformity is broken up by a band of windows on the fifth storey. This was called a conjunto, or a free story, in Brazil, where Niemeyer was from, and was supposed to be the common room for the inhabitants or the space for events.


The most significant feature of the building is the tower with a triangular ground plan located 7 metres behind the main body of the block. It holds elevators and is connected to the main building by passages on the 5th and 8th storeys.

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16. Interbau: Pierre-Vago-Haus

Klopstockstraße 14-18, Hansaviertel
Pierre Vago, 1957-1961

The block planned by Pierre Vago contains 59 flats of different height. 24 flats extend through one and a half floors. This is visible in the way the loggias and balconies are arranged on the eastern façade. The dominating colours of that façade are grey, white, and light blue. The western façade and the southern side of the building are decorated with more colourful glass plates.

The common spaces include the area partially covered with roof on top of the building and the unfinished children’s indoor playground on the ground floor.

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It is interesting to note that Pierre Vago’s father was József Vágó, an important member of Hungarian Secession and the architect of several remarkable buildings in Budapest, such as the Gresham Palace, the Gutenberg House, the Árkád Bazár, and the Saint Ladislaus Gymnasium.


17. Corbusierhaus / Unité d’Habitation Berlin

Flatowallee 16, Westend
Le Corbusier, 1956-1958

Le Corbusier had realised his concept of Unité d’habitation for the first time in 1947-1952 in Marseille. It was a must for the organizers of Interbau to have one of such ‘machines for living’ in Berlin as well. However, the building that Le Corbusier designed for Berlin was too big to fit in the Hansaviertel quarter. Eventually it was built on a small hill near the 1936 Olympic Stadium.

The Unité d’Habitation of Berlin has flats that are usually located on two storeys. The entrances to them are from ten corridors, or ‘internal streets’, which are not only a space for circulation but also for socialisation. In the housing block there is also a kindergarten, a medical facility, several recreational spaces, and a garden. It is a ‘city within a city’, bringing people’s every-day needs and activities into the housing block.


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The Corbusierhaus differs from the Unité d’Habitation of Marseille in many respects.

First, the German building regulations at the time prohibited the use of the Modulor, the antropomorphic scale of proportions that Le Corbusier had developed and regularly used. The regulations made the dwelling units substantially bigger here than Le Corbusier had intended (e.g., the floor height of 2.5 m instead of 2.26 m).

Second, the Berlin building is bigger, containing 530 flats in 5 types as opposed to the 337 flats in 23 types in Marseille.

Third, in Marseille the upper floors were used by shops, restaurants, bars, laundries, and hotels. In Berlin, on the other hand, again because of the limitations imposed by legal regulations, a big shop that was planned could only be placed among the pillars of the ground floor.

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The Corbusierhaus is also an example of the idea of the ‘vertical garden city’. A specific landscaping concept was designed to create a green belt around the building. The building rises between large trees, its colourful verandas visible from the distance.


18. Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche

Hauptstraße 47/48, Schöneberg
Hermann Fehling, Daniel Gogel & Peter Pfankuch, 1958-1964

This Evangelic Church forms a complex with the Catholic St.-Norbert-Kirche standing nearby. The two churches form the ‘Kircheninsel’, or the church island, together with the Dorfkirche Schöneberg from the 1760s.

Paul Gerhardt Church stands on the site of a former Jugendstil church that people called a ‘Thermoskanne’, or a vacuum flask, because of its round tower. The old church was damaged in World War II but its tower was still intact enough to define the silhouette of Schöneberg until the late-1950s, when the construction of the current church began. The building consists of irregularly placed shapes and surfaces made of reinforced and raw concrete. Both outside and inside it looks like a cliff in which the congregation could protect itself from the then-impending nuclear war.



19. St.-Norbert-Kirche

Dominicusstraße 15-19, Schöneberg
Hermann Fehling, Daniel Gogel und Peter Pfankuch, 1958-1962

Saint Norbert Church stands on the site of a Neo-Romanesque church, constructed during the years of World War I and damaged in World War II. That church had a two-towered façade, which was demolished during the subsequent transformation of the Dominicusstraße. There are some elements of the old church in the current building, such as the Byzantine-influenced interior with a dome. On the outside, the bludgeon-like bell-tower and the sharply spiked roofing are very unsettling.


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20. Berliner Philharmonie

Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße 1, Tiergarten
Hans Scharoun, 1956-1963; Edgar Wisniewski, 1984-1987

The Berliner Philharmonie is a concert hall belonging to the Kulturforum complex in Tiergarten. It is home to the Berliner Philharmoniker. It was built to replace the old Philarmonie, destroyed by British bombers in 1944. It opened on October 15, 1963 with the 9th Symphony of Beethoven (conducted by Herbert von Karajan).

The Berliner Philharmonie is most famous for the vineyard-style seating arrangement of the Grand Hall. Hans Scharoun, an important representative of organic architecture, tried to create a balance and harmony between nature and architecture by placing the orchestral platform at the centre of the hall and arranging the seating around it through a series of terraces, positioned for optimal acoustic performance. The hall appears as a concave fish bowl that projects the music in every direction. The ceiling angles and drapes dramatically over the space, capturing and projecting the sound in a rhythmic fashion. This arrangement revolutionised the idea of a classical music concert, and the building quickly became a model for other concert halls in the world (e.g., for Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House).

The expressive spaces of the Grand Hall are reflected in the exterior of the building. The angles and the swooping tent-like structure compliment the spatial conditions of the interior. The dynamic façades mimic the fortested landscape of the nearby Tiergarten. The gold-anodized aluminium plates on the façade, too, help to maintain an earthy balance with the surrounding landscape. These were added in the 1980s, after the completion of the building of the Berlin State Library across the street (also designed by Scharoun and Wisniewski).

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The second hall – the Chamber Music Hall – was opened in 1987. It had been conceived together with the Grand Hall.


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The Philharmonie quickly attracted several nicknames from the locals. One was Zirkus Karajani, a reference to the circus-like form of the Grand Hall, the principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker at the time, and a well-known German circus before World War II. Another was Konzertschachtel, inspired by the golden exterior and the form of the both halls, which conveyed an image of a chocolate box to some.


21. Neue Nationalgalerie

Potsdamer Straße 50, Tiergarten
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1965-1968

The Neue Nationalgalerie is a square pavilion made of steel and glass. The sides of the square are 64.8 metres long. Two steel columns support the black pre-stressed steel roof plate on each side. The glass walls that form the main hall are 7.2 meters behind the rim of the roof.

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In many ways, the pavilion is the epitome of Mies’s conception of space. In an article published in 1943 he described a seemingly floating roof plane suspended above a single clear-span space and punctuated by equidistant columns. Such a structure, a composite of little more than the ground plane, the support and the roof, minimises the structural enclosure and joins together the exterior and interior space.

Mies saw the museum space as a ‘defining, rather than confining space’. The completely open nature of the plan serves to eliminate the barrier between art and community and to invite closer interaction between them.

In structural terms, Mies’s building is very similar to Ancient Greek tremples. Hence, it is also in deep connection with the Neoclassical architecture of Berlin (e.g., the Neoclassical buildings of the Altes Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie).


The Neue Nationalgalerie has two distinct storeys. The upper storey serves as an entrance hall as well as the main special exhibition space. It only comprises a small portion of the total gallery space, but it stands boldly as the building’s primary architectural expression. The lower storey serves as housing for the gallery’s permanent collection, but also includes a library, offices, a shop, and a café. It is three quarters below ground, its sole glazed façade looking out on the museum’s sloping sculpture garden.

The both storeys have some logistical downsides. The entrance hall has a smooth granite flooring which reflects the warm natural light that floods the space, creating hazy shadows and complicating curatiorial work. Another downside is the lack of natural lighting and the relatively pedestrian layout of the viewing space of the lower storey.

The gallery has an extensive collection of early 20th-century art.

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22. Bauhaus-Archiv

Klingelhöferstraße 14, Tiergarten
Walter Gropius, Alex Cvijanovic & Hans Bandel, 1964-1979

The Bauhaus Archive was founded in Darmstadt in 1960. It collects art pieces, items, documents, and literature related to the Bauhaus School. The collection grew quickly so the idea of a dedicated museum soon became attractive. In 1964, Walter Gropius, the founding director of the original Bauhaus, produced the plans for the museum in Darmstadt. Local politics did not enable the construction of the museum there, but the Senate of Berlin was more accommodating. In 1971 the Archive moved to Berlin, but there, too, financial restrictions and political processes caused much delay. The building was finally ready in 1979.

By that time there was nothing left of Gropius’s original plan except for the characteristic silhouette of the shed roofs, which light the exhibition space. Changes to the plan, which were necessitated by the change of the terrain (in Darmstadt the museum was supposed to be located on a hilltop, whereas in Berlin, the plot next to the Landwehrkanal is flat), were carried out by Gropius’s former colleague Alex Cvijanovic, in conjunction with the Berlin architect Hans Bandel.

Among the exhibits of the museum are icons such as the Bauhaus lamp and the Wassily chair.


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Part Three: Deconstructivism and Contemporary Architecture


23. Jewish Museum Berlin

Lindenstraße 9-14, Kreuzberg
Daniel Libeskind, 1989-1999

The first Jewish Museum in Berlin was founded in 1933, just before the Nazis came to power. It was built next to the Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger Straße. During the Kristallnacht it was shut down and its inventory was confiscated. The current Jewish Museum opened in 2001. It is the largest Jewish Museum in Europe and one of the most visited museums in Germany.

The museum consists of two buildings: the Baroque-style Kollegienhaus and the Deconstructivist main building in the shape of a twisted zig-zag by Daniel Libeskind. The two buildings are not connected to one another above the ground, each preserving their individual autonomy.


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In order to access Libeskind’s building visitors must enter the Kollegienhaus and pass an underground corridor. In the basement, they encounter three intersecting, slanting corridors named the Axes. Here a similarity to Libeskind’s first building – the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück – is apparent, as that building is also divided into three areas with different meanings.

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The three axes symbolize three paths of Jews in Germany – the Holocaust, emigration from Germany, and continuity in German history. The first axis leads to the Holocaust Tower, a 24 m tall empty space. The bare concrete tower is neither heated nor cooled, and its only light comes from a small slit in the roof. The second axis connects the museum proper to the Garden of Exile. It consists of tall concrete pillars on a tilted foundation covered with plants. The third and longest axis traces a path leading to the Stair of Continuity and then up to the exhibition spaces of the museum.

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The promenade Libeskind has created follows the zig-zag formation of the building, leading through galleries, empty spaces, and dead ends. A significant proportion of the building is void of windows and differences in materiality. A void cuts through the zigzagging plan and creates a space that embodies absence. In order to move from one side of the museum to the other, visitors must cross one of the 60 bridges that open onto this void. It is a straight line whose impenetrability becomes the central focus around which exhibitions are organized. In this way the architect has translated the whole human experience into an architectural composition.


24. W. Michael Blumenthal Academy of the Jewish Museum

Fromet-und-Moses-Mendelssohn-Platz 1, Kreuzberg
Daniel Libeskind, 2010-2012

The W. Michael Blumenthal Academy is located in the former flower market hall on the opposite side of the street from the main building of the Jewish Museum. It was opened in 2012 as a place of research and discussion. It is made up of three tilted cubes and two office wings that have been built into the existing structure. The cubic form is a variation on a theme found in the museum’s Garden of Exile and the Glass Courtyard (designed by Libeskind in 2007).

The first cube, which forms the entrance to the Academy, penetrates the façade of the building. It is lit by skylights in the form of alef and bet, referencing the research and educational work done at the site. In the hall’s interior, the two other cubes are located. They are tilted towards one another and house the auditorium and the library with its adjacent reading room. Between the three tilted cubes, an inspirational space emerges that allows multifarious views both into the interior and outside. It also includes the Diaspora Garden.



25. DZ Bank Building

Pariser Platz 3, Mitte
Frank Gehry, 1998-2000

This is a multifunctional building. The part facing the Pariser Platz is the headquarters of the DZ Bank. On the other side, facing Behrenstraße, are 39 residential apartments. The both façades are clad in buff-coloured limestone that matches the Brandenburg Gate, located nearby. The façades are scaled independently from one another, and the proportions of each are appropriate to the immediate urban area within which they exist. The Pariser Platz façade features a series of simple, punched openings and deeply-recessed window bays, allowing the building to blend naturally into the formal urban fabric which is the setting of the Brandenburg Gate. The Behrenstraße façade with a dense row of windows is wavy and its upper floors recede one by one.


The most notable part of the building is its large interior atrium. It is covered with a sophisticated glass-grid roof, curved in a complex form typical of Gehry’s designs. It also has a curving glass floor. Offices are organized around the atrium and are oriented inward to benefit from the natural light that floods in.

In the centre of the glass floor of the atrium is a sculptural shell which appears to float in the space. This is the physical and spiritual heart of the project. It is the building’s main conference hall. It is clad in stainless steel on the exterior and in wood on the interior. It is four storeys high, has an area of 188 square metres, and can seat up to 100 people.

Other conference functions can be organised under the glass floor of the atrium, where a foyer and the bank’s café are located.

A smaller atrium serves the residential component of the building, allowing natural light to enter both sides of each apartment.


26. Embassy of the Netherlands

Klosterstraße 50, Mitte
Rem Koolhaas, 1997-2003

The building of the Embassy of the Netherlands is essentially a freestanding cube on a podium. The interior of the cube is arranged around a 200-metre hallway that zigzags up through eight stories. From the entrance, the hallway leads to the library, the meeting rooms, the offices, the fitness area, and finally the restaurant on the roof terrace. The workspaces are the ‘leftover areas’ after the hallway was carved out. Some spaces are located close to the façade and at one point cantilever out over the drop-off area. The regularity of the cube’s glass and steel façade is partially disturbed and in places, the path makes itself visible from the outside. The trajectory also works as the main airduct from which fresh air percolates to the offices, to be drawn off via the double plenum façade.

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The cube is surrounded on two sides by a semi-opaque wall. It is as high as the cube (27 metres) and accommodates embassy residences. In this way, a protected internal courtyard is created. Four pedestrian bridges span the courtyard and link the cube with the wall at varying levels.

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