Traenenpalast Berlin — Photo Peder Sterll

Berlin’s architectural spaces are as divided as its history as we see modernist movements in all their shades wind across this cultural hub of diversity and perpetual cool like a giant chameleon. I have travelled many times from the elegant Art Nouveau courtyards of Hackescher Markt in the hip Mitte district to West Berlin’s Bauhaus and into East Berlin where the Communist backlash against Bauhaus modernity is frozen in time for all to see. I always find architectural details that stop me in my tracks. No wonder everyone’s eyes light up when I mention Berlin.

Growing up in Eighties’ Berlin, as I did, history flashed passed my eight year old self in all its shades as we rode past centuries of architecture on the S-Bahn train back towards Alexanderplatz, feet dangling off velour seats. The bullet holes in the Brecht Theatre, State Library and the Staatsoper looked like birthmarks to a new dawn.

Leaving Alexander Platz’ iconic TV Tower and heading west towards Tiergarten and the Brandenburger Gate today, the opulence of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s monuments on Unter den Linden continue to hark back to Berlin’s rich classical architectural history. These cultural pillars largely survived the Second World War and became somehow conserved in the communist bubble east of the wall.

Travelling up to Friedrichstrasse on any train or tube leaving Alexanderplatz for the west, you might blink and miss the glass and steel construction of the Traenenpalast (Palace of Tears, above) which is tucked behind Friedrichstrasse train station. Built in 1962 by Horst Luederitz at a time when international modern architectural values were abused to disguise the buildings actual function. Until 1990, this departure hall was the border crossing from the GDR to West Berlin. No surprise that this scene of so many painful farewells was dubbed the “Palace of Tears”. Reopened in September 2011, it now houses the permanent exhibition “Border experience. Everyday life in divided Germany” and has films and interviews that document the effects of the border on Germany’s people.

A favourite place to stand is below the World Clock on Alexanderplatz, where you can look East down Karl Marx Allee (formerly Stalinallee), and see the ‘Ost-Moderne’ begin. Any lover of modernism could become confused by the apparent similarities they might detect. East Berlin’s government, strongly informed by Moscow rejected the form and function philosophy of Bauhaus’s masters as bourgeois and decadent and adopted a counter-movement to the capitalist modernity of the time. Yet they brought in a former lover of Bauhaus, Herman Henselmann, to rebuild Karl-Marx Allee – oh, the irony. Coming out of the underground at Frankfurter Tor station, you can still see the vast ornamental apartment blocks Henselmann built in 1953 that line the boulevard.

Kino International

Henselmann’s plans for the second part of Karl-Marx Allee, were later rejected in favour of architectural practice Dutschke & Kaiser’s modern spaces, such as he iconic concrete glass constructions of Kino International, Café Moskau and the Mokka-Milch Eisbar, budget builds which mix living quarters with social and cultural space really must be seen.

In 1961 Henselmann completed his most famous building, Haus des Lehrers (House of the teacher) and built Kongresshalle immediately to the right of Alexanderplatz, where he reintroduced the Bauhaus concepts of form and function. The mural on the Haus des Lehrers is East Germany’s answer to Diego Riviera’s 1934 mural “Man, Controller of the Universe” for the Rockefeller Centre. Artist Walter Womacka designed the sleeve around the building and entitled it “our life” in the style of the Mexican artist. It depicts a glowing vision in muted primary colours of various occupational groups and aspects of life in the German Democratic Republic. An image flawed by the boundaries the state inflicted, this kind of Socialist Propaganda was ever-present in the East Berlin of my youth.

Berlin Haus des Lehrers

West, in the heartland of post-war Modernism I meet internationally acclaimed architect of Urban spaces, Wolf-Ruediger Borchardt who has his practice in a former Bauhaus apartment block, in Berlin Charlottenburg.

Bauhaus-Borchardt Office

Borchardt has witnessed the modernist movement and all its nuances since the 1950s. “Most of the Bauhaus architects had left Germany for the US by the mid 20th Century and they informed the style of the cities there. While East Berlin was erecting cityscapes of perceived modernity on the Stalinallee, the Hansaviertel became West Berlin’s expression of post-war modernity.” Key agenda of the Interbau ’57, the international building exhibition, Hansaviertel or Hansa District was redesigned after the destruction of the second World War with no less than 53 celebrated architects from 13 countries sending in ideas, amongst them Alvar Aalto, Egon Eiermann, Walter Gropius, Arne Jacobsen, Oscar Niemeyer und Max Taut. A total of 35 of the designs were realised in a utopian city-scape of multi-storey houses, cinemas, kindergartens, churches, small shops and green spaces. This area alone deserves a feature in itself so watch this space.

Berlin Kosmos
Berlin Kosmos

Not far from the Hansa-Viertel in Berlin’s Tiergarten district, triumphs the ‘pregnant oyster’, the colloquial term us Berliners use to describes the strikingly curved conference centre built as part of the Interbau exhibition by American architect Hugh Stubbins. In 1958 it was given to West Berlin as a gift by the US as a symbol and celebration of freedom of speech. Its steel, concrete and glass structure intended to show off the maxims of the West to the East, Because it threatened the East German regime of the time they regularly sent Russian aircrafts across the buildings airspace in deep flight to shake up the building during international conferences as a form of intimidation. These flight manoeuvres were probably partly to blame for its collapse in 1980. It was rebuilt by Wolf-Ruediger Borchardt and Hans-Peter Stoerl in 1989 to mirror the original design of the 50s and is now seen as one of Berlin’s most striking modernist landmarks.

The Pregnant Oyster
The Pregnant Oyster

Thank you to London based East Berliner Felicia Strehmel of the fabulous Lilly’s Lightbox Company for this very personal snapshot of her city. There will be follow ups to Berlin as we follow the different movements in later blogs. Felicia travelled with Air Berlin 

To apply for the right to produce this or use any part of this  © Modern Shows feature please contact Modern Shows produces Midcentury Modern, Midcentury East, The Modern Marketplace and Inside Modernism

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