Berlin: Contemporary Capital of Design


Berlin, a metropolis haunted by its history, is constantly renewing itself. No European city has such a turbulent past and so invigorating a present. Spring is a good season to explore or revisit its treasures, and two major anniversaries are being celebrated this year: the 20th anniversary of the tearing down of the Wall, and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus.

2904087529_51f785dd96If this is your first visit you will want to ascend the ramp in the crystalline dome of the Reichstag, and you can beat the crowd by arriving at 8am when it opens, or just before it closes at 10pm.  Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is also less crowded in the evenings, which allows you to absorb the deeply disturbing spirit of the place and ignore the pedestrian exhibits. Concerts at the Philharmonie are always sold out, but you can book early on-line, or go to the theater for a return, and you’ll have one of the great experiences of your life—musical and architectural.

2006_rotor_dscf0008_1Other key sights are less well-known. One of the noblest monuments in the city is Peter Behrens’ AEG Turbine Factory, which was built a century ago and still serves its original purpose. Its exposed steel frame and huge expanses of glass must have seemed shocking when it was new and it still conveys a sense of raw power. GoArt! Berlin, a specialized tour service, has the magic key to get you inside. The interior is cathedral-like and flooded with natural light, and the gleaming turbines, each the size of a big-rig, are carried on overhead cranes. The great surprise is to find craftsmen polishing each blade by hand, as though these were sculptures.

GoArt! Berlin focuses on the art scene, fashion, Jewish life and architecture, and they can guide you to such unfamiliar treasures as the Kreuzkirche, with its jazzily patterned nave and tilted portico, and the Ullstein publishing house, with its grand arches and tightly-coiled stairways. They can also arrange a walking tour of Hansaviertel, a green oasis at the center of the city, where, in 1957, several of the world’s top architects contributed to a model housing development. Berlin was then in ruins, and, even in its raw state, this must have seemed like paradise to young couples desperate for shelter. Fifty years later, some of the first occupants are still living in this idyllic community, and it’s worth strolling around to admire the contributions of Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen.

Housing estates of the 1920s, called siedlungen, have won recognition from UNESCO and are as cherished by their occupants as Hansaviertel. A stand-out in the south of the city is Onkel Toms Hutte (named for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel) and a near neighbor is the Free University, which the US established during the Cold War. Within an anonymous courtyard of the university is the Philological Library, designed by Norman Foster, the architect who restored the Reichstag. It resembles a huge glass blimp and its luminous interior is an inspiring place to study.

img_3579The GSW Tower on the former Kochstrasse (now renamed for the firebrand Rudi Dutschke), a block away from Checkpoint Charlie, is a slim curved glass tower with a canvas canopy emphasizing its linearity, rising from a black podium. Folding pink and aubergine shutters can be closed to protect from the sun. It’s the kind of elegant, high-tech architecture Berlin needs to offset the banality of the new government buildings.

In contrast, the Hochbunker Boros is a massive five-level reinforced concrete air raid shelter, recently remodeled to house a remarkable collection of contemporary art, with a tree-girt apartment for the owner on the roof.  You have to make an advance booking for a tour, which is gives you a close-up of cutting-edge artworks and the wonderfully decayed walls, signage and rusted machinery that survive from the war years. Walls and floors have been cut away to provide overlooks and double-height galleries, and the inner labyrinth has been painted white, but the perimeter retains its patina.

Radial Systems V, a former waterworks on the Spree, was recently given a new role as a performing arts center. Two stories of steel and glass are superimposed on the 19th-century brick core to house studios, and there’s a theater that hosts a lively program of contemporary music and dance. A French chef offers plates of charcuterie and good wine in the concourse before the performance, and in fine weather you can sit on the riverside terrace.

On July 22nd, a major retrospective on the Bauhaus will open at the Martin Gropius Bau, and you can make day trips to Weimar and Dessau, the cities that housed the school in the 1920s and are hosting their own events. October sees the re-opening of the Neues Museum, which was left in ruins after the war, and will again be showing a fantastic collection of Egyptian artifacts.

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For information on the two year-long celebrations, go to mauerfall09.de and to bauhaus2009.de. To arrange a customized tour: contact@goart-berlin.de.  To locate the Free University library: geisteswissenschaften.fu-berlin.de. For tours of Hochbunker Boros: sammlung-boros.de . For programs and tickets at Radial Systems: radialsystem.de.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael grew up in London and now lives in a classic modern apartment in Los Angeles. His twin passions are architecture and travel, and he indulges both as often as he can, exploring every continent in search of material and inspiration. His travel memoir, Moving Around: a Lifetime of Wandering (ORO Books, October) recalls memorable experiences of people and places over seven decades. Michael is the author of 28 other books, most recently Architects' Houses. He has written on travel and design for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso Life, Monocle, Architectural Digest and other publications
around the world.
Michael Webb

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