A Design Historian Visits Berlin

A Design Historian Visits Berlin

My recent visit to Berlin has confirmed that three days is simply not enough to even begin to engage with this extraordinary city. Berlin is extraordinary for many reasons but the two that loom largest for me as a design historian are (1) its history of division and unification and (2) the extent and excellence of its museums and galleries.

Brandenberg Gate with the Fernsehturm behind

I began my flying visit to Berlin with an evening boat tour. The commentary was in German, which I only studied for one short term at high school, so while I was able to order our drinks on the boat in German I learned very little from the commentary about the architecture and culture to be witnessed from the River Spree other than that which I was able to glean from simply looking. I was impressed with the Berliner Dom, the Reichstag, and the government buildings including Das Bundeskanzleramt, the House of World Cultures (HKW), Humboldtforum, Museuminsel - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - and the ubiquitous 368-metre-high Fernsehturm TV tower. There is a great mix of architecture to be witnessed on a warm spring evening with a Weissbier in hand.

Berlin Fernsehturm from the River Spree

The next day we made a beeline for the Fernsehturm, Berlin’s TV Tower and the Observation Deck 203 metres up. The tower opened in 1969 as a statement of East German pride. Today, it provides unrivalled views of the whole of Berlin. We enjoyed amazing views of the city, and witnessed evidence of its history and development. I imagine watching the sunset in the revolving ‘Sphere’ restaurant there (207 metres up) would be fun almost regardless of the traditional German cuisine.

HKW from the River Spree

It is just a short and visually arresting bus ride from the Fernsehturm to Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (aka HKW, or the House of World Cultures or the Pregnant Oyster) between the Tiergarten and the River Spree. Conceived as the American contribution to the International Building Exhibition, Interbau 57, Congress Hall was designed by Hugh A. Stubbins with Werner Düttmann and Franz Mocken, and built in just a year from 1956-7. Stubbins worked under Walter Gropius at Harvard and was felt to bring a taste of American modernity to the area. HKW was reconstructed in 1983-7 following a collapse and renovated 2005-7 just in time for its 50th anniversary celebrations.

Another anniversary took us to HKW this year: the centenary of the Bauhaus. As part of a series of events commemorating the opening in 1919 of what became one of the - if not the - world’s most influential art and design school, HKW staged an exhibition, Bauhaus Imaginista. The curators situated the Bauhaus among international comparators throughout, until the last room which considered the School’s international influence. This approach made for great connections and parallels (but, dare I say!?), left me without enough Bauhaus! Bauhaus Imaginista was a next-level Bauhaus show, for visitors familiar with the history of the school and needing an updated account which takes on board design history’s internationalisation efforts. That made it perfect for me, but not ideal as an introduction to the Bauhaus. I also felt that the balance between works on paper/printed materials/information panels and objects could have usefully been adjusted in favour of showing more objects, but that is a matter of preference.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

A walk through the Tiergarten and along the Straße des 17 Juni, past the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal (Soviet War Memorial) and the Brandenburg Gate took us to to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This arresting city block of 19,000 square metres in the centre of Berlin is covered with a field of 2700+ stelae, on undulating ground, with an underground exhibition below. Designed by Peter Eisenman, it was built between 2003-5 and opened in 2005. I witnessed such a broad spread of responses among the other visitors, from expressions of grief that were painful to see, to frankly playful engagements with the formal aspects of the memorial. I didn’t know the museum only admits children over 14 until we got to the head of the queue to enter the subterranean exhibition but the doorman was flexible and so was my daughter. I wanted her to understand something about what had happened to Jews in Germany and elsewhere under Hitler‘s and associated regimes. The first room telling key facts, and the final room, cataloguing memorials worldwide, were enough for her, this time. I also entered a room of letters from victims of the holocaust, with a frieze showing the numbers of Jews killed in each country - the numbers were dreadfully large, breaking down the awful mathematics of reaching the number 6 million. The ceiling of the museum seemed to mirror the stelae above with a grid of voids, rather than blocks. The scale of human destruction this place memorialises is incomprehensible, and the practice of remembrance it affords could not be more important.

Potsdamer Platz at dusk

Mall of Berlin

In the kind of bathos only wandering tourism can produce, we next found ourselves in the Mall of Berlin, across the street from Potsdamer Platz involuntarily transfixed by a fashion show performed to pumping dance music against the backdrop of the Bundesrat, built in 1904 by architect Friedrich Schulze-Kolbitz as the Prussian House of Lords.

Berlin Wall Memorial

Our final day began with a visit to the very informative and well-judged Berlin Wall Memorial exhibition and open display, including a stretch of the wall that has been preserved. The outdoor installation communicates the difficulties of daily life with directness and immediacy, using building foundations, sound posts with voice recordings, murals and structures indicating the wall and barriers, church and homes. We learn of the people dispossessed by the wall’s construction, families separated by the wall who could not celebrate weddings or grieve over losses together, families who used secret signals to recognise one another, families torn apart by arbitrary and involuntary separation over the 40 years during which the wall existed and was enforced. The view from the memorial exhibition building tower provides another vantage point on the city, and shows the extent of the wall’s presence in the city fabric.

Museum der Dinge

The last stop on our flying visit to Berlin was the Museum der Dinge (The Thing Museum). It is ostensibly focussed on the Deutscher Werkbund (f. 1907) but it offers the experience of stepping into an absolutely giant cupboard filled with an overwhelmingly large number of objects: there are 40,000 objects and 40,000 documents in the collection. The objects are apparently gathered together with almost minimal curatorial intervention. A long wall lined with cases offering ‘open storage’ is arranged very simply by typology, materials, or colour. The central cases lightly communicate the Werkbund distaste for historicism and lookalike materials, and the preference for simplicity of form and utility. Perhaps ironically, given the Werkbund’s design philosophy, for me the strength of the Museum was its extensive display of kitsch with its large number of sub-themes: religious kitsch, souvenir kitsch, animal kitsch etc. etc. All of the cases have thick wood frames, vertical and horizontal, around highly reflective glass, both of which impede viewing and make photographing the objects and labels very difficult. And that is a problem because aside from the Frankfurt Kitchen installation which my daughter and I had a really good rummage through, this museum is only about looking and not about touching. We spent hours peering through the glass cases, relieved only by the occasional snippet of audio accessed via headphones. There is no other interaction. They really are keeping it simple at the Museum der Dinge. A must-see for design historians.

I need to go back to Berlin, to learn more about this extraordinary city and to visit the Bauhaus Archiv and the Jewish Museum, both under renovation as I write, plus the Olympiastadion, the Kathe Kollwitz Museum, the Neues Museum and all of the Museumsinsel, the Museum for Architectural Drawing, Braun-Sammling Ettel Museum für Design, the Stasi Museums, the DDR museum, and, further afield, the Bauhaus building in Dessau (at Gropiusallee 38) and the new Bauhaus Museum in Weimar. I’ve also been advised by friends and colleagues to enjoy the Bikini Berlin concept mall, and the intriguing Baum & Zeit, a woodland walk and WW2 ruin, and to take comfort in a slice of cake at the KaDeWe food hall.

How to manage a return visit? I suggest that the Design History Society hosts its annual conference in Berlin soon! This year, the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, would have been an ideal time, but failing that, a German design history conference in the medium of English as soon as possible would be welcomed, not only by me I am sure, but also by the majority of design historians who wish to engage further with this world-leading design culture.

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin.

Reichstag from the River Spree

Prof Regina L. Blaszczyk, Advisory Board Member

Prof Regina L. Blaszczyk, Advisory Board Member

A ring that stole my heart and changed my mind

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