Berlin Day 3: Layers of Berlin

There were a few sore heads in the group after our night out in Berlin, which concluded in the wee hours of the morning at a quirky rooftop bar above a parking garage atop a mall (in true Berlin style). Nevertheless, it was a beautiful, sunny morning and we were all excited for our bicycle tour to explore the city further.

We met tour guide Richard Ollig at Ticket B – an architectural tour company made by architects. It was initially surprising to the group that we didn’t require helmets, however It soon became apparent that Berlin is built for bikes and felt quite safe to ride. The city is relatively flat and pavement patterns clearly articulate paths which made it easy for us to navigate.

Our first stop was Museum Island which contains five museum buildings built between 1830 and 1930. We entered The Altes Museum (Old Museum) by prominent German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The light-filled central cupola is a powerful space, with the rotunda adorned with antique statues of gods. This building is now considered among the most important examples of Neoclassical architecture.

The group was eager to see the Neues Museum. Richard explained that WWII resulted in the vast ruin of Berlin city, “Almost 80 per cent of buildings were damaged or destroyed in the centre of the city during the war which left it in ruin.” The Neues Museum was one such building which was bombed and severely damaged during the war. The building was left a charred ruin without a section of roof until it’s restoration which was completed in 2009. David Chipperfield Architects won the design competition based on their approach to conserve, restore and recreate the existing without imitating it.

The marriage of old and new is respectful and subtle and the narrative of twentieth-century Berlin can be seen in the architecture, with layers of remaining old brick, render, paintwork and original frescoes conserved with an extraordinary level of craftmanship alongside a refined, yet elegantly detailed palette of concrete and marble. Terrazzo is utilised in different ways throughout the building, polished on the floors and sandblasted on the walls. Reminders of WWII are present with some columns and cladding strategically left charred with bullet holes from the final shootings. As we left the Neues Museum, we passed the new reception building, also by Chipperfield, which is nearing completion. Eventually, all five museums on the island will be linked by an underground walkway, which sets off from this new ticketing/reception space.

We jumped back on our bikes and rode on through the city, stopping briefly for a chat outside the Reichstag, which is a new parliament building by Fosters and Partners. It was interesting to compare the approach of the Reichstag to the Neues Museum. Unlike Chipperfield’s approach, Foster and Partners opted for the sharp contemporary aesthetic to juxtapose against the existing.

We continued on, through the Brandenburg Gate and into the medium-density neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, on the periphery of the city centre, where we arrived at the Konig Galerie. This heritage-listed, brutalist church designed by Werner Duttmann in the 1960s has been recently transformed into an art gallery by architect Arno Brandlhuber. The main space in the Konig Galerie is breathtaking. Slits in the facade and skylights fill the vast volume with natural light. This light and shadow accentuates the rooms raw stucco wall finish which successfully differs from the typical white cube.

Claudia Comte’s temporary installation, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, currently occupies the main space. Twenty spruce trees are suspended from the ceiling with each tree revealing a carved void in which wood, marble, and bronze sculptures are placed. The immersive installation was perfectly suited for this space.

The Konig Galerie is among many outstanding gallery spaces in Berlin. While we’ve been told that Berlin isn’t as inexpensive as it used to be, prices are still very attractive in comparison to other capitals (thinking to our recent experience in London). I think this encourages a young, vibrant art scene. The layering of historical art, on Museum Island, with contemporary art galleries throughout the city is very exciting.

Our bike tour concluded at Prinzessinnengarten, an urban farm green space in the centre of Berlin’s Kreuzberg. The community garden creates an area for locals to come together, experiment and learn more about organic food production. Shared communal space which generates social interaction is valued in Berlin, which is evident by the number of parks and playgrounds layered throughout the city. A large, shared communal garden for families was central to the design concept of the community-initiated Baugruppe development ze05 by Zanderroth Architekten, which we visited yesterday. A similar concept was also found at Chipperfield’s Berlin studio, which had a shared communal courtyard complete with a cafe. Berlin’s social values has been a common thread in most, if not all of our tours here. I think this has a lot to do with Berlin’s history, including the physical and ideological division of people which was caused by the Berlin Wall (deconstructed in 1989).

After lunch we made our way to the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind. Slanted walls with sharp angles lead you down corridors to dark chamber voids. The building offers strong spatial experiences, no more so than in the Memory Void room where we experienced the artwork Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. The walk-in installation is dedicated to the victims of war and violence and consists of 10,000 heavy iron plates cut to resemble faces. When we walked over the plates, the faces “screamed” under foot, which echoed loudly in the void. This left an eerie, uncomfortable feeling which conjured thoughts of the holocaust.

Unlike the subtle narrative of WWII history told by the architecture of Chipperfield’s Neues Museum, The Jewish Museum and the exhibit in the memory void affected us more overtly through experience. A similar thing could be said about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Peter Eisenman, which was our last stop for the day. The impressive sculptural memorial has over 2000 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. After a fun group shot, we wandered off and quickly got lost. The abstract installation successfully produced a very uneasy atmosphere.

It was a fantastic last day in Berlin. It showed us that there are many layers of history here which has had a noticeable impact on the built environment, culture and way of life in Berlin.

– Joseph O’Meara

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