Brutal*ist Berlin – The Brutalist Architecture of Berlin
If you’re looking for brutalist architecture in Berlin, you’re going to have to head to the West. At the time when brutalist architecture was at its height, due to its history Berlin shows a geographical divide in the distribution of these buildings. After the devastation of the Second World War in Berlin, architecture became a discipline where new technological solutions, techniques and future-visions could be demonstrated. Divided Berlin became a showcase for the Western and Eastern powers and public building projects became conspicuous expressions of attempted supremacy. While the architectural progression of Soviet-controlled sector was generally guided by a Communist worldview, the Western sectors – trying to reflect architecture styles prevailing in the wider world at the time – flirted with modernism. For this reason, most of the featured buildings are located in the former West-Berlin. Scattered around the city, from Steglitz to Wedding, Kreuzberg to Spandau you can find them. Here are a few:
The Free University
In Berlin, the article also begins on the campus of a university, that of the Free University in the south west of the city. In Lichterfelde, between the Teltow canal and a medieval church, we find a breathtaking piece of brutalist architecture – the Research Institute for Experimental Medicine (FEM, formerly ZTL – Central Animal Laboratory).
The FEM is a colossal concrete structure with place for 88,000 test-animals. It is known colloquially as the ‘Mouse Bunker’ due to its solid, imposing appearance. Completed in 1980, during the ten years it took to build the original forecast cost of 4 million Deutschmarks had become 126 million.
The sloping, converging walls are supposed to be reminiscent of the gables of farmhouses or sheep-stalls in Lower Saxony. I don’t know if this reference to free animals was supposed to be ironic.
Opposite the FEM is the Institute for Hygiene and Environmental Medicine – a stark, functional building almost entirely in raw concrete, metal and glass. While more expressive than brutalist, its organic curves and steamboat motives don’t neutralise its severe appearance.
Also in Steglitz, built as part of the Schloßstrasse U-bahn station from 1972-76, is the 46m high Bladerunner-esque Steglitzer Bierpinsel. Added to lessen the impact of the connected flyover and containing a restaurant, it was originally clad in red fibre cement panels. The new paintwork was added recently by street-artists commissioned by the restaurant owner.
This monumental apartment block near Kleistpark was completed in 1976. It became much-maligned, receiving the nickname ‘Social Palace’, until recently undergoing many improvements and being rebranded as the ‘Pallasseum’. It has a total floor area of 37,000 square metres (nine acres), houses approximately 2,000 residents and spans a Second World War high-rise bunker.
The Czech Embassy
Designed by the architectural couple Vera und Vladimir Machonin, this striking building has stood on the historical Wilhelmstrasse since 1978, and could be interpreted as the Czech take on brutalist architecture.
Klinikum am Urban
Towering over the old Urbanhafen on the banks of the Landwehrkanal, the only hospital in Kreuzberg was completed to designs by Peter Poelzig. The nine-floor, V-shaped bed tract can house almost 600 patients. The external golden blinds form a stark contrast to the raw concrete exterior.
St Agnes Church
Heavily set between pre-fabricated apartment blocks and green spaces, metres from the geographical centre of Berlin, is another great example of Berlin’s brutalism. Now without its blue neon cross, which used to punctuate the darker nights in this area of Kreuzberg, the (former) St Agnes church was completed in 1967 to plans by the architect Werner Düttmann. It is now under heritage protection and gallery owner Johann König is soon to open a new exhibition space there.
The Beuth University
Situated in Wedding, these two buildings were completed in 1973 and 1976 respectively, as part of an expansion of the university. The Department of Building and Construction has similarities to some of the buildings at the University of Leeds.
In Spandau, in a small bay of the river Havel called Scharfe Lanke, there is a very understated yet important example of brutalist architecture. Built in 1970 by the brothers Jan and Rolf Rave – in a style similar to the Swiss forerunners of the time – Haus Plettner was one of the first instances of a family house in Berlin being built with such significance placed on concrete.
As in the UK, some brutalist architecture in Berlin has been demolished or lost its original aesthetic through renovation. But, of the buildings featured here, some are already under heritage protection and it is possible that more will follow. Added to that, with English Heritage’s recent exhibition Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the 20th Century on the value of post-war architecture, perhaps the future isn’t too bleak for post-war modernist and brutalist architecture in Europe.
Fotos and text © Gareth Davies
The first piece in the series, The Brutalist Architecture of Leeds can be found here.