Architecture and Berlin

We’re not taught much about architecture in school but we are surrounded by buildings, we use them all the time and they are important for what we do and how we feel.
Our lack of architectural education is a often a weakness in public debate where discussions on new development are frequently stymied by a kneejerk reaction against the new (although arising from a justified rejection of modernist architecture’s weakness in incorporating the reactions of users into its theoretical scheme of things).

For me, when I look at the cityscape a false familiarity arises. I recognise a building and I also know whether the building makes me amused or relaxed and at one with the world or whether it feels crushing and alien and makes me feel that I don’t belong. But if I attempt to take these feelings further, to develop them by writing them down, I’m immediately aware of the crudeness and inadequacy of my architectural “taste”.

Being a Samuel Smiles self-improvement type of person, I want to do something about this but it’s not altogether easy. The available reading material reflects how architecture, knowledge of buildings and urban design are taught (or not taught..). There are specialised guides about buildings (the Pevsner series in England is an excellent example) which are appropriate for the general public interested in this field. However, I’ve found it more of a struggle to go beyond these.There is a wealth of material by and for architects but these are often too technical for my needs. A trawl through architectural magazines would probably produce articles that served this purpose.

I’m now in Berlin, a fascinating place for architecture. It’s a city I know well and hardly at all.The subject initially overwhelms me but after blundering around in the fog for a while (trying not to panic), a few ideas emerge, which I sketch here but not in any particularly well digested form.

I want to know more about the various building styles – neo-classicism and historicism before the modern period. Here, as often, I find what I already know a barrier to understanding. The historicist period differs from Victorian England’s preference for the Gothic. In Berlin, churches often refer back to the Gothic during this period while other types of buildings used classical or renaissance models so that the historicist period is broader here (and trying to sub-divide into a classical and gothic period, a Kings Cross and St Pancras approach, won’t work.
To understand, you need to examine the same material from different perspectives – from the point of view of the architects (Schinkel and Hobrecht, for example), the building, broader urban design, etc.

The attempt to heal the city’s wounds, from the war and its division, is a fascinating process. The GDR sometimes demolished badly damaged older buildings (and even not so badly damaged buildings that didn’t fit the new agenda) and sometimes produced a replica of lost buildings.
More interesting for me are the efforts of architects like David Chipperfield to “marry” the old and the new as in the cases of the Neues Museum, to repair what can be repaired and to complement with distinguishable new building,in such a way as to harmonise with the old while serving the needs of the present.

But one also has to analyse what the needs of the present are (or were thought to be in the building process). There are a large number of spectacular new buildings in Berlin (among other places, aruond Potsdamer Platz) but what and whose needs do these serve, in particular how does the spectacularity of the building answer these needs?

To get to grips with all this, you would need to look carefully at particular buildings and projects/areas, to study particular architects, to look at city plans, and then perhaps return to the buildings again. Probably not a five-minute project…..

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