»Intelligence starts with improvisation.«

Yona Friedman

Blog Berlin

Radically Modern in 60s Berlin (3)

The radically modular Free University of West Berlin

  • The main building of the Free University in West Berlin was designed by Alexis Josic, Georgis Candilis, Shadrach Woods and their German collaborator Manfred Schiedhelm in 1962. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 1 / 39  The main building of the Free University in West Berlin was designed by Alexis Josic, Georgis Candilis, Shadrach Woods and their German collaborator Manfred Schiedhelm in 1962. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The first part was built from 1967-1973 with a characteristic yet problematic façade of Corten steel, earning the building the nickname the “Rust Bucket” . (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 2 / 39  The first part was built from 1967-1973 with a characteristic yet problematic façade of Corten steel, earning the building the nickname the “Rust Bucket” . (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • For the second phase, built from 1972-1979, the steel was replaced by aluminium. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 3 / 39  For the second phase, built from 1972-1979, the steel was replaced by aluminium. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The “Silver Bucket” continued many features of the first phase, like the courtyards, the inner streets and roof terraces. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 4 / 39  The “Silver Bucket” continued many features of the first phase, like the courtyards, the inner streets and roof terraces. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • In 2015, the fourth extension of the building has just been completed with another version of the original façade. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 5 / 39  In 2015, the fourth extension of the building has just been completed with another version of the original façade. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • With its cladding of grey cedar it is, of course, called the “Wood Bucket”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 6 / 39  With its cladding of grey cedar it is, of course, called the “Wood Bucket”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • Site plan of the entire building in 2015 with the latest extension, the “Wood Bucket”, to the northeast, marked in a darker grey. (Image: Nagler Architects) 7 / 39  Site plan of the entire building in 2015 with the latest extension, the “Wood Bucket”, to the northeast, marked in a darker grey. (Image: Nagler Architects)
  • Aerial of the empty site in Zehlendorf around 1960 when it was mainly used for fruit cultivation. (Image © Archive Manfred Schiedhelm) 8 / 39  Aerial of the empty site in Zehlendorf around 1960 when it was mainly used for fruit cultivation. (Image © Archive Manfred Schiedhelm)
  • Drawings and diagrams for the competition, show that the architects envisioned their building to be open and welcoming to its surroundings. (Image © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie) 9 / 39  Drawings and diagrams for the competition, show that the architects envisioned their building to be open and welcoming to its surroundings. (Image © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie)
  • The organisational structure was based on an orthogonal grid of inner corridors and courtyards... (Image © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie) 10 / 39  The organisational structure was based on an orthogonal grid of inner corridors and courtyards... (Image © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie)
  • ... resembling old Arabian cities or souks. (Competition model from 1962 by Josic, Candilis, Woods and Schiedhelm, Photo © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie) 11 / 39  ... resembling old Arabian cities or souks. (Competition model from 1962 by Josic, Candilis, Woods and Schiedhelm, Photo © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie)
  • Structural model for the inner streets, around which a modular system should have created maximal flexibility, allowing for permanently rearrangement of rooms in this building-machine. (Photo © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie) 12 / 39  Structural model for the inner streets, around which a modular system should have created maximal flexibility, allowing for permanently rearrangement of rooms in this building-machine. (Photo © Archiv der Berlinischen Galerie)
  • Aerial view of the “Rust Bucket” in 1974. (Image © Archive Manfred Schiedhelm) 13 / 39  Aerial view of the “Rust Bucket” in 1974. (Image © Archive Manfred Schiedhelm)
  • However the orientation within this vast repetitive structure turned out to be a challenge for students and professors alike. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 14 / 39  However the orientation within this vast repetitive structure turned out to be a challenge for students and professors alike. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • Giving the main “streets” in the building different colours helped only to a certain extent. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 15 / 39  Giving the main “streets” in the building different colours helped only to a certain extent. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The architects intended the building to be a house with “thousand open doors” and an “instrument, not monument”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 16 / 39  The architects intended the building to be a house with “thousand open doors” and an “instrument, not monument”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The most popular spaces were outside: the green courtyards between the faculties and the roof terraces... (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi) 17 / 39  The most popular spaces were outside: the green courtyards between the faculties and the roof terraces... (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi)
  • ...while the building’s interior remained rather repellant of occupation: being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi) 18 / 39  ...while the building’s interior remained rather repellant of occupation: being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi)
  • The façade of the “Silver Bucket” was a big improvement in many details. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 19 / 39  The façade of the “Silver Bucket” was a big improvement in many details. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • It continued the proportions and partitioning of the Prouvé’s panels which were based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 20 / 39  It continued the proportions and partitioning of the Prouvé’s panels which were based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The futuristic silver appearance of the aluminium also had the advantage that it didn’t rust. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi) 21 / 39  The futuristic silver appearance of the aluminium also had the advantage that it didn’t rust. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi)
  • But the “Silver Bucket” also continued the labyrinthine structure of the first phase of the building. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 22 / 39  But the “Silver Bucket” also continued the labyrinthine structure of the first phase of the building. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The inner streets and courtyards were meant to increase the communication within the university, but unintentinally, these conversations were mostly about how not to get lost. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 23 / 39  The inner streets and courtyards were meant to increase the communication within the university, but unintentinally, these conversations were mostly about how not to get lost. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • By the 1980s, the Corten steel panels were damaged beyond repair. But their renovation by Norman Foster started only in 1997. (Photo from 1997: Rudi Meisel © Foster+Partners) 24 / 39  By the 1980s, the Corten steel panels were damaged beyond repair. But their renovation by Norman Foster started only in 1997. (Photo from 1997: Rudi Meisel © Foster+Partners)
  • Three-bay, full-size mock-up of Foster’s new façade, replacing the original steel with bronze panels. (Photo © Foster+Partners) 25 / 39  Three-bay, full-size mock-up of Foster’s new façade, replacing the original steel with bronze panels. (Photo © Foster+Partners)
  • Detail of the new bronze cladding showing first traces of a growing patina that resembles the Corten steel. (Photo: Nigel Young © Foster+Partners) 26 / 39  Detail of the new bronze cladding showing first traces of a growing patina that resembles the Corten steel. (Photo: Nigel Young © Foster+Partners)
  • Foster also added a new library onto the modular structure, quite clearly not following the grid of Josic-Candilis-Woods. (Photo: Reinhard Gorner) 27 / 39  Foster also added a new library onto the modular structure, quite clearly not following the grid of Josic-Candilis-Woods. (Photo: Reinhard Gorner)
  • View into one of the courtyards of the “Rust Bucket”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 28 / 39  View into one of the courtyards of the “Rust Bucket”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • View into one of the yourtyards of the “Silver Bucket”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 29 / 39  View into one of the yourtyards of the “Silver Bucket”. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The changing colours of the sunscreens were also meant to improve the orientation within the vast complex. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 30 / 39  The changing colours of the sunscreens were also meant to improve the orientation within the vast complex. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The latest addition by Florian Nagler continues the building with a wooden version of the façade now. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 31 / 39  The latest addition by Florian Nagler continues the building with a wooden version of the façade now. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • While also following the basic proportions of the original design, the wooden façade does not consist of modules anymore. (Photo: Nagler Architects) 32 / 39  While also following the basic proportions of the original design, the wooden façade does not consist of modules anymore. (Photo: Nagler Architects)
  • The “Wood Bucket” continues to reduce the overly ambitious complexity of the 1960s scheme. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi) 33 / 39  The “Wood Bucket” continues to reduce the overly ambitious complexity of the 1960s scheme. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi)
  • The addition continues the basic structure as conceived by Josic-Candilis-Woods, being composed of low-density buildings stretching along and around the inner streets and courtyards. (Image: Nagler Architects) 34 / 39  The addition continues the basic structure as conceived by Josic-Candilis-Woods, being composed of low-density buildings stretching along and around the inner streets and courtyards. (Image: Nagler Architects)
  • The complex is now three- and four-storeys high, but with one storey dug into the ground this is hardly noticeable from the outside. (Image: Nagler Architects) 35 / 39  The complex is now three- and four-storeys high, but with one storey dug into the ground this is hardly noticeable from the outside. (Image: Nagler Architects)
  • Outside it has lost a lot of its radically modern, futuristic attitude. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 36 / 39  Outside it has lost a lot of its radically modern, futuristic attitude. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • Ultimately giving up on the modular flexibility made it possible to increase the window size significantly. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 37 / 39  Ultimately giving up on the modular flexibility made it possible to increase the window size significantly. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • The large windows have created a light-filled, transparent inside with many vistas, making the orientation within the building really easy. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 38 / 39  The large windows have created a light-filled, transparent inside with many vistas, making the orientation within the building really easy. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)
  • So finally, coming from radical to pragmatic, the Free University seems to have become an almost normal building. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015) 39 / 39  So finally, coming from radical to pragmatic, the Free University seems to have become an almost normal building. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)

The original design of the Free University in West Berlin is a cautionary tale of a radical 1960s dream gone sour: a lightweight modular megastructure, with input by Jean Prouvé, intended to offer endlessly extendable and flexible space, which proved disastrously unresolved in the making. But as Florian Heilmeyer reports, in its subsequent phases of development, including a renovation by Norman Foster and the latest iteration by Florian Nagler Architects, many of the initial problems have been resolved, offering a story of gradual redemption for a building that only now might finally be fulfilling its inspired original intentions.

If you want to visit what might well be West Berlin’s most radical building, you have to drive a pretty radical distance from the city centre. The main building of the Free University – built in successive phases since 1967 with the latest completed this year – is located in the wealthy suburban neighbourhood of Zehlendorf next to a U-bahn station with the fitting name of “Dahlem-Dorf” meaning “Dahlem Village”. The original design was by Team-X co-founders Georgis Candilis and Shadrach Woods in collaboration with their office partner Alexis Josic and German project architect Manfred Schiedhelm. Construction of the building started on site in 1967, although even with its subsequent additions the building still hasn’t reached the enormous  projected size of 350,000 square metres which the original 1962 international competition asked for.

West Berlin‘s new university was founded in 1948 in reaction to the division of the city, given the existing Humboldt University was now based in the Eastern – Russian – sector. The title of “Free University” itself hints at the American idea of re-educating Nazi-Germany into a democratic and open society much in their own image. Plans for a new main building had been tossed around and various locations discussed, when the building of the Berlin Wall sped things up a bit. The Zehlendorf site was chosen mainly for reasons of its availability: it was a huge area previously used mostly for fruit cultivation and completely owned by the city.

With the competition brief asking specifically for new forms and ideas for how a new university could look or function, the architects developed a truly revolutionary scheme. While most of the other contributions proposed clusters of high-rises, Candilis-Josic-Woods sketched up a wide-spread, carpet-like structure of two- and three-storey high, modular spaces. The organisational structure with its covered streets and corridors, passing around inner courtyards, offices and auditoriums took its inspiration from historic Arabian cities and souks rather than its suburban surroundings of the then walled-in West Berlin. The architects’ motto was “instrument, not monument”, creating the idea of an ever-changing machine for learning, aimed at maximising spatial flexibility for the buildings’ users: all rooms and spaces within the basic spatial system were designed to be easily rearranged. Like a bookshelf, the entire building should be changeable with a simple screwdriver. If this could have been realised fully, all façade modules should have been demountable and able to be placed anywhere else in the building, turning it into an ever-changing machine for all future (spatial) needs the university might ever have.

The first part was built from 1967-1973 with a characteristic yet problematic façade of Corten steel, earning the building the nickname the “Rust Bucket” . (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)

The radical ideas for the buildings organisation and construction techniques quickly proved far too ambitious. Even with different colours on the sunblinds outside and on the carpets in the “street” corridors inside, denoting each department or institute to help students and teacher, the inner structure of the vast building was mazelike and despite all its rectangular and systematic order, surprisingly confusing.

At the same time the construction of the façade modules also proved difficult. They were developed by Jean Prouvé, who based them on Le Corbusier‘s Modulor and fabricated them from Corten steel trying to make them extremely light-weight so that they could easily be demounted with their screwdrivers and carried by two people. The steel was meant to weather slightly over time, creating a nice patina. Yet it rusted far too quickly, and the extremely thin modules let air and water stream inside causing increasingly severe construction damage even before the inauguration of the first phase in 1973 – its most popular aspect among its out-upon users being its quickly  earned nickname of Die Rostlaube – “the Rust Bucket”. “With its water spots and the roof panels hanging loose, the interior had a ruin-like appearance”, notes the Architecture Guide Berlin charmingly.

Yet even though the Candilis-Josic-Woods partnership broke up in 1968, the university still reprised their scheme when the second phase was built between 1973–79. With Manfred Schiedhelm now in charge, the add-on exactly followed with the organisational structure but significantly changed its method of construction. Corten was replaced by aluminium turning the outer appearance even more futuristic and machine-like while – crucially – preventing any more rust.

The “Silver Bucket” continued many features of the first phase, like the courtyards, the inner streets and roof terraces. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)

Called, perhaps inevitably, the Silberlaube or “Silver Bucket”, this increased the inner confusion of the Free University. An ever more excessive way-finding system with hundreds of signs pointing in all directions actually made orientation even worse. A popular joke doing the rounds in the 1970s was that the university might actually have as many as 25,000 students, if only they could be found. When the refectory and library were added in the mid-1980s, they were constructed as single big buildings which docked simply onto the existing building rather than following its modular grid.

The different parts of the building progressed into various stages of decay, until in 1997 Norman Fosters’ office was commissioned with comprehensively renovating it, completing this in 2005. Cleverly analysing the intentions of Josic-Candilis-Woods, Foster replaced the entire cladding of the rust bucket with new modules which retraced the original façade’s partitioning, yet made of bronze which patinates in a similar way – without the rust. The rounded corners, the colourful sunscreen elements, the white doors and the prominently accentuated window profiles – Foster managed to integrate all the distinctive elements of the original design in a clearly modernised, technologically updated version.

It is remarkable to see a radically modern yet undoubtedly difficult building like this being treated so carefully by its user over so many years. It’s clearly over-ambitious, avant-garde ideas were no reasons for the university to tear it down and replace it with something easier, cheaper or more efficient. Instead, the Free University today is a prime example of what can be achieved if mistakes are analysed without prejudice, and alternative solutions examined which still stick to the ideas and intentions of the original design – although clearly at a cost.

This loyalty to the original architecture was proven again with the recently completed fourth extension to the building. Florian Nagler Architects won the international competition in 2004 with a proposal that basically continued all the ideas of Josic-Candilis-Woods, while again improving the construction techniques.

Site plan of the entire building in 2015 with the latest extension, the “Wood Bucket”, to the northeast, marked in a darker grey. (Image: Nagler Architects)

Their design in fact continues the existing structure so exactly that it is hard to distinguish between the old and new parts from just looking at the floor plans. Nagler’s new building again shows a carpet-like structure winding around some inner courtyards. Like Foster before him, Nagler continued the proportions and partitioning of the original façade, but converting it into a loadbearing structure clad in cedarwood, preweathered to a tasteful grey. Where Foster had already given up on any idea of easily replaceable modules, whilst still imitating their look, Nagler has given up trying to imitate the modular look too closely at all, making much larger window openings possible. This is perhaps the most important factor for the Free University, as these windows not only turn the previously dark, sometimes almost claustrophobic interiors into a transparent and light-filled structure, but also allow many vistas and visual connections between the different parts of the building, solving in one fell swoop almost all the problems of difficult orientation.

In 2015, the fourth extension of the building has just been completed with another version of the original façade. (Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015)

So Nagler’s “Wood Bucket”, which was inaugurated in 2015, adding another 12,000 square metres to the earlier labyrinth, has succeeded in giving the dark structuralism of the building an open and relaxed atmosphere. Strolling through the light-filled new corridors and offices, and for the first time in the building’s history, it seems feasible that this building could be further and further extended – bucket by bucket – and that this might even be a good idea. Come on, roll out this carpet!

Florian Heilmeyer

This is the third installment of uncube’s series of exclusive essays, interviews and case studies to accompany Radically Modern. Urban Planning and Architecture in 1960s Berlin an exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie, that looks at the radically modern buildings and urbanism of both East and West Berlin.

Radically Modern. Urban planning and architecture in 1960s Berlin
until October 26, 2015
Berlinische Galerie
Alte Jakobstraße 124–128
10969 Berlin
Germany

uncube are media partners of Radically Modern. Please check the related articles, including interviews with the exhibition’s curator Ursula Müller and with the radical Austrian architect Georg Kohlmaier.

Coming soon: an exclusive interview with Daniel Libeskind about his relationship with Berlin, and the tale of the TV Tower on Alexanderplatz, once a futuristic space-race icon of the GDR and today the undisputed icon of the unified capitalistic city.

  • Facebook
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter

Advertisement

RECENT POSTS

more

Recent Magazines

25 Apr 2016

Magazine No. 43
Athens

  • essay

    From the Bottom and the Top

    Powering Athens through collectivity and informal initiatives by Cristina Ampatzidou

  • photo essay

    Nowhere Now Here

    A photo essay by Yiorgis Yerolymbos

  • Essay

    Back to the Garden

    Athens and opportunities for new urban strategies by Aristide Antonas

  • Interview

    Point Supreme

    An interview by Ellie Stathaki

>

03 Mar 2016

Magazine No. 42
Walk the Line

  • Essay

    The Line Connects

    An essay on drawing and architectural education by Wes Jones

  • Essay

    Drawing Attention

    Phineas Harper sketches out new narrative paths with pencil power

  • Essay

    Gotham

    Elvia Wilk on a city of shadows as architectural fiction

  • Interview

    The (Not So) Fine Line

    A conversation thread between Sophie Lovell and architecture cartoonist Klaus

>

28 Jan 2016

Magazine No. 41
Zvi Hecker

  • essay

    Space Packers

    Zvi Hecker’s career-defining partnership with Eldar Sharon and Alfred Neumann by Rafi Segal

  • Interview

    Essentially I am a Medieval Architect

    An interview with Zvi Hecker by Vladimir Belogolovsky

  • viewpoint

    The Technion Affair

    Breaking and entering in the name of architectural integrity by Zvi Hecker

  • Photo Essay

    Revisiting Yesterday’s Future

    A photo essay by Gili Merin

>

17 Dec 2015

Magazine No. 40
Iceland

  • Viewpoint

    Wish You Were Here

    Arna Mathiesen asks: Refinancing Iceland with tourism – but at what cost?

  • Photo Essay

    Spaces Create Bodies, Bodies Create Space

    An essay by Ólafur Elíasson

  • Focus

    Icelandic Domestic

    Focus on post-independence houses by George Kafka

  • Essay

    The Harp That Sang

    The saga of Reykjavík's Concert Hall by Sophie Lovell & Fiona Shipwright

>

more

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MAILING LIST Close

Uncube is brandnew and wants to look good.
For best performance please update your browser.
Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer 10 (or higher), Safari, Chrome, Opera

×