As media partners of the exhibition Radically Modern at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, uncube is running a mini-series of articles dedicated to questioning how radical the modern architecture of 60s Berlin actually was, especially as seen from an international perspective. Whom better to ask than Dirk Lohan, German-born architect who moved to Chicago in the late 50s to work at the office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (who happens to be his grandfather). There he was commissioned to supervise the design and construction of the Neue Nationalgalerie in West Berlin, van der Rohe’s radically modern masterpiece. Yet compared to what was built at the same time in his new hometown of Chicago, Lohan wasn’t too impressed by the new architecture rising in Berlin, as he writes:
During the 1960s I travelled regularly to Berlin, as I was responsible for implementing the construction of the Neue Nationalgalerie, which was designed by my grandfather Mies van der Rohe. Although born outside Berlin, I always considered myself a Berliner. With friends and relatives in both West and East Berlin and the American passport I’d just received, I could travel to the East without difficulty. I enjoyed my visits in Berlin, people were lively and very open although it was impossible to forget the political situation of the Cold War. The Wall and the many empty or derelict properties in both parts of the divided city meant it was impossible to speak of a healthy, normal Berlin. It was no wonder that life was overlaid with a certain nostalgia, which perhaps is best expressed by Marlene Dietrich’s song Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin – “I still have a suitcase in Berlin”.
My very first architectural pilgrimage to Berlin took place in 1957 to the newly opened Interbau Exhibition in Hansaviertel. The theme of this exhibition was the serious housing shortage in West Berlin, which was a burning problem of the not yet walled-in city. Twelve years after the Second World War, Berlin was still reeling from the destruction of that wretched event.
To tackle this housing shortage the Interbau presented a shining example of how one could imagine the renewal of the entire city as a green, open space with a mixture of apartments in high-rises, slab blocks and low-rise pavilions. Almost all of the participating architects were the modern masters from the years before the war, including Gropius, Aalto, Niemeyer, Scharoun, Jacobsen and Le Corbusier. The members of a younger, potentially more radical, generation of architects, like Edward Ludwig for example, were allowed to construct only some small-scale single-family homes.
The architecture of the Interbau was clearly modern but not radical. It was exactly the right formula for a city which needed to reestablish itself as a world metropolis. Then the Berlin Wall was built, and for the enclosed western half a period began during which the city was heavily supported by – and increasingly addicted to – public money from West Germany. Consequently, private investment was rare and the most interesting buildings were public projects such as Scharoun’s Philharmonia, museums, cultural buildings, university facilities and public housing.
The architects who were working on these public commissions had long-term relationships with the city and its politicians, so were not members of any radical avant-garde scene. To me, this was the result of there were no major private clients around making new, progressive – even “radical” – architecture, like that happening in other large cities around the world. Obviously my view comes from Chicago where I live and work and where, during the 1960s, impressive new architecture was being developed such as Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartment Towers, the Farnsworth House, the Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology, and the giant John Hancock and Sears Skyscrapers both by the young practice of SOM. Chicago possessed a provocative climate at the time where great new ideas were created and – with private capital and interested investors – were also realised. Without this private money, nothing comparable was possible in Berlin at that time, and – due to many other factors – it has still only to a certain degree been possible since the fall of the Wall in 1989.
What impressed me much more than the architecture was the art scene in Berlin in those years, as it was remarkably lively, and becoming fêted and admired around the world. I recall meeting by chance a group of artists in the Paris Bar who are, today, of worldwide fame. Who doesn’t now know the names of Richter, Baselitz, Immendorf and Penck and others? One could say that the depressing political situation inspired these artists to create radically new visions. Artists don’t need real estate developers to finance their canvas and brushes.
Towards the end of the 1960s the unrest amongst students and the opposition outside parliament became increasingly vocal in Western countries and in West Berlin, too. These groups propagated alternative lifestyles: free love, absolute equality between men and women, anti-authoritarian child education. It was also a violent reaction to the existing economic and political order exemplified by the older generation. The mindset of the younger generation was radical and one might also say modern. Without these protests, our current civic society is almost unimaginable.
In hindsight, the Berlin of the 1960s was as modern as in the years before the fascist regime: modern in the sense of that it was open to the new. However, in terms of “radical”: these were only the artists and students who dared to imagine a different and better world and society. Architects and planners were in contrast held back by the limited construction activity possible in the divided city.
– Dirk Lohan is co-founder and principal of Lohan Anderson. He was born in 1938 in Rathenau, close to Berlin, and studied architecture in Munich and at the IIT in Chicago under the patronage of his grandfather, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In Mies’ office he started working on large projects like the IBM office building in Chicago and the Toronto Dominion Centre. His close relationship to Berlin was established particularly in the 1960s when he was supervising the construction of the Neue Nationalgalerie, one of Mies’ undisputed masterpieces, between 1965-68.
The exhibition Radically Modern. Urban planning and architecture in 1960s Berlin
runs until October 26, 2015
uncube are media partners of Radically Modern. This article is part of our mini-series of articles dedicated to the question as to whether architecture and urbanism in East and West Berlin in the 60s were particularly “radical”. Please check the earlier articles in the series where we re-evaluate iconic buildings like East Berlin’s TV Tower and West Berlin’s FU Berlin; or where we interview Daniel Libeskind; Ursula Müller, the exhibition’s curator, and the radical Austrian architect Georg Kohlmaier, inventor of moving walkways through West Berlin (unbuilt).