Longing for ornament: Symbolism and architecture in post-Wall Berlin

I’ve begun work on an expanded and updated version of my dissertation, which means I’m going back through my work on symbolism, politics, and architecture. In doing so, I stumbled over some notes I made for an article about contemporary German architecture’s timid approach to symbolism and ornament. I’m quite interested in starting a dialogue about this topic, so feel free to comment below.

I’ll start off with a provocative statement: German architecture in Berlin and symbolically important locations in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) lacks a clear aesthetic concept that breaks with simply technical considerations or historical reconstruction – and this speaks volumes about persistent identity conflicts in German culture.

Krakow’s main square provides a clear visual focus for the church tower. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

Architecture and spatial organization have always been a way of establishing and expressing power dynamics think of the centrality of the church tower in traditional European villages or the dominance of the clock tower in industrial worker settlements. Size, orientation, ornament and view lines are all tools that architects and planners use to shape space and the hierarchy of the buildings in it.

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Greek revival as a way to underline the link to Greek democracy. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

Symbolism is particularly important for buildings with a political or social function. Symbolism and ornament in architecture are like symbolism and ornament in any other creative or artistic discipline; architects reference other works, other disciplines, and other time periods to create a message using visual cues. Consider the architectural symbolism of Washington DC’s main political buildings the use of the Greek Revival style was no accident or passing trend of the times, but rather was intentionally chosen to represent democracy in the built forms in which it should take place.

Symbolically-charged architecture becomes a particularly thorny problem when there is a political change. The removal of the symbolically “burdened” building(s) is usually seen as a way of cleansing the landscape (and the country) of the unwanted past. The more tense the struggle before the political change, the more intense the “cleansing” will be.

Now to Germany. Germany has a history of reactionism and ideology in architecture that reaches back to the beginning of the 20th century. A good example is Bauhaus modernism (below left), which was a clear aesthetic and spatial reaction to the dense, historicist inner-city housing of industrial era expansion (below right). Bauhaus modernism incorporated the leftward political swing in Germany in the interwar period into architecture and urban planning, solidifying political ideology in built form and spatial organization for the first time in a conscious way. National Socialist (NS) architecture and urban planning took this new instrumentalization of architecture and urban planning to new heights with serious consequences.

Adolf Hitler was quite aware of the potency of architectural symbolism and hierarchical spatial arrangement. It is well known that he personally designed parts of and oversaw the development of the planned monumental redesign of Berlin in order to make it worthy of the title “World Capital Germania.” The surviving plans illustrate the extent to which he was prepared to take monumental architecture. The back bone of the plan was a massive axis running between two enormous train stations, and connecting Tempelhof Airfield in the south with the Volkshalle (planned, never constructed) in the north.

The dome of the Volkshalle, which the plans placed ironically enough at the location of today’s newly-constructed government quarter, would have been sixteen times the size of the dome at St. Peter’s – so large that it would have had its own weather system (yes, clouds would have gathered inside the dome). To give you a sense of scale, the Reichstag would have been one of the numerous buildings lining the massive square in front of the Volkshalle, which would have been able to hold over one million people. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, and you’re in Berlin, I highly recommend this permanent exhibition.)

Very few of the buildings in the massive ensemble were actually constructed – building materials and manpower were tied up in the war, which was in an advanced state at that point. One remains however: Tempelhof airport. The airport building is suffused with symbolism, from its form (from the air, the building is intended to resemble an eagle in flight) to its ornament (the strict stone neoclassical facade was punctuated with eagle ornaments, each with the national socialist emblem in its claws). As Hitler had intended, the architecture constructed during the NS period was “the Word [written] in stone.”

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The original eagles from the national socialist period still adorn the facade of Tempelhof airport. Only the NS emblem has been removed. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

Symbolism and ideology in German architecture didn’t end with the National Socialists; indeed, architecture became a critical theater of political posturing and positioning leading up to and during the Cold War, with Berlin as its focus. In one of the most prominent examples, the monumental architecture, hierarchical spatial organization, and wide promenade of Stalinallee (1951-1958) on the eastern side of the city stood in strong contrast with the modernist style and dispersed spatial organization of the IBA 1957 (1956-1957) on the western side of the city. The later extension of new construction along Stalinallee (today’s Karl-Marx-Allee) and the redesign of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz & Schlossplatz in the 1960s and 1970s thrust Berlin’s central district, Mitte, into the focus of a great number of heated debates about architecture and identity which continue today. (Cold War architecture in Berlin is such a massive topic that it deserves (and will get) it’s own article at a later date.)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, urban development in the city had two main foci, both of which were primarily concerned with the eastern half of the city: critical reconstruction and careful restoration. Critical reconstruction dictated that new construction must match industrial-era historicism in form, size, window placement, facade construction, and a variety of other aspects. At the same time, careful restoration dictated how the run-down industrial-era tenements in the eastern half of the city, nearly none of which had been renovated since their construction, could be brought up to modern living standards. The combined effort of these two approaches helped to restore some of the pre-war character of the city, though arguably at the expense of aesthetic innovation. Critical reconstruction and careful restoration, approaches which were developed as part of the IBA 1987, continued as the dominant aesthetic guidelines in Berlin well into the 2000s.

Which brings us to today, and today’s architects. How do architects deal with this situation, and with the burdened nature of a great many things that might otherwise be referenced?

Because of their durable nature, the aesthetic choices made in architecture and urban planning represent a commitment to representation. Referencing the architecture of the industrial revolution presents a comfortable option in a landscape as symbolically burdened as Berlin. In this way, the lack of a clear new aesthetic direction since German reunification that breaks with simply technical considerations or historical reconstruction merely reflects the ambivalence Germans feel towards their past.

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Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse.

To my mind, the lack of Aufbruch is not due to a lack of ideas, innovation, or desire for ornamentation or symbolism. Indeed, I think if anyone longs for ornamentation, innovation, and a break with critical reconstruction’s steinerne Architektur, it’s the Berliner architect. The conservative, preservationist tactics of critical reconstruction chain the Berliner architect to the conservative, preservationist German identity borne of Cold War ideologies that are already more than a quarter century past. Germany and German architecture deserve a new identity and a respective aesthetic that is not solely predicated on 55+ years of fascism, division, saber-rattling, otherness, othering, and reactionism. Only then will the process of overcoming the past, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, truly begin.

This change will likely be sudden rather than gradual, as indicated by other shifts in political symbolism since Germany’s reunification. The most prominent recent example of such a shift is the rapid change in the social acceptance of flag flying set off by the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The soccer tournament, which was hosted in Germany, was memorable for a number of reasons. Most importantly for this article, the plethora of German flags was the first such show of nationalism since World War II, and a largely spontaneous and rapid change in social custom. Now, nine years later, displaying the German flag has changed from an aberrant show of inappropriate nationalism to a normalized part of everyday life in the Bundesrepublik. It’s only a question of time, and of the proper catalyst.




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