Another Grey World: Brutalism in Berlin

Jesse Simon visits some of Berlin’s notable Brutalist–and Brutal-ish–buildings…

In the eighties and nineties, few things were more reviled than raw, unfinished concrete. Architects who had no qualms about designing cartoonish pastel pink buildings with oddly placed windows and ironic references to classical antiquity looked back on the previous three decades where concrete had reigned supreme, and shook their heads in disbelief.

But as we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century, and the tangle of social and political arguments that shaped twentieth-century architecture recedes further into the distance, it has become easier to judge past architectural movements on formal merits alone—and Brutalism in particular has experienced a surprising reappraisal in the last decade.

Although it was arguably one of the most polarising movements of its time, a new generation has come to appreciate its social aspirations, visual invention and bold aesthetic. Between high profile art books and a series of maps devoted to concrete treasures in various cities, Brutalism’s stock has never been higher…and perhaps inevitably, the term has come to be used as a catch-all for buildings from a particular era (the 1950s to the 1970s) that employ imposing, rational forms and make an aesthetic virtue of the raw materials used in construction—usually reinforced concrete.

The movement, known initially as the ‘New Brutalism’, has its roots in Scandinavia, but emerged most prominently in the UK during the 1950s, where the need for large scale residential resettlement in post-war cities collided fortuitously with new lower-cost building techniques. At their best, the earliest examples of Brutalism offered new alternatives to the unwieldy urbanism that had developed in the wake of the industrial revolution.

The Berlin Wall—brutalism incarnate. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Of course the underlying social principles of Brutalism were not always adopted by subsequent architects, but the aesthetic of raw materials – simultaneously bold and inexpensive – became a popular style unto itself and spread quickly throughout the world, finding its greatest application in public housing, hospitals, educational buildings and places of worship.

The use of concrete was widespread in Berlin in post-war construction projects – as it was in every city – yet there are remarkably few buildings today that embrace the Brutalist aesthetic, and even fewer that could be described as masterpieces of the genre. Perhaps a city whose very existence was defined by the 23 mile strip of raw reinforced concrete that divided it in two was wary of adding more to the urban space.

Yet the influence of Brutalism is apparent throughout Berlin if one is willing to look. The selection of buildings discussed below is far from exhaustive, but should provide a reasonable starting point for anyone wishing to search for concrete gems on their travels through the city.

Residential Buildings

Le Corbusier wasn’t the first architect to make a case for the aesthetic value of unconcealed beton brut–as unfinished concrete is known in France–but he was arguably the most influential. When concrete is poured into a form made from slats of wood, it results in a rough surface, imprinted with wood-grain and lined by seams where the boards met.

While it was customary to hide the concrete behind some sort of cladding, or sand it down to a refined smoothness, Le Corbusier embraced the imperfection in his first Unité d’Habitation, built in Marseille in 1953. The Unité was no mere residential block. With a nursery, an internal shopping area, and a communal roof terrace with commanding views of the Mediterranean, it was a self-contained social unit and the most complete expression to date of Le Corbusier’s desire to forge a new mode of living that turned away from the unruly sprawl of post-industrial urbanism.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Concrete may have been the most practical material for the project, but with its complex articulation of balconies and vibrant primary colour scheme, the Unité avoids the oppressive monotony of so many of the slabs that followed in its wake. Both the building materials and the underlying ideology would have a defining influence on the emerging Brutalist movement in England.

In Berlin, the organisers of the 1957 International Architectural Exhibition – known as Interbau 1957 – had assembled many of the world’s leading architects to rebuild the Hansaviertel area north of Tiergarten, offering different approaches to the problem of modern residential housing. When they asked Le Corbusier for a contribution, he proposed another iteration of the Unité.

It soon became apparent that the design was far too large to fit within the limited space of Hansaviertel, and a new site was found just south of the Olympia Stadion on the far western edge of town. Le Corbusier and the planning authorities of Berlin were at odds from the outset. Not only did the city increase the ceiling height – throwing off the architect’s painstakingly conceived system of measurement based on the golden section – but they also dispensed with the integrated amenities which had made the original Unité so groundbreaking.

Where the Marseille version had been a visionary design for modern living, the Berlin version was essentially just a block of flats. The final building may have fallen short of Le Corbusier’s ideals, but it remains arguably the most elegant of Berlin’s Plattenbauten. Its successes can be appreciated all the more clearly by comparing it with the Pallasseum in Schöneberg – constructed twenty years later in 1977 – a work of high-density residential architecture stripped of all remaining social and aesthetic idealism.

Schöneberg’s Pallasseum residential building. Photo by Jesse Simon.

As with the Unité, the Pallasseum is constructed on large concrete pilotis that raise the building up above ground level, and both buildings are given their distinctive form through the repetition of modular units. That, however, is where the similarities end. One of the fundamental principles of the Unité was the concentration of multiple functions within a single structure in order to prevent the sprawl of urban space from destroying the natural world. The trade-off of living in a giant concrete slab was that
you were surrounded by ample green space.

The Pallasseum, however, is constructed within the very type of urban space that the large residential slabs were meant to supplant … to the benefit of neither. The residents of the building are denied natural surroundings, and the old neighbourhood is severed by a large, incongruous structure built over the street and rising to rest atop an old concrete bunker from the Second World War (itself a magnificently forbidding construction of raw concrete).

Many of Berlin’s later twentieth century residential estates fall somewhere between these two extremes. The Märkisches Viertel in Reinickendorf and Gropiusstadt in the South, although somewhat maligned at the time of their construction, combine high-density housing with the delights of park-like surroundings.
Even some of the more conspicuously urban examples, such as the estate between Gitschiner Straße and the canal in Kreuzberg, offset the monotony of the blocks with elegant forms, bold colours and concealed enclaves of green space. Few, however, integrate raw materials and social ideals in a way that might challenge more traditional models of urbanism.

Hospitals

The advantages of concrete in allowing for the creation of large, extensible, modular structures applied to hospitals just as well as residential buildings. Berlin was fortunate that several of its late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century hospital campuses, with their distinctive brick buildings, managed to survive the war. But in the 1960s and 70s, a few new hospitals were built along brutalist lines.

Lichterfelde’s Benjamin Franklin Charité Campus. Photo by Jesse Simon.

The Benjamin Franklin Charité Campus in Lichterfelde is a long, low concrete building onto which two six or seven storey glass, steel and concrete blocks have been balanced. The effect is somewhat jarring at first sight, and the lower part of the building is not helped by a façade of endlessly repeating spiky concrete shapes that suggest a fortress; based on the number of broken spikes, at least a few people have attempted
to climb it. Yet the more time one spends wandering around the grounds, the more the beauty of this strange structure begins to emerge.

Kreuzberg’s Klinikum am Urban is either an icon or an eye-sore, depending on who you ask. A large V-shaped structure located on the wide part of the Landwehrkanal that used to be a harbour, its grey façade and orange window coverings dominate the neighbourhood. Although it is constructed around the module of the hospital room, there are enough details in the exterior articulation to keep it interesting. The grassy area between the hospital and the canal is a popular destination for bearers of Späti beer on warm summer evenings, and it seems entirely probable that many Berliners will have formed a sentimental attachment to the hospital simply because it has served as a backdrop for so many pleasant times.

Kreuzberg’s Klinikum am Urban. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Churches

Post-war ecclesial buildings embraced a very particular form of modernism throughout the western world. From Niemeyer’s cathedral in Brasilia to Le Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp to Alvar Aalto’s numerous European examples, the abstraction of form and ascetic minimalism popular in post-war architecture quickly proved an ideal fit for places of worship.

Although one of Berlin’s greatest Brutalist churches, St Johannes Capistran in Tempelhof, was (sadly) demolished in 2005, the influence of brutalism can be spotted in a pair of Schöneberg churches around the corner from one another. The catholic church of St Norbert presents an imposing, mostly windowless wall of stuccoed concrete to the passers-by on Martin-Luther-Straße, but the façade conceals a far more traditional interior.

Evangelical church in Schöneberg. Photo by Jesse Simon.

The Evangelical church around the corner on Hauptstraße is a more interesting structure, a series of sloping planes built on a concrete foundation creating a large, minimal space for worship featuring an appealingly modernist stained glass window. The church of St Canisius in Charlottenburg is perhaps too recent – and too conspicuously smooth – to be considered an example of Brutalism. Yet the large cubic
empty space formed by walls of concrete is a direct descendent of (and worthy successor to) the golden era of ecclesial modernism.

St Canisius in Charlottenburg. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Perhaps the closest thing Berlin has to a great brutalist church is no longer used for religious purposes. A few years ago the church of St Agnes in Kreuzberg was converted into an art gallery, where people can devote themselves to the contemplation of exhibitions and installations in a beautiful concrete space.

Educational Buildings

When people think of Brutalist buildings in Berlin (if, indeed, they do) the Mäusebunker is probably close to the top of the list. A long, forbidding battleship among the medium-rise residential blocks of Lichterfelde, the Mäusebunker was constructed during the 1970s as an experimental medicine research facility for the Freie Universität. Its colloquial name came from the animal testing that went on inside.

Mäusebunker. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Although it is currently closed for asbestos removal and was even slated for demolition last year, it remains popular among visitors. During the span of half an hour on a chilly, grey Saturday afternoon in mid-November, several couples ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-seventies, three young people engaged in a photo-shoot, a few solo wanderers with cameras, and one guy with a drone hopped the low fence in order to wander around the exterior of this strange structure.

Despite its sloping grey walls, now stained from years of rainfall and overgrown with lichen, its triangular windows, its unadorned concrete support structure, and its rows of blue exhaust pipes (flirting perhaps with Structural Expressionism) it is a strangely magnificent building, and Berlin would be much less interesting without it.

Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Just across the street is the Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology, completed in 1974 as part of the Freie Universität Campus, although it now belongs to Charité. The complex interrelationship of its glass and concrete surfaces, which seem to shift constantly as you move around it, give it a striking formal elegance. Unlike the Mäusebunker, which is impressively hermetic, the Hygiene Institute is welcoming; and more than many Brutalist buildings in Berlin, it embodies a certain optimism arising perhaps from its own deep belief in the marriage of elegance and functionality. It is a building that, more than four decades after it was built, seems vaguely futuristic, even if the future it evokes is one that ultimately never arrived.