Back to the Future: Berlin’s ICC

Jesse Simon explores Berlin’s controversial conference centre, inside and out…

For many born in the second half of the twentieth century, the future seemed as though it was going to be an exciting world of flying cars, vast skyscrapers, space-age couture and countless gadgets that would make our lives easier. It seemed certain that by the early twenty-first century we would be able to talk to our friends on wristwatch televisions and send facsimiles of documents to offices halfway around the world as we made our daily commute to the moon.

In the third decade of the actual twenty-first century we can look back at visions of the future from the past hundred years and see that each one reflects the styles and aspirations of its own era far more than it anticipated any reality that came to pass. The industrialised future in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis embodies the anxieties of the machine age, just as the rigid formalism of 2001: A Space Odyssey bears the unmistakable stamp of the sixties.

In many visions of the future, architecture has played a central role. And in the three decades after the second world war, some architects came to believe in their position as catalysts for social change who would sweep away the remaining vestiges of the old world and create new built environments for a more enlightened way of living. Even if the reality often fell short of the artists’ renderings, a spirit of optimism inspired many post-war architects to translate their visions for the future into buildings that made a decisive break from the urban traditions of previous centuries.

Although West Berlin was geographically isolated from Western Europe, it was not immune to prevailing architectural trends, and that same spirit of optimism could once be seen throughout the city, from the old (now largely destroyed) shopping precinct of the Märkisches Viertel to the hexagonal splendour of Tegel airport. But there are few structures in Berlin—surviving or otherwise—that capture the essence of living on the cusp of the future with the same intensity as the Internationales Congress Centrum.

The ICC may have gone way over budget (some things never change), and West Berliners may have greeted it with their customary blend of perplexity and snark when it first opened in 1979—it earned a variety of spaceship-themed nicknames—but throughout the eighties and nineties it was highly regarded as one of Europe’s great conference venues. By the first decade of the new century, however, it had started to show signs of wear, and in 2014 it was retired from service with little fanfare.

Of course, a building nearly a third of a kilometre in length resembling an interstellar cruise ship moored alongside the Ringbahn doesn’t disappear quietly. Since its closure it has turned into yet another of Berlin’s architectural problems, too expensive to demolish—the cost of removing all the asbestos would be prohibitive—and too unwieldy to repurpose. Although it was used briefly as a refugee shelter and a vaccination centre, it seems doomed to an immediate future of abandonment while a succession of potential investors and lofty resurrection schemes come and go.

This is a tremendous shame as the ICC is, some four decades after it first opened, still one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in Berlin. Its extraordinary qualities were confirmed recently when the Berliner Festspiele chose it as the location for a ten day multi-media art event, which offered Berliners a chance to experience the building unencumbered by the pressures of having to attend a conference.

In fact, it had aged remarkably well. If the exterior became iconic through its sheer bulk as much as its passing allegiance to the trend of structural expressionism, the interior had somehow managed to transcend its origins in the late modernism of the seventies. It does not merely look futuristic; it is a building that gives one the unmistakable thrill of existing, if only for a brief moment, in the idealised future of our imagining.

A blueprint for the future

By the time the ICC opened in April 1979, it had been in the planning stages for nearly fifteen years. In the early 1960s the city of West Berlin—newly enclosed by the Berlin Wall but still flush from the economic recovery of the previous decade—realised that international conferences could become a source of revenue and tourism, and, in 1965, they held a design competition for a new facility to be constructed next to the Messe complex in Westend.

The winning design came from a pair of young architects (Ralf Schüler and Ursulina Witte) who had not yet built any substantial projects, although Ralf had spent the previous few years in the offices of Bernhard Hermkes working on the complex of modernist high-rises around Ernst-Reuter-Platz. The commission was prestigious enough to give Schüler and Witte—who would marry two years later—the confidence to start their own architectural practice. Construction on the ICC, however, would not begin for nearly another ten years.

In the meantime, the office of Schüler and Witte got off to a promising start when they were entrusted with the design of the a new station on the U9 extension to Steglitz. Schloßstraße station would end up being part of a larger complex that also included a section of elevated motorway and the now-famous Bierpinsel, a restaurant in an imposingly futuristic concrete tower.

The Bierpinsel has attracted apologists and detractors in equal measure, even as the passage of time has secured its position as an accepted part of the Steglitz skyline; and while it is easy to praise or criticise the Bierpinsel on formal grounds, the tower itself must be viewed in the context of the underground station and the Joachim-Tibertius bridge, from which it is structurally and conceptually inseparable. Only when the three are assessed as a whole can we begin to see Schüler and Schüler-Witte’s particular vision of the future.

It is easy to focus on the predominance of rounded shapes, or the pop-art colours that were (until recently) a feature of the underground station, both of which gave the complex its veneer of visual modernity. Yet these reflect larger trends in the architecture of the late sixties and early seventies—a response to the geometric rigidity and grey palettes of the international style—and are far less important than the system of vertical relationships that define how one moves through the complex.

Between the lowest U-Bahn platform and the highest floor of the restaurant there are some eight or nine different levels, and Schloßstraße itself, somewhere in the middle of it all, is revealed to be no more or less important than the broad concourse that runs beneath it, nor the flyover that hovers above. In fact the complex as a whole offers a provocative challenge to the traditional urban hierarchy in which the notion of ‘street-level’ forms the unquestionable baseline.

What makes the complex successful is the way in which people are encouraged to move through the different layers of the space, often assisted by broad staircases and banks of interior and exterior escalators. If the Bierpinsel emerged largely from the stylistic trends of its era, the Schloßstraße complex as a whole demonstrated Schüler and Schüler-Witte’s ability to create spaces which, rather than merely funnel people from place to place, gave the experience of being a touch of the exotic.

A world within a building

Construction of the ICC began in 1975, some ten years after Schüler and Schüler-Witte had submitted their original plan, and during that time both the specifications and the design had evolved considerably. What was originally intended as a conference facility to accommodate 4,000 people had grown in scope to a multi-purpose space capable of holding up to 20,000. Not surprisingly, the budget had also grown and would continue to balloon throughout the construction process, eventually coming out to just under a billion Marks.

What hadn’t changed was the area of the available land. The long and relatively narrow footprint of the building—dictated by the presence of the Autobahn and Ringbahn on one side and the older Messe complex on the other—offered little room for sideways expansion. The final building measured 320 metres in length by 80 metres wide (also listed as 313 by 85 in some sources) but the raw dimensions are far less impressive than what it contains.

The final structure includes a 5,000 seat auditorium and an additional 2000 seat auditorium in which the entire seating area can be mechanically raised to create an open space for banquets or trade fairs; the two auditoriums share a single stage and can, in fact be joined to create a single 7,000 seat venue. In addition there is a smaller theatre with 900 seats and a further 80 conference rooms of varying size, ranging in capacity from 380 people down to as few as ten.

And that is just the conference space. The facility also required cafés and kitchens; foyers, toilets and cloakrooms; box offices, technical rooms and storage. Yet Schüler and Schüler-Witte’s greatest achievement is not that they managed to fit so much into a fairly confined space, but that they were able to include so many diverse elements within a design that concentrates first and foremost on fluidity of movement and the experience of the user.

As in Schloßstraße, the ICC is a densely layered space made up of numerous levels and half levels connected by a network of stairways and escalators that look complex in plan, but are remarkably intuitive to use; and while the interrelationship of levels was undoubtedly born of the necessity to fit the maximum number of conference rooms into the available area, the complex arrangement of vertical space, with its spacious concourses, broad foot-bridges, and open walkways that look out onto spaces both above and below, conveys the building’s futuristic essence far more than its use of high-tech materials.

So much of our life unfolds along the horizontal plane. In the industrial cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century we walk along the street and look up, conscious of our position at the bottom and aware that so much of life is happening above us. In opening up the possibilities of vertical space – in making us feel that up and down are options to be considered equally alongside forward, backward, left and right – the ICC elevates us in ways both physical and phenomenological. It makes us feel part of something greater.

Form and function

The futuristic credentials of the ICC were established early. Only a few months after it had opened, it was used as the primary shooting location for Menahem Golan’s science-fiction rock musical The Apple (1980), set in the far-distant year of 1994. Although the 5,000 seat main auditorium was an obvious choice for the concert scenes, other parts of the building—including some of the smaller conference rooms and the foyer with its blue and red neon lights—were used to establish the film’s future-world setting.

(While the plot is banal, the music atrocious and the acting irredeemable, The Apple remains essential viewing for anyone interested in West Berlin at the height of its modernist phase: other shooting locations include the yellow and red residential blocks of Märkisches Viertel, the brutalist Mäusebunker and, of course, the Bierpinsel, which serves as the pleasure dome of the film’s Mephistophelian record producer).

In fact, The Apple invented very little. The polished aluminium surfaces, the neon lights, the banks of escalators, the endlessly repeating circles of the carpet, and the predominance of curved forms—as in Schloßstraße, there are remarkably few right angles to be found—may have suggested a future far removed from the reality of 1980, but to the twenty-first century observer they are no less impressive for belonging very much to their time and place.

For all that the spaces and surfaces of the ICC may have been engineered to impress visitors, the practical value of the building lay in providing a neutral backdrop for trade fairs, conventions, and annual general meetings; and its success, at the time, would have been measured largely in its ability to get high volumes of people to the right place as efficiently as possible.

Yet within the ICC, form and function are largely inseparable. The first thing one notices on entering is the system of red and blue neon lights which divide the foyer into two distinct halves. In fact the lights, designed by Frank Oehring and modelled on the human circulatory system, are an essential part of the visual language that defines the building’s way-finding system and allows people to find their conference room with relative ease.

The attention to circulation and ease of movement that shaped the interior extends also to the exterior spaces from which the building is approached. For those arriving by their own car there was a parking complex in back, and for those coming by taxi there was a lower drop-off loop in front. Those arriving on foot from the S-Bahn could walk across the large plaza on Neue Kantstraße with its distinctive globe lamps…although good West Berliners often tried to avoid the Eastern-run S-Bahn if they could.

There was also supposed to be U-Bahn access although, as with so many of West Berlin’s building projects from the sixties and seventies—including Tegel airport and essentially every housing development other than Gropiusstadt—the ICC was planned around an U-Bahn expansion that never materialised: the route of today’s U1 was intended to meet the U7 at Adenauerplatz, then turn north to meet the U2 at Theodor-Heuss-Platz, stopping at the ICC en route.

Although the extension was never realised, the proposed Messedamm station was constructed; it exists today as the underground concourse offering pedestrian access to the ICC from both the Messe complex and the central bus station. With its columns of orange tile, the concourse has become something of a Berlin landmark; and while it is now filled with trash, reeks of urine, and is used primarily by electronic duos as an edgy background for photoshoots, it illustrates how the facility was designed for an egalitarian future in which public, private and pedestrian traffic carried roughly equal weight.

The Sun Machine

A lot can change in a few years. When the ICC closed it was a slightly outdated conference centre with carpets in need of a deep-clean and split-flap displays that seemed antiquated compared with the flatscreens of more modern facilities. But by the time it reopened in October of 2021 for The Sun Machine is Going Down, a ten day festival of music, performance and installation art organised by the Berliner Festspiele, it had become a treasure.

In a way one felt bad for the artists whose work had been selected. The concept behind the Sun Machine was admirable: the spaces of the ICC, including the 5,000 seat grand auditorium and many of the smaller conference rooms, would be used for a rotating series of performances and installations, and visitors could move freely through the centre encountering different works by chance. For many, however, it was not the art but the building itself that proved to be the main attraction.

Certainly the ICC did not disappoint. With its red and blue neon lights switched on and the split-flap displays all set to read ‘ICC,’ walking from the plaza on Neue Kantstraße into the foyer was like crossing the threshold into a parallel reality in which the future-world imagined in the early 1980s had matured into a model for everyday life.

Very little had been changed or updated. The old way-finding systems were still in place, visitors could relax in the stylish leather-and-aluminium chairs, and the glorious carpet, a little worn in places, imparted a level of serenity to spaces that, had they been fitted with a concrete or tile floor would have been unnecessarily sterile and far too loud. One or two of the escalators—so essential to the building’s fluidity of movement—either no longer worked or hadn’t been switched on; but many still did, and riding up from the lowest foyer to the higher levels one experienced some of the excitement that the first visitors must have felt.

Many Berliners who weren’t on the international conference scene of the eighties and nineties may not have had a chance to experience the interior first hand, and even those fortunate enough to visit for some meeting may have registered the surroundings only in passing on the way to the conference room. In the guise of an art exhibition, The Sun Machine allowed visitors to luxuriate in the space.

An uncertain future

When The Sun Machine was over, the neon lights were turned off and the ICC returned to its dormant state. A few weeks later it was reopened as a Covid vaccination centre, but that too was short-lived. Its future, at present, remains unknown. Although it was designated a listed building in 2019, everyone knows that listing means very little in Berlin.

The building’s asbestos problem is no secret, and if the ICC is to have a practical future as part of the city’s cultural life, there will need to be an extensive (and costly) refurbishment. The process of removing the asbestos will probably necessitate removing the carpet, the furniture, the split-flap displays, the neon lights…in short, everything that gives the space its charm. And once the asbestos is gone, there is little chance of the interior being restored to its original state.

It seems more probable that the split flaps will become flatscreens and the carpet will be replaced with something more neutral and less interesting. It is possible that someone will make a case for preserving the neon lights in the foyer, but the city has a poor track record of holding onto the good things from the era of division. In order to create the new city of Berlin, evidence of those two old cities of East and West Berlin is all too often hidden or destroyed.

Whether it is refurbished and put back to use as a conference centre or transformed into some kind of multi-purpose cultural space, it seems certain that the ICC of the past will not survive. We can only hope that, in its future form, it retains some of its essential character; for, as it stands, the ICC is one of only a handful of structures in Berlin to embody the notion that architecture—at least larger scale public architecture—should impart to us a sense of awe.

This feeling is missing from many of Berlin’s newer buildings: BER mostly gives us the sense of arriving at a poorly-designed regional airport circa 2002, and even the new U5 interchange at Unter den Linden with its bright lights, polished stone walls and voluminous spaces lacks a certain magic. In the early twenty-first century, an era thus far defined by a pandemic, an ecological crisis and, most recently, a war, the future may no longer seems quite as exciting. Now more than ever we need buildings that give us a sense of hope.

All photos by Jesse Simon / @PlattenbauBLN