Modernism at Berlin’s Technische Universität

John Peck takes a deep dive into the forgotten modernist architecture of Berlin’s Technical University (TU)…

Walking through the sprawling campus of Berlin’s Technische Universität (TU for short) can feel like stepping through a portal into an older West Berlin, where colourful modernist buildings proliferate along tree-lined streets and meandering canals. Though it’s just a short distance from the hectic urbanity of Zoologischer Garten, the TU campus, like the neighbouring Tiergarten, offers an escape from the bustle and noise of Berlin while remaining firmly entrenched within it. 

Architecturally, the greater TU campus features numerous modernist buildings which are juxtaposed, sometimes jarringly, with older buildings from the 19th century. While somewhat worse for wear after a half-century-plus of use, these modernist structures nonetheless still exude a dogged hopefulness – and while the far reaches of campus lie in Spreestadt Charlottenburg, an out-of-the-way, bulb-shaped transit void tucked between the far west end of the Landwehrkanal and the Spree, those who make the trip will be rewarded with uniquely eccentric architecture and canal-side paths as verdant and enchanting as any in the city.

View from the roof of the Eugene Paul Wigner Building to the Main Building of the TU Berlin. Photo: TU Berlin / Pressestelle / Ulrich Dahl, licensed via Creative Commons 

From Prussia to Post-War

While many of the campus buildings date back to the 19th century, the school’s roots go back even further to Frederick the Great in the 18th century. Under his rule, various institutions including the Königliche Bergakademie and the Königliche Bauakademie zu Berlin (Berlin Royal Mining and Building Academies, respectively) were founded, making Berlin a major Central European center of technical education.

In the 19th century, the two schools merged into the Königlich Technische Hochschule (Royal Technical College), which in 1899 became the first technical university in the German Reich allowed to grant doctoral degrees, finally bringing engineers to the same level of academic recognition as classically educated scholars. 

The early 20th century saw the school’s clout and reputation rise, with numerous Nobel laureates such as Fritz Haber, Gustav Ludwig Hertz, and Carl Bosch among the faculty. This celebrated academic culture ground to a sudden halt under the National Socialists, who enforced a school-wide policy of discrimination and expelled prominent Jewish academics (including Georg Schlesinger, who would go on to found the Technion Haifa with Albert Einstein).

During WWII the area was bombed repeatedly, and by the war’s end much of the campus and surrounding area between Zoologischer Garten and the Landwehrkanal had been destroyed by Allied attacks. The school’s reopening in 1946, with many of its buildings still in ruins, was a sober and subdued affair. General Nares, leader of the British occupying force, set the tone in his opening speech, which was dour even for a wartime General: 

Some people have expressed their surprise to me that the British and German authorities in charge of this institution have not planned a more ambitious opening ceremony for it, with more and longer speeches and brighter and more luxurious entertainments. And I have always replied to them that to do so would be quite contrary to the spirit in which you are beginning your work. You are starting it in a shattered building with few facilities and no amenities, and a long and difficult road lies ahead.

To further divorce this new institution from its recent past, the school was renamed Technische Universität, and a new curriculum was introduced which would see all students studying the humanities alongside science and technology. 

Architecture Building + Institut für Kunstwissenschaft und Historische Urbanistik.

The student body grew exponentially in the decades that followed, requiring massive new structures on the scale of their destroyed Prussian-era predecessors to house classrooms, libraries, and labs. While many of these new buildings (including the brutalist Architecture and Urban Studies Building and the nearby Audimax) had a similar one- or two-story raw concrete look to university buildings worldwide during the same era, others stood out for their unique use of colour and geometric shapes. These standout structures range from smaller outbuildings to blocks-long behemoths, often dotted with individual sculptures and samplings of installation art.

The architectural traits that make TU’s modernist structures unique are, for the most part, subdued: the campus holds no hulking Brutalist megalith to rival the Freie Universität’s “Mäusebunker” in Lichterfelde, nor any high-psychedelic colour-wheel oddities on par with other West Berlin curios like the Steglitz “Bierpinsel”. Instead, the TU campus is remarkable for its almost meditative commitment to colour and form, with single swatches of colour spanning blocks at a time and the spheres, waveforms, and helixes of the scientific world rendered into physical forms campus-wide.

External walls of the TU Audimax

Monumental Monochrome: Green, Blue, Orange

Bold primary and secondary colours feature frequently in modernist architecture across Berlin: in the former West, examples include the signature vivid orange of the International Congress Center (ICC), most famous in the iconic orange-glazed tile pillars of its underground passageways, as well as the bright yellow signage and red metal cladding of the now-shuttered Tegel airport.

The housing blocks of the former East, most notably in Marzahn and Mitte, feature monumental colour-patterns, with the blocks between Karl-Marx-Allee and Holzmarktstraße near Alexanderplatz offering an especially vivid palette of highlights that stretch vertically and horizontally across entire blocks. Such DDR-era structures counter the drab reputation of socialist tower-housing with a spring-like range of pastel hues.

The modernist modular housing of the former West is similarly bright, with particular highlights being the towers designed by leading modernist architects for the 1957 Interbau in Hansaviertel, as well as the massive colour-mosaic of the painted balconies of Corbusierhaus.

Eugene-Paul-Wigner-Gebäude (Physics Building) viewed from the north

Even compared to these striking and better-known examples, numerous structures on the TU campus stand out for their exceptionally intentional use of colour. For such buildings, colour is not simply an afterthought; it is part of the building’s structural DNA, equally as vital as its shape or construction materials. Foremost among TU’s monochromatic buildings is the Physics Building (officially the Eugene-Paul-Wigner-Gebäude) on Hardenbergstraße.

Covered on all sides in startling bright-green metal cladding, the building follows the wide four-lane street as it runs from Ernst-Reuter-Platz to Zoologischer Garten. For such a low, long building, it features a surprisingly complex and multilayered construction, which sees the facade retreat from the street on the first floor before jutting back outwards again on the second. The upper floors are supported by dozens of evenly spaced raw-concrete pillars, which on sunny days seem to continue upward into the building as they are reflected in the polished green-metal plating above.

At the building’s northern end, a variety of strikingly varied architectural forms coincide: a spiral staircase juts from the main building as a green cylinder, while a bunker-like, windowless hull, coloured the same bright green and accessed through sunken green-metal doors, offers a continuation of the 45-degree slope theme of the main building.

At the far northernmost edge and continuing northward away from the street, hulking concrete air vents rise like monoliths, their massive concrete surfaces unpainted but the metal gratings over their openings coloured the same bright green. The green metal hand-railings and larger pipes running along the back of the building complete the ensemble.

Aerospace Institute as seen from across Marchstraße

Several hundred meters north, across Ernst-Reuter Platz at Marchstraße 12-14, sits the TU Aerospace Institute (Institut für Luft- und Raumfahrt). The building is even more wholly monochromatic than the Physics building, and is covered almost completely in powder-blue metal plating, almost as if it were reflecting (or on cloudy Berlin days, suggesting) the blue of a cloudless sky.

The Aerospace Institute is taller than the Physics Building, with a much smaller footprint, but it has a similar outward appearance that prominently features 45-degree surfaces. Its luster appears substantially faded, with some panels having fallen away completely to reveal tufts of insulation, and most ground-level windows hiding behind graffiti-covered shutters. Still, despite its somewhat deteriorated condition, the building remains striking, with a trapezoidal central tower that rises into a sky occasionally clear enough to match its hue.

TU’s final piece of monochromatic monumentalism, sadly, no longer exists. From its construction in the 1970s until its demolition in 2015, the TU Institute of Ceramics at Englische Straße 20 stood at the northern end of Spreestadt Charlottenburg, looking across the Spree to Moabit. Even compared to the Physics and Aerospace departments to the south, the building was a truly trance-inducing sight, with its five stories clad entirely in vivid rectangular uranium-orange tiles from ground to rooftop. 

TU Institute of Ceramics (demolished 2015) as seen from the Spree-side path

The combination of the glazed tiles, rounded corners, and column-like cylindrical stairwells gave the whole building the aura of a 1920s Art-Deco theatre crossed with a colossal alien jukebox that had landed in an overgrown corner of Charlottenburg. With the building abandoned for the last few years of its existence, the vegetation around it grew unchecked and graffiti covered most of its ground-level walls. Like so many of Berlin’s abandoned spaces, this deterioration only heightened the building’s otherworldliness.

While not as committedly monochromatic, the Mathematics Building, across from the central TU building on Straße des 17. Juni, deserves a mention nonetheless as one of the university’s most striking structures. Its main entrance is a charmingly anarchic blend of forms and styles, from the stonework Pi-symbol and painted Berlin bear at the entryway to the deeply 60s blue and red metal-and-glass-greenhouse construction of its main hall to the inverted Brutalist ziggurat that juts starkly to the left of the entrance. A statue of inventor and industrialist Werner von Siemens, despite dating from 1899, is nonetheless a perfect fit for the overall psychedelic-utopian mood of the incongruous architectural assemblage. 

Mathematics Building as seen from Straße des 17. Juni

At the ground level, the Mathematics building commits to its colour scheme, with nearly all metal components, from external staircases to doors at the ends of sunken paths, painted red or blue. At the building’s northern end, far from the bustling Straße des 17. Juni, a relatively hidden off-street entrance hosts the convergence of a trio of unique blue-and-red metal features: a spiral staircase, an external elevated walkway, and two bizarre, almost nautical-looking air shafts. Despite the multiple layers of dust, graffiti, and wheat-pasted flyers covering most of the exposed surfaces at this underused entrance, the building’s plucky insistence on its red-blue theme remains impressive.

Additional smaller structures at the edges of campus continue the monochromatic theme on a smaller scale. These include the rhomboid orange cafeteria on Hardenbergstraße and the vivid turquoise tilework, coupled with matching shades and garage doors, at the northern end of the Fakultät Gestaltung (actually part of neighbouring UdK) on Einsteinufer. And while the face of the 11-storey tower at Ernst-Reuter-Platz 1 is primarily glass, the light-blue grid of its vertical and horizontal support beams deserves mention as another of TU’s monochrome moments.

Otherworldly Geometries

Distributed among the large monochromatic edifices of TU are a number of buildings equally notable for their pronounced use of three-dimensional shapes. Just as many of the campus’s colour-focused buildings stick to the six primary and secondary colours, many of the more geometry-focused structures keep to core shapes such as spheres, circles, and triangles. While some of the previously mentioned buildings have aspects of a step-pyramid structure, such as the layered Mathematics building (which retreats inward from its footprint as it rises, while tube-like passageways climb its sides like roots) and the Physics building, with its 45-degree walls and windows where the building meets the street. 

Mathematics Building

The Produktionstechnisches Zentrum (“Production Technology Centre”) lies at the northernmost reaches of the loose accumulation of buildings that makes up the TU campus, situated on a bulb of land that juts into the Spree. The panopticon-like structure consists of a central cylinder, topped with a smaller hat-like cone, and surrounded for about 220 degrees of its full 360-degree circumference by a taller, wider outer building. As the “exposed” side of the central cylinder opens northward onto the Spree, the building is best viewed from the opposite side of the river in Moabit—or perhaps from a boat on the Spree—in order to take in its full appearance, which is something between a glass fortress and a wedding cake. 

“Creative Commons” linked: Produktionstechnisches Zentrum. Photo by Carsten Reise; licensed under Creative Commons
Further south, adjacent to the Aerospace building, the Fraunhofer/Heinrich-Hertz Institut rises to an impressive 15 stories. For an area marked by relatively modest buildings and canal-side paths, it’s a legitimate skyscraper, and is by far the tallest building in the triangle bound by Marchstraße to the west, Einsteinufer to the northeast, and Straße des 17. Juni to the south. The building dominates the skyline when viewed from the north or west, and while its overall shape is unremarkable, the huge spherical radome antenna at the top, combined with the building’s height, makes for an impressive profile, particularly at sunset. After dark, the radome sphere lights up, giving the momentary impression of a UFO landing to those who cast a skyward glance in an otherwise sleepy corner of Charlottenburg.

Fraunhofer/Heinrich-Hertz Institut

Rising above the willow- and houseboat-lined banks at the westernmost end of the Landwehrkanal, the Schiffbau (full name: Preußische Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau und Schiffbau) is a true architectural oddity. Even in a city with globally-recognised modernist highlights like the Fernsehturm, Kotti, and Tegel Airport, the Schiffbau stands out as one of the strangest, even making a cameo in the notorious camp-cult film The Apple

The Schiffbau

The massive pink tube that makes up the structure’s lower half serves as an immense water-circulation system for the testing of boat engines, and the juxtaposition of its organic curvature with the sharp angles of the dark-blue building atop it give the whole structure an otherworldly feel. The Schiffbau’s island setting gives it its final layer of uncanniness, in that it can only be viewed from across water, often from bridges and jetties that are set off from it at oblique angles and obscured by trees, a surreal castle surrounded by the still, moat-like waters of the Landwehrkanal.

Brightening the Corners

Away from the busy, high-traffic streets at its edge, the TU campus takes on a different character. As happens with surprising frequency in Berlin given its size, it’s possible to feel like one has stepped out of the city and into a much more rural setting just by leaving the street and turning a few corners.

The large buildings that contain the classrooms, labs, and auditoriums of the university’s major departments butt against each other, often resulting in an anarchic blend of centuries and styles. Austere Prussian neo-classicist columns and Weimar-era brick transition suddenly to the glass, concrete, and painted metal of mid-20th century modernism. Tree- and ivy-lined paths wind past loading docks, dumpsters, and air vents, leading to quieter courtyards and more secluded building entrances.

Flügeltor (“winged gate”), kinetic sculpture in front of the main campus building

Tucked into these quieter, hidden spaces are a surprising amount of sculptural artworks. While some (such as the aforementioned likeness of Werner von Siemens, as well as Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Ionische Säule and Johann Heinrich Strack’s decorated arcade for the former ironworks) date from the 19th century, a great deal more were created in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The more modern pieces, while on one hand abstract in the standard sense, often closely tie into and reflect the university’s various disciplines, portraying broad scientific fields ranging from mathematics and physics to vehicle propulsion and space travel to the natural world. 

Die Flamme with the Architecture building in the background

Some pieces, such as Hein Sinken’s Windkinetisches Objekt and Reinhard Haverkamp’s Flügeltor, are explicitly kinetic, twisting and turning in Berlin’s fickle and frequent breezes; other static pieces invoke the motion inherent in physics, mathematics, and nature via organic forms.

These include the angular bronze flames of the Ernst-Reuter memorial die Flamme in front of the Architecture building, the wing-like sculpture near the U-Bahn entrance on Hardenbergstraße, the folded-tube blocks of Röhrenkuben auf Schäften (which translates literally as “tube-cubes on shafts” and mirrors the geometrical-intestinal look of the Schiffbau further down the road), and the literal bright-red Easter egg of Gruppe Plastik 71 on Einsteinufer, which sits at the edge of a group of hedges as if waiting to be discovered.

Röhrenkuben auf Schäften

Some pieces on the campus go beyond a thematic or formal representation of scientific principles to present actual pieces of mechanical systems as artworks in themselves. The sign at the western entrance to the Electrical Engineering department is placed atop a large brown-enamelled ceramic insulator, while the courtyard at the eastern entrance prominently features a meters-wide cylindrical cross-section of an undersea cable housing, which serves as both an aesthetically pleasing object (particularly given its eye-catching red-and-silver pairing) and a physical manifestation of the principles taught nearby.

Outside the Machine Systems Construction Department sit two of the campus’s most brutalist (or perhaps even outright brutal) forms: a jack-shaped concrete breakwater tetrapod and a green-metal reinforcing wall. 

Concrete tetrapod / Retaining wall

The two pieces are at once sculptural (with an aesthetic matching that of the overall campus quite well) and functional, while also conveying a distinctly militaristic feel. Other departments feature complete machines at their entrances, including a massive blue, green and red thermal unit at the eastern entrance of the Mathematics building and what appears to be a partial steam engine in the courtyard to the northeast. 

top: machinery at the entrances to the Architecture and Mathematics buildings /  bottom: Undersea Cable, Electrical Engineering Building / Gruppe Plastik 71

At the heart of the central campus triangle lies perhaps the most striking installation piece at TU: Haus-Rucker-Co’s 1981 Pyramide, which in both its size and its form borders on the monumental. The building-sized artwork consists of a steel-framed pyramid supported by a central pillar of riveted steel beams; each “face” of the pyramid is covered with climbing vines, and includes a doorway that allows viewers to enter the structure and view it from inside.

Pyramide

On sunny days, particularly in the summer months, the interior feels like its own micro-environment shielded from the heat by an artificial jungle canopy of hard angles. Of all the sculptural works on the TU campus, Pyramide goes the furthest toward uniting TU’s identity as a bastion of scientific inquiry with its often wild and whimsical flights of architectural fancy.

One final piece of meta-art on the TU campus is worth mentioning: the pixelated alien-lettering concrete that makes up the large plaza northeast of Ernst-Reuter-Platz. While at the time of its creation it could only be viewed from the higher floors of nearby buildings, it can now be viewed through the decidedly 21st-century technologies of drone photography or Google’s satellite view.

The two-colored tiles of the plaza seen from the ground

As a piece that one could walk across thousands of times without noticing, and only be properly viewed through the “macroscope” of distance, it could be construed as an elegant evocation of quantum observation – or perhaps as nothing more than a secret reward for those willing to climb to the upper floors of the Architecture building. It’s unknown whether the creators of this massive concrete quilt foresaw the ease with which aerial images would be achievable in the coming decades, but as a piece that invokes art, architecture, and flight in equal parts, it’s a fitting tribute to the scholarly endeavours that surround it. 

Taken as a whole, the buildings that make up TU represent disparate threads of history, nature, modernity, and urbanity, all converging in a unique corner of Charlottenburg at the edge of the Tiergarten. While at first blush the campus may appear outdated or run-down, a deeper investigation reveals a trove of bold, colourful, and still-viable modernist constructions that can stand on their own, even in a city as architecturally unique as Berlin.

All photos © John Peck unless otherwise credited

Cover image: View from the roof of the Eugene Paul Wigner Building to the Main Building of the TU Berlin. Photo: TU Berlin / Pressestelle / Ulrich Dahl, licensed via Creative Commons  

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