William Thirteen uncovers the history of Martin-Gropius-Bau and its prolific architect…

Martin-Gropius-Bau ©, 2007

Ask a travel agent or tourist board to rattle off the top five attractions of our fair city and near the top of the list will be Berlin’s thriving art scene and dense thicket of cultural institutions.

Gallons of ink have been spilled over the theme, so much so that the “Berlin Gallery Glut” feature has now become a bi-annual staple of such renowned rags as the NY Times and the Washington Post (often penned by a stringer just settling into their new Friedrichshain flat).

It’s all true, of course, since along with our monthly mushroom crop of pop-up art happenings, temporary exhibition spaces and countless actual galleries, Berlin boasts some of the world finest  museums.

A short list might include the Old Nationalgalerie, the New Nationalgalerie, the Neues, Altes & Pergamon Museums, as well as the Broehan Museum, the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection & the Martin-Gropius-Bau. And don’t even get me started on the private collections.

But it wasn’t always this way. Before the Iron Chancellor finally welded Germany together in 1871, Berlin wasn’t a capital, just the sleepy royal seat of Prussia, famed more for the number of its generals than that of its artists. But after Bismarck’s accomplishment, Berlin was the Hauptstadt of a united Germany and a frenzy of urban development swiftly transformed the once sleepy ‘Rezidenzstadt’ into a bustling, modern European metropolis.

This rush to ‘Weltstadt’ was accompanied by an anxiety among the solons of the new capital to establish those cultural institutions long a feature of older European capitals. Never one to miss a chance to demonstrate his beneficence, Kaiser Wilhelm I commissioned Berlin architect Martin Gropius to design a fitting building in which to exhibit his recently acquired German Craft Museum, humbly rechristened as the Royal Museum of Applied Arts.

The Gropius Brothers' Workshop in Berlin (1830) by Eduard Gärtner
The Gropius Brothers’ Workshop in Berlin (1830) by Eduard Gärtner

Martin Gropius, one of Grunderzeit Berlin’s most prolific architects, came to his profession in the cradle. Born into a prestigious local family he numbered among his kin such luminaries as CW Gropius, who studied under Karl Friedrich Schinkel and painted landscapes for the Royal Theater, as well as Ferdinand & George, the ‘Brothers Gropius’, who entertained a generation of Berliners in their Diorama, just off Unter den Linden.

Schinkel himself designed the theatre, which offered an early form of cinema-cum-travelogue, in which large silkscreen paintings of exotic locations (some even executed by Schinkel himself) were slowly scrolled past an audience to create the illusion of movement. In later years the family’s architectural traditions would be carried to even greater glory by Martin’s great nephew Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus.

After graduating from Berlin’s Bauakademie, following in the footsteps of Schinkel’s refined Neoclassicism, Martin Gropius traveled extensively in Italy and Greece, eventually joining with traveling companion & fellow Bauakademie graduate Heino Schmieden to establish an architectural practice back in Berlin.

Timing is everything and Bismarck’s unification of Germany helped Gropius & Schmieden grow into one of nineteenth-century Germany’s largest architecture firms. The new state required national institutions in order to display its authority and the resulting building boom provided the well-respected (and well-connected) firm with lucrative contracts. As Martin Gropius was a professor at the Academy of Applied Arts, and the family’s Diorama theatre, closed since 1850, was now temporarily housing the Museum of Applied Arts, Gropius & Schmieden was the obvious choice when the Emperor needed someone to build his planned ‘Koenigliche Kunstgewerbemuseum’.

When it opened in 1881, the museum was impressive testament to Gropius & Schmieden’s youthful wanderings. A simple quadratic floorplan surrounds an elegant central atrium, in which the influences of the Italian Renaissance are clearly reflected in the abundant light and space. Its external facade is ornamented by figurative panels of craftsmen and artists engaging in their tasks while the spacious atrium displays the coats of arms of the German states forming the new nation. Thus Bismarck’s accomplishment at forging a united Germany is made to echo the patient and precise work of Germany’s medieval craftsmen and artisans.

Though he died shortly before its inauguration, the museum was immediately judged Gropius’ finest work. Unfortunately its popularity would make it a victim of its own success when, shortly after World War One, the Applied Arts Museum was relocated, to be replaced by the Museum for Prehistory and Early History and the East Asian Art Collection.

Worse yet, after the Nazis came to power the museum gained sinister new neighbors. An extension to the museum, built in 1905, was taken over by Gestapo and its cellar used to imprison and torture prisoners of Himmler’s secret police, while across the street Goering commissioned Ernst Sagebiel to build his imposing new Luftwaffe HQ. It was its close proximity to the latter which resulted in the museum’s being struck by Allied bombs late in 1945, the resulting damage only worsened by the fierce street battles here during the war’s final days.

Then, in a final stroke of bad luck, the Berlin Wall was built directly in front of the heavily damaged museum, with the result that is was now in a remote corner of West Berlin. Thus it wasn’t until 1978 that reconstruction began, followed by further improvements after German reunification to restore the museum to its former glory.

Martin-Gropius-Bau ©, 2007

Renamed the Martin-Gropius-Bau to honour its original architect, the museum has regained its original place in the city’s cultural whirlwind. Its roomy exhibition halls and light-filled atrium host acclaimed exhibitions and retrospectives of renowned artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, Frida Kahlo, Man Ray and dozens of others. Its extensive bookshop offers weighty volumes for the culture vultures and an elegant cafe offers delicious repast to weary art lovers.

The museum today is not only geographically central, but from here one can also look out upon the entire history of Berlin. One’s gaze can travel from the city’s roots in the sandy soils of Brandenburg and the Kaiser’s imperial glamour adorning the museum walls, past the horrors of the twentieth century—made physical in its pockmarked facade, as well as the Topogrophy of Terror and remains of the Berlin Wall next door, to the glass towers rising over the new Potsdamer Platz.

The Martin-Gropius-Bau is now one of the most popular museums in one of the most culturally renowned of European cities and somewhere, out there beyond the Spree, the spirits of all those Gropius family architects and entertainers are finally looking down and smiling…

Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin
Niederkirchnerstraße 7,
10963 Berlin – Mitte
T: 030 254 860
U/S: Potsdamer Platz

Next in Design & ArchitectureWerner Düttmann: Making Berlin Modern »