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The new beginning

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The new beginning


The 100° panorama by Otto Borutta, taken around 1961/62, shows the emerging Kulturforum with the Philharmonic Hall, St. Matthew’s Church, and the House of Tourism from the southwest. The ruins of Theodor Dierksmeier’s building were demolished in 1963. © Berlinische Galerie / Otto Borutta

The Kulturforum was born out of pain starting in 1960 and was doomed to be a vision. At the beginning there was a double negation: the final demolition of the old buildings of the heavily destroyed Tiergarten district with the structural relicts of the Nazi dictatorship and the rejection of socialist Germany behind the Wall. The desired metamorphosis of the place could not be had without hardship and losses. With the clearing of the war ruins, the buildings, the history of the district, and the fates of expropriation, expulsion, and death of its inhabitants were disposed of and forgotten. The way of dealing with the dystopia of National Socialist urban planning and the terrible consequences of the dictatorship was based on eradication and repression. After all National Socialism, the bombing war and rubble clearance had made a clean sweep of the old Tiergarten district, a new beginning was to be made on an area freed from all relics, memories, and ideologies. Two utopian narratives stood at the cradle of the Kulturforum: the utopia of Berlin’s reunification evoked by the building of the Wall and the dawn of a better future with technological progress and economic upswing. In architecture and urban planning in the 1950s, the utopia of departure had led to an orientation toward the model of the car-oriented and functionally separated city. Both can ultimately be traced back to the Athens Charter, which had already formulated groundbreaking ideas for modern urban planning in 1933. The planning paradigm of a “car-oriented city of culture” had a decisive influence on the Kulturforum at the time of its creation. It is largely responsible for the deficits of the area that are lamented from today’s perspective.

The property

On what land is the Kulturforum built? Where were the private landowners in 1945 and later? Why were the expropriations not reversed? It may be assumed that the National Socialists who remained in the building authorities did not want to revise their own plans. For the politically unencumbered part of the staff, the “Stunde Null” (zero hour) opened up a unique opportunity to implement “modern” urban planning models of the car-oriented and functionally separated city. Both groups had no interest in a historically oriented reconstruction of the district and the preservation of the urban layout. The opportunity was simply too good not to seize. Thus, the result of expropriations remained, and the transfer from private to public ownership continued. It would be nice to know what land was transferred to public ownership, on what basis, and with what compensation in the 1950s and 1960s.


The map from the 1960 publication on the capital city competition shows public land ownership in the competition area. Property of the former German Reich is colored red; areas of the State of Berlin are colored yellow. In the Tiergarten district, one can see the highest concentration of public property in downtown Berlin. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Dietmar Katz


The section from a map of the Senator for Housing for the capital city competition shows the public land ownership colored in ocher yellow above the land parcels and the condition of the buildings (preserved, heavily damaged, destroyed) in the composite print. The Tiergarten district is almost completely classified as destroyed. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Dietmar Katz

The 1957/58 capital city competition

In 1957/58, the Capital City Berlin Competition was held in West Berlin. It was organized by the federal government and the Berlin Senate in order to develop Berlin as a capital and cosmopolitan city in the event of reunification. The competition was based on the principles of a car-oriented, functionally structured, and dispersed city: “The face of the new capital will not bear the features of a nationalist power state but will be shaped by the ideas of democracy and the coexistence of peoples on an equal basis. The new heart of the cosmopolitan city, however, will be freed from the disorderly confusion of administrative, cultural, business, work, and residential buildings and from the … overuse of the land. In a new structure and a dispersal, the city will consider not only the economy and traffic – both flowing and stationary – but also the people.” From today’s perspective, the competition is a document of misguided utopias of the 1950s and 1960s.


The concept by Hans Scharoun and Wils Ebert received a second prize. With their design, they transformed the center of Berlin into an extensive park landscape with separate areas for authorities, cultural institutions, and commercial buildings. Order and access are provided through the transportation network and visionary helicopter landing pads. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Dietmar Katz


The design by Alison and Peter Smithson received a third prize. They made a splash with their proposal to create a giant pedestrian platform in the Friedrichsstadt to separate the equal transportation systems for pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The inner-city area was to be experienced both on foot and by car. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Dietmar Katz


In this isometry by the first-prize winners-Spengelin, Eggeling, and Pempelfort-the Church of St. Matthew stands somewhat lost in the new Tiergarten district, surrounded by 10-18 story high-rises to house federal ministries. The southern tangent runs parallel to the Landwehr Canal a short distance away and cuts through the district. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Dietmar Katz


The architects Hartmann and Nickerl preserve the old course of Matthäikirchstrasse in their design. The church is surrounded by broken-up new buildings intended for diplomatic missions. In the southeast corner of the Tiergarten, the new Chancellery is placed adjacent to Potsdamer Platz. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Dietmar Katz

The road network and cultural buildings

The new traffic routing for the Kulturforum is derived from the traffic concept for Berlin adopted in 1957. The concept envisages a grid-like network structure with highways and tangents around the city center. Main roads and arterial streets further distribute traffic within it on a small scale. Except for the western tangent, which was not realized, the model was implemented in the Kulturforum. The new Potsdamer Strasse runs as a multi-lane parkway in an elegant curve towards Potsdamer Platz. It was staged as a traffic and aesthetic counter-image to the old Reichsstrasse 1. The Kulturforum formed the new destination of the journey on the “Potse” from the new temples of commerce in Steglitz through run-down neighborhoods of old buildings to the entertainment district south of the Landwehr Canal. The grand gesture ended after a few meters at the Wall and merged into the “relief road” that had to divert through traffic to Moabit.


The plan for the competition for the museums at Tiergarten clearly shows the dominance of the road network in the Kulturforum. From the west tangent behind the Staatsbibliothek (State Library), traffic is distributed along Potsdamer Strasse to the residential streets. All streets in the neighborhood have four lanes with a wide median. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Dietmar Katz


The aerial photograph by Rolf Koehler shows the Kulturforum on Potsdamer Strasse on August 17, 1978. Construction work for the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) has begun. The new street grid with the traffic junction at Potsdamer Brücke clearly shows the absolute priority of traffic route planning at the time the Kulturforum was being built. © bpk / Rolf Koehler


Even the access roads to the underground parking garages are double lane with median strips and elegantly curved. The photograph shows the entrance to the underground parking garage of the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) in 2021. © Joachim Brand


The elegantly sweeping curve is the aesthetic guiding principle of the street planning in the Kulturforum. It is intended to evoke the impression of flowing movement and dynamism. The photograph shows Scharounstrasse with a view of the Staatsbibliothek (State Library), roughly from the perspective that would have resulted from the unrealized restaurant wing of the museums. © Bildarchiv BBR

The works of the century

“Hans Scharoun, and with him the free Berlin … at the furthest point that can now be dared, opposes the excess of that gloom that threatens us with its desert with the commitment to the musical in the Philharmonie, which is the purest sound of humanity and therefore faith in the power of freedom.” With these words of Adolf Arndt, the Philharmonie was opened in October 1963 – two years after the construction of the Wall and three years after the reconstruction of St. Matthew’s Church. The spectacular organic building without right angles, axis and structural hierarchies was the negation of the buildings for the Wehrmacht planned by Albert Speer for the Tiergarten district. This was followed in September 1968 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), the icon of classical modernism in Berlin. The construction of two century-old works for culture directly on the border between the sectors in less than 10 years sent a strong signal of West Berlin’s self-assertion and awakening.


The photograph by Willy Pragher shows the Philharmonie on June 3, 1965. The Berlin vernacular had coined the term “Circus Karajani” for Hans Scharoun’s tent-like architecture, thus congenially drawing the connection to conductor Herbert von Karajan, who brought the Berlin Philharmonic back to world prominence in its new home. © Staatsarchiv Freiburg W 134 Nr. 078814b / Fotograf: Willy Pragher


The photograph by Reinhard Friedrich shows the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) on March 21, 1968, a few months before its opening. The median strip of the new Potsdamer Strasse was planted with trees and shrubs to show off the new building in the wasteland of the Kulturforum. © bpk / Zentralarchiv, SMB / Reinhard Friedrich