Thursday, June 20, 2013

Berlin and Potsdam (in 1768)

Dessau, June 20, 2013

There is a beautiful map from the time of Frederick the Great that includes both Berlin and Potsdam.  It manages to articulate in a single drawing both the geography of the region and the structure of the cities and towns.  It allows us to see particularly well relationships at different scales.

You can think of this map as a drawing of points, lines and planes.  Urban settlements appear as red dots, a couple of them very large--Berlin and Potsdam--and the majority much smaller, located at the intersection of secondary roads or at the edge of waterways.  There are two major lines, the  meandering Spree and Havel rivers, and then a whole network of more or less straight roads connecting urban settlements.  Finally, there are the large swats of green indicating forests, mostly along the edges of the rivers.

It is particularly interesting to see the different way in which the two major cities relate to their geography.  Even as early in the mid 1700s, Berlin appears as if it would have swallowed the river within its fabric.  And if you look Charlottenburg to the west, it's easy to fast forward to a time when the city fabric will surround the Tiergarten.  By contrast, Potsdam is already defined by the articulation of city, water and open land--forest and parks--that has characterized the city all the way to the present.

If you pay attention to the names of the smaller points in the map, you'll recognize neighborhoods of today's Berlin, like Zhelendorf, Steglitz and Britz to the south, or Spandau, Tegel and Marzhan to the north, just to name a few.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The "Other" City (Potsdam)

Dessau, June 18, 2013

Besides their city palaces, sometimes kings, emperors and other rulers had a second seat of power, typically summer palaces.  This was true in places as different as Vienna, where the emperor moved from the Hofburg Palace to Schönbrunn--about five kilometers to the southwest--for the summer, and Beijing, where the Summer Palace is located some eighteen kilometers to the northwest of the Forbidden City.

In some cases, the other palace was in a different city, like the palace in Sintra, where Portuguese kings spent long periods away from the capital, Lisbon, almost thirty kilometers away.  And that is also the case of Potsdam, Berlin's "other city".

Since Frederick William, "The Great Elector", chose the Potsdam as his hunting retreat in 1660, the city became something of an alternate reality away from Berlin.  After Frederick the Great built Sanssouci (French for "without worries", you get the point) in the mid-1750s, the Potsdam palace remained a favorite retreat for Prussian kings and German Kaisers.

If WWI marked the end of that tradition, a new place of fantasies arose right away in nearby Babelsberg, the site of the then-powerful German film industry.  You could even say that the physical location for the "Metropolis" of Fritz Lang's film was, literally, in Potsdam, at the Babelsberg UFA studios.

And then there is the Potsdam Conference (even if the oficial documents refer to it as the Berlin Conference.)  While Berlin laid in ruins in the summer of 1945, the leaders of the victorious Allied powers of WWII met thirty kilometers down the Havel, in the bucolic calm of Potsdam's Cecilienhof Palace, to decide the future of Germany and, not much of an exaggeration really, the future of the world for the following decades.

(The image above is a sketch for Sanssouci from Frederick the Great's own hand.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Tourist Map of Berlin 2

Berlin, June 17, 2013

When I was in Berlin with RISD students last March, we were looking at a map I got at the hotel and my friend Beeke Bartelt pointed at Kurfürsterndamm and Karl-Marx-Allee as the two major lines that epitomized their respective sides of Berlin during its decades as a divided city.

After the war, Berlin was in ruins and its reconstruction became the first--and no doubt foremost--exercise in Cold War urbanism.  Hans Scharoun's "Erster Berricht" ("First Report") dramatically exhibited amidst the ruins of the Berliner Stadtschloss in the summer of 1946 didn't account for the emerging tensions between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union and was quickly forgotten.  Karl Bonatz replaced Scharoun as planning director and his plans for development to the west of the Zoologischer Garten train station along Kurfürstendamm aligned with the emerging policies of the Western Powers.  In response, the Soviets appointed Hermann Henselmann, who spearheaded the transformation of the eastern Große Frankfurter Straße into Stalin Allee (since 1961 Karl-Marx-Allee,) a ninety-meters-wide avenue of unequivocal Socialist-Realist architecture.

A expansive commercial avenue to the west and a monumental housing thoroughfare to the east, as urban emblems of a new global confrontation.

(And it was a strike of construction workers building Stalin Allee--declared on June 17, 1953, sixty years today--that ignited the escalation that would eventually lead to the erection of the Berlin Wall.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1923)

Berlin, June 8, 2013

In the highrise projects of 1921 and 1922 Mies was mostly concerned with the relation between structure and enclosure and the properties of the glass as a skin.  In the 1923 "Concrete Office Building" project for Berlin, he shifts its attention to the loadbearing structure as the main element, actually the only element, of his architectural vocabulary.

Most important, here the material is not generic but rather specific.  Mies gives a great deal of thought to the column grid, the spans, and other dimensional considerations of the structure.  He is also concerned with the program in a specific way--file cabinets are supposed to be placed against the upturned beams that make the enclosure of the building, etc.--and other more detailed, if minimal, aspects of the project, like the entrance or the top and bottom of the structure.

Once more, the rendering of the project (an imposing charcoal and graphite perspective almost 3 meters long!) is carefully framed within the fabric of the city.  Unlike Le Corbusier, who tried to reinvent (Ville Radieuse,) overpower (Plan Voisin,) or wish the city away (Marseille,) Mies seemed quite happy to work within the existing city, yes, in a contrasting manner, but almost contextual.  In the 1923 project the building is barely taller than its neighbors, as if to complete--more than to compete with--the surrounding fabric.

In the three projects of 1921, 22 and 23, Mies articulates a game of solids and voids, realism and abstraction, that set his position towards the city and informed most, if not all, of his subsequent urban projects, from the competition entry for Alexanderplatz in Berlin (1928) to the Seagram Building in New York (1958.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1922)

Dessau, June 6, 2013

Shortly after his entry to the 1921 Friedrichstrasse competition, Mies produced a second project for a high-rise office building.  It is, again, an experiment in glass.  The plan is highly inflected, this time not angular but undulating, a perimeter of tangential circles that more or less extend to the property lines of what appears to be a tight urban plot.  Two circles on opposite sides are packed with stairs, elevators and other services.

If you ask me, this plan looks a little like a fish, with the tail flattening towards the back of the site and the head projecting forward, as the plot narrows.

This time there is a model.  The structure is reduced to a series of (steel?) floorplates thirty stories high, evenly spaced and with not even the slightest inflection at the top or the bottom.  There are only a few columns at the center of the projecting circles.  After that, the glass appears as a continuous skin wrapping the structure.  There is an indication of very thin vertical mullions but otherwise the job of the skin seems to be little more than to enclose the structure in all its nakedness.

The bride stripped bare...

Lest you think that the architect is engaging only in a geometric or even technical exercise, the model includes its surrounding context in the form of generic buildings of the old city (the bachelors?) about six stories tall, with their characteristic fenestration and pointed roofs.  It seems pretty clear that Mies is here pondering the role of this new architecture within the fabric of the city.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1921)

Dessau, June 4, 2013

By 1930, the Weissenhof Siedlung, the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendaht House had established Mies van der Rohe as a central figure of the Modern Movement.  But a decade earlier, he had little more to show that a few well proportioned traditional houses and a couple of Schinkel-inspired unbuilt  projects.

Then, in 1921 Mies submitted a stunning entry to the competition for a high-rise office building near the Friedrichstrasse train station in the heart of Berlin.  The plan shows a central circulation core with three spearhead-shaped wings extending to the edges of the triangular building site.  This exquisitely inventive geometry translates in the most remarkable (most certainly for its time!) mass: an uncompromising array of twenty or so cantilevered floors sheathed in nothing but a taut glass skin.

In the large photomontages that Mies produced to present the project, the building appears as a faceted prow of light--both transparent and reflective-framed by the lower (and darker) figures of the nineteen-century city.  For the rest of his life, Mies will come back to this set up of uninflected masses deployed within the complexities of the urban fabric as his canonical attitude towards the city.

(By the way, I've always been fascinated by these large renderings of coarse graphite on photo prints; almost a Dada attitude, don't you think?)