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Seizing the Historic Opportunity. Berlin’s Kulturforum as the cradle of the 20th century


Berlin is a city of perpetual urban-planning discussions. This is nowhere better to be seen than in the plans for the Kulturforum. No one has yet been able to bulldoze a way through the debates that have surrounded this site since the early 1960s, when a political decision was made to construct a “cultural forum” here.

For the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the site is second only to the Museumsinsel. Five of the Staatliche Museen’s major art and design collections are located here: the art of the 20th century in the Neue Nationalgalerie (housed in the building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), the Gemäldegalerie (with its collection of old masters), the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts), the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings), and the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library). In addition to these, the Kulturforum is home to several other institutions that also fall under the umbrella of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation): the Berlin State Library, the Ibero-American Institute, and the State Institute of Music Research, which houses the Musical Instrument Museum. They all share the site with two other institutions: the Philharmonie and Kammermusiksaal, home of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and St. Matthäus-Kirche, seat of the “Art and Cultural Foundation of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg and Silesian Oberlausitz”. Nowhere else in Germany does a single site hold such a concentration of diverse cultural institutions such as these. Together, they have the potential to form an outstanding site of international art and interdisciplinary learning. But the architectural presence of the disparate buildings and the way they interact with each other means that, from a planning perspective at least, the site has found little favour and been unable to realize its full potential.

Erected as an alternative to the Museumsinsel and the boulevard Unter den Linden, which both fell in the eastern half of the divided city, the Kulturforum was intended as a political symbol: a modern counterpart to the Museumsinsel and symbol of a new western city centre. To achieve this goal, numerous bombed-out buildings in the Tiergarten quarter were sacrificed and bulldozed – not rebuilt – after the war.

It is now hard to believe that, around the turn of the last century, this spot was one of Berlin’s most attractive residential areas: the Tiergartenviertel or “Tiergarten quarter”. In the late 18th century it initially went from being a public park to a kind of summer resort on the city’s doorstep, finally emerging, from the mid-1850s onwards, as an area of choice residential real-estate for Berlin’s growing bourgeoisie. The area between Tiergartenstraße to the north, Bendlerstraße (now Stauffenbergstraße), the Landwehrkanal to the south, and Potsdamer Straße evolved from leafy parkland to a residential area known for its many villas. This was where heads of industry, art dealers, collectors, and artists settled. It was here that Berlin got its first glimpse of modernism, for it was here that the French Impressionists were unveiled in the city’s galleries and salons for the first time, and it was here that a number of noteworthy buildings arose, designed by renowned architects of their day. The quarter became the home for people from quite different walks of life. Friedrich August Stüler’s St. Matthäus-Kirche was primarily flanked by tenement buildings several storeys high, as well as a number opulent townhouses, purpose-built for their occupiers or rented out. Tiergartenstraße, by comparison, was flanked on one side by detached villas with expansive gardens. As a result, artists, writers, and actors living in rented flats shared the same postcode with wealthy industrialists in villas. These people from different walks of life often frequented the same cultural institutions and salons, cafés and restaurants; their paths crossed and they interacted with each other. Closely associated with the history of the site of the Kulturforum are such illustrious names as industrialist and major patron of the Königliche Museen zu Berlin (forerunner of today’s Staatliche Museen), James Simon, architects Ludwig Hoffmann and Ernst Eberhard von Ihne, painters Anton von Werner and Adolph von Menzel, art dealers Herwarth Walden, Paul Cassirer, and Alfred Flechtheim, archaeologist Ernst Curtius, and actress Tilla Durieux. Many of them were later to be vilified by the Nazis, expelled, persecuted, and murdered.

Only very few buildings remain as testaments of this time: St. Matthäus-Kirche, Villa Parey, integrated into the Gemäldegalerie and named after the publisher Paul Parey, and Villa Gontard in Stauffenbergstraße, home to the administrative headquarters of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin since 1970. Nowhere else in Berlin has the destruction carried out both by the Nazis themselves for their planned “Germania” project for the capital of the Reich and the Allies’ carpet bombing left such a large swathe of waste land.

The redevelopment of the site occurred in fits and starts. As early as 1946, the architect Hans Scharoun, newly appointed just a year earlier to the post of City Councillor for Construction and Housing, presented the initial ideas for a collective plan for the site. He subsequently finalized his designs for the Philharmonie in 1956/57 and for the new building of the State Library in 1964. However, Scharoun’s overarching concept for the site as whole could not be implemented. In its place, each decade has brought a new set of proposals.

The term “Kulturforum” holds the promise of a coherent ensemble. However, visitors to the site are greeted with quite a different picture: a loose cluster of buildings – albeit with some outstanding and stand-alone icons of architectural history – but with Potsdamer Straße cutting through middle, the barren open space before the historic St. Matthäus-Kirche, and the equally desolate, slanting piazzetta located in front of the Gemäldegalerie and Kunstgewerbemuseum. This space is shaped by elements that seem more intended to divide than unify. Neither Hans Hollein’s 1983 proposal, evolved in the “Kulturforum” peer-review process, to establish links between the various buildings as a means of providing some sense of architectural cohesion, nor the “Master Plan” for the development of the Kulturforum approved by Berlin’s Senate and House of Representatives in 2005/2006 and based on Scharoun’s original plans were ever implemented. A plan has existed since 2011 for the incremental realisation of a so-called “open-space concept”, whose initial steps have already been initiated and carried out.

The site continues to bear all the signs of its chequered history and its former location before the gates of the original city. The history of the 20th century in Germany is disjointed and so too is the architecture of the Kulturforum. More than 70 years after the Second World War and more than 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are now faced with an opportunity to salvage the site in terms of its function and to redefine its overall design. A new building to house the Staatliche Museen’s important collections of 20th-century art and the Pietzsch, Marx, and Marzona collections will forge a link to the history of site and its cultural legacy, while simultaneously creating a cohesive element within the site’s wider urban design. The Kulturforum could be redesigned to become a place where visitors could both appreciate culture and happily while away the time – a place attractive for Berliners and visitors to the capital alike. Today sees us come one step closer to this historic opportunity. The selected entries to the urban design competition for the new building at the Kulturforum have the potential to connect the 20th century with the 21st, to connect modern urban lifestyles and modern art.

Guest op-ed from Michael Eissenhauer, Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, published in Die Welt, 12 February 2016 (German only).