How are Oswald Mathias Ungers’s compositional ordering principles translated into German architecture today?
Is there really a tendency towards ‘birdcages’ in contemporary German architecture? The matter is, of course, more complex than is generally assumed. Or, in a less catchy way, perhaps has a trend towards standardisation, towards monotonous façade structures, prevailed over differentiation or heterogenisation when it comes to buildings and structures, and our relationship with the urban environment?
The official opening of the new headquarters of the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) — the Federal Intelligence Service — in Berlin in February was a thought-provoking opportunity to look back at the city’s architectural history. The BND headquarters, designed by Jan Kleihues, points to the resurrection of a Prussian classicism that culminated in Albert Speer’s plans for Germania (Berlin), a global capital crammed with power, in the 1930s and featuring Hitler’s Reich Chancellery as the pinnacle of Nazi megalomania. Kleihues’s monumental structure, measuring 260,000 square metres, easily squares up to the size of the Pentagon and its 14,000 endlessly repeated arrow-slit windows might make passers-by on Chausseestrasse in Berlin-Mitte quite dizzy. This may be intentional, so that it does not occur to anyone to come too close to this concrete stronghold.
The symbolic counterweights, mainly found in the outdoor facilities, are cosmetic at best. The fortress-like nature of the place prevails as it rises up in the midst of this urban centre, surrounded by largely small residential and commercial properties.
The Federal Intelligence Service headquarters, previously located in the rural Pullach suburb of Munich, now showcases its force in the heart of the German capital with a concrete
structure that is about 300 metres long, nine storeys tall and features a repetitive grid façade. We do not need to look as far back as the years of the Third Reich, when Albert Speer and Wilhelm Kreis wanted to create a prestigious north-south axis. Suffice to bring to mind the plans for a re-unified Berlin after 1989, when Jan Kleihues’s father Josef Paul Kleihues steered the dogma of ‘critical reconstruction’.
In 1994, art and architectural historian Heinrich Klotz, who had been a judge in the Potsdamer Platz competition, criticised Hans Kollhoff in particular. The latter had presented a design for a perimeter-block development for Potsdamer Platz which took Otto Kohtz’s Scherl newspaper building (1927) — with a monotonous, serial facade and staggered attic floors – as inspiration for a revival of Berlin’s blocks. Kollhoff’s design was not adopted at t he time — and Renzo Piano’s Sony building was erected instead — but the ultimately influential architectural statement that unashamedly accompanied it sought to abolish the polymorphism of subdivided blocks.