Surprise at Gemäldegalerie

Detail of Last Judgement Sculpture

I was actually on my way to see some old masters at Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. The idea was to enjoy the current peace in this jewel of a museum as there are still only a few people in town who search for insights. On my bike and off to Kulturforum behind Potsdamer Platz. The prospect of meeting some of the old friends like Botticelli and Jan van Eyck made me get out of my house just after breakfast.

Not having to guide anybody I hadn’t even looked at their website to see what is on. I entered the usual door, this time with my mask on, just to see that there was a pleasant surprise.

Normally I am not a friend of contemporary sculpture. It seldomly speaks to me and most of the time it leaves me uninspired. Today, however, I met Sir Anthony Caro’s sculpture “The Last Judgement” inside the large, central galery of Gemäldegalerie. I had no clue what it was about but I was surprised to see that the thing (acutally it is quite an installation) did speak to me. So I went in.

Detail of Last Judgement Sculpture
Inside the Last Judgement Sculpture you can take a walk.

The sculpture that was exhitbited for the first time some twenty years ago at Venice Biennale makes a few references to the topics that the old masters deal with in the adjacent rooms. The whole story of the last judgement itself is a focal point in the storytelling of western culture and normally comes along with all sorts of cruelties. It is thus not surprising that Caro takes this image of the end of time as a source of references for some of the more recent cruelties we have witnessed (and are actually witnessing).

Walking through the installation I was somehow reminded of Picasso’s painting “Guernica” … Caro uses representations of heads and also uses very geometrical elements, arranging them into various situations. Dark as the whole presentation is, you get the impression of reduced colours, of harshness, even of cubism … maybe thus the memories related to the great painting that is to be seen in Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum.

Detail of Last Judgement Sculpture
The sculpture “Civil War” within The Last Judgement
Detail of Last Judgement Sculpture
Detail of “Civil War” within the Last Judgement Sculpture by Sir Anthony Caro

One anecdote though I found hilarious: Caro’s installation is one that you are free to walk inside. You will find yourself on something like a promenade that starts at the Bell Tower (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) and leads you to the gate of heaven with its four trumpets. And it is here, in front of that gate, that you are actually confronted with the message: “Please to not enter.”

Whatever you think of that, don’t miss out and compare this gate with a more classic one by Lucas Cranach the elder.

Detail of Last Judgement Sculpture
“Do not enter” the Gate of Heaven. Hilarious!
Lucas Cranach the elder and his Last Judgement
Lucas Cranach the elder and his Last Judgement, with a depiction of the Gates of Heaven, too. This one is 16C though.

Hiking the “Rennsteig”

Forest in Thuringia in Germany


A free month of May, so I decide to go hiking in Thuringia. It is not the most famous area of Germany, which is quite nice in the sense that I knew I was going to be on my own most of the time. The Thuringian forest was one of the main spots for holiday making in the time of good old GDR. And before all of that it was an area of so many cultured things such as Luther’s translation of the bible, Johann Sebastian Bach, Thuringian sausage and (dearest to me) lots of forest on hills. Those forests are still there and that’s where iI was heading to for the next six days. Hooray! The whole thing is called the „Rennsteig“ and it is the oldest hiking path in Germany. 170 kilometres or 110 miles of green and lots of bird song. It starts in Hörschel, which officially belongs to Eisenach and ends in Blankenstein. Hörschel is by the river Werra, Blankenstein by the rivers Selbitz and Saale. You take a little stone from one river and carry it to the latter one. That’s the idea.

Beginning of the Rennsteig
Beginning of the Rennsteig

Day 1

At the beginning I had quite a bit of water coming down on me: I had “Dauerregen” for most of the day, which into British English translates as normal weather – and it’s only when the Brits are in a horrible mood that they use the old-fashioned term “raining cats and dogs”. But then, life is what you make of it, right? The forest was still beautiful, and very mystic that day since everything was covered in lots of fog. I held many conversations with myself, which I utterly enjoyed.

I passed by a few “Dreiherrensteine”, landmarks that used to show where in the old days three governmental entities would touch (and in the old old Germany we had a variety of them, kingdoms and principalities and whatever). And I also passed by the traces of some gall midges’ larvae as they infuse in leafs a different growth and thus create their own little home …

View of Thuringia
View of Thuringia

Companion on the way.
Companion on the way.

Gall gnats.
Gall gnats.

Day 2

On day two I thought I was going to die. Due to an event that takes place once a year (something involving a marathon), most huts had been booked for this night, so I had to leave my trail a bit and get a sleeping opportunity on Thuringia’s highest mountain, the so-called „Schneekopf.“ It also however that I ended up hiking for some 40 kilometers, that’s 25 miles. Personally speaking I had never ever in my life before hiked such a long distance. I ended up walking pretty straight (*haha*) for about ten hours. From about six hours on my mood started to deteriorate considerably and from about eight hours my feet and my hips were in such pain that I thought I was not going to make it. But there you go, I’m a “Kämpfernatur” (look it up, it’s a strange German concept :)).

The day itself, on the other hand, was pretty awesome. Sun, fog and then sun for most of it. I crossed some medieval roads that were used in such times in order to travel in relatively dry conditions, when most lower lands were basically marshy ground. One of those roads had been used by Luther during all his travels he had to do in order to justify his views and publications back in the 16th century (the Rennsteig will present you with various little sculptures of Luther and Thuringia now also has a Luther hiking trail – eat that!). And again, I passed various old demarcation stones of countries that have today disappeared. All very inspiring had it not been four my aching feet … even my soul was weighing me down, as my mother liked to say.

Day 3

Day three of my incredible adventures in Thuringia had bright sky, birds singing along and somehow I managed to get my feet back into those hiking boots (by now several blisters and I don’t know what).

Looking back at Neue Gehlberger Hütte, where I had spent the night.
Looking back at Neue Gehlberger Hütte, where I had spent the night.

The closer I got to the marathon stretch, the louder the music got. Unlike the past days, when I would see six people max during a day, I should be in for a different game … Hundreds and thousands of runners passing by. It felt like being on a highway, but was interesting at the same time. I kept asking myself why on earth one would like to run the same stretch that I had been hiking for the past days – but then again: Some people would not understand why I “wasted” my holidays with taking a walk in the forest. Whatever. I get to Neustadt at about four in the afternoon, ready to take a nap …

People like to do things in groups.
People like to do things in groups.

Day 4

Day four. I had a funky evening yesterday in Neustadt. Whenever I’m there, I eat at “Gasthof Hubertus.” Practically the only restaurant in Neustadt (and good!) it was chock-a-block with marathonists. I ended up sharing a table with a group of three that would loudly comment on the day’s events as well as on many past runs (and boast lively stories about the past GDR). How jolly!

The morning was quite different then. After some cultured conversation over breakfast (remember the opening scene of “Room with a view” – it’s the dinner there) I left behind a regenerating Neustadt (Sunday!) and headed four Limbach.

Since it was Sunday, I saw a few families on their way. Prim and proper is what most of them looked like. We saluted each other and on we continued. During the day I also met various times two ladies, who had been in the same pension in Neustadt. The stayed behing however as they were running on a slightly more relaxed schedule.

Day 5

Day five then started with animal observation. While I was having breakfast, overlooking the valley of Limbach, a squirrel chased birds out of their feeding spot and stuffed it’s face with all the bird’s food it could get. I packed the remains of my breakfast and left for my next destination.

The evening – by the way – had been interesting again. I had dinner with a fellow hiker and later on a couple tuned in. They were on a holiday with their bikes and had absolutely no fantasy to imagine how one could walk so far and furthermore how one could live without a car or bike altogether. Inevitably it came to the usual question: “How do you do your grocery shopping?” Funny enough, it must be an incomprehensible mystery for a car person to think about the survival of a carless inhabitant of the planet. Maybe we get everything delivered …???

Later on during my walk I passed the only hiking club of the week. “Vereine” are an institution in Germany and practically influence a lot of the life of many people. Germans love to do just about everything in a “Verein”. This one was a serious one too, carrying a “Wimpel” at the beginning of their procession. “Wimpel” is hard to translate, but let’s say is a little flag that has the name and – very important – the year of the club’s inauguration printed on it. All of the members gave me a hearty “Gut Runst!”, which is the official salutation for this specific hiking trail and it was the first time I heard it being used. Oh Germany, I just so adore you!

And then, all of a sudden, I was in Bavaria. I crossed the spot where a border had divided the two Germanies from 1949 until 1989. For about 40 years the Rennsteig hike used to be shorter due to the fact that it would have had to cross Bavaria – absolutely impossible in the time of the Cold War. In those days I would have been done today (apart from the fact that in those days I would probably not have been able to do the hike at all due to my passport).

Former border, now in the middle of the forest.
Former border, now in the middle of the forest.

Me and the old border post.
Me and the old border post.

Obviously the Bavarian forest should be all the same, but the feel was somewhat different. Surely a projection of my mind, playing around with my old images of the former kingdom …

Talking about former kingdoms: on the last stretch to Steinbach, the original Rennsteig has evolved into one of the main roads of the area, which makes it less of a pleasurable walk. For that reason they have introduced an alternative tour through the forest – which is considerably longer. While trotting along this path and asking myself, when the heck Steinbach is to appear, a truck came by and two lumberjacks asked me if I wanted a hitch. Gladly I accepted. The following conversation was wonderful. I had to keep asking them to repeat due to their strong accent. One of their most urgent questions was where I was from. I say Berlin. The answer: “A Preiss!” … “A Prussian!”. In Bavaria, to come from Prussia, the other major kingdom of past times that forced them into combat against the French in 1870, is still quite a thing and one is seen little short of an extraterrestrial. But gladly we had something to laugh about, which is what we did, when they said goodbye after bringing me to the doorstep of my hotel. Alas.

The evening still had another highly inspiring dinner for me. I sat down with an elderly couple that I had briefly met during the day while hiking. He was a retired professor of mathematics and his wife had been active in theology. A wonderful, lively, educated and learned conversation about basically everything. How I love such evenings.

Day 6

The morning then offered a nasty stretch along the road, before finally disappearing in the woods again. All of a sudden then I was back in Thuringia. Hardly anything is left of the former border. Although it’s not only the border itself that was so obvious. There is the little village of Brennersgrün, for instance. From 1952 until 1989, the village stood inside the so-called “Grenzgebiet”. That meant that it was on the side of the GDR, but that close to the border, that it was kind of restricted and nobody would have thought about investing into it. It has thus kept most of its traditional look, with literally every house clad in slate.

That's where the slate comes from, by the way.
That’s where the slate comes from, by the way.

In Rodabrünn, later on, I passed by a Linden tree. Apparently Napoleon on his way either to or back from Russia planted the tree. In Germany, especially in the east, it’s either Napoleon or Luther who, at some point in the past, passed by a spot, founded something there, went to the loo … whatever. You name it. Today be sure it will have a plate indicating it.

The last part getting to Blankenstein was less inspiring. It is also true that all you want is just to bloody get there in the end. The countdown seems endless and every sign is so exciting. Finally I got to Blankenstein, its river Selbitz, and there went the stone that I took in Hörschel out of the river Werra, at the very beginning of the Rennsteig, following the old tradition.

The river Selbitz.
The river Selbitz. Somewhere in there is my stone.

The king of the hike!
The king of the hike!

In six days I walked 170 kilometers, 110 miles. I saw innumerable gall gnats, many butterflies, beautiful meadows and pines, pines, pines. I met interesting people, produced some blisters and ate less chocolate than what I had expected.

And all of this I have to thank for my incredible feet. A big hand four my feet! I love you!

An image of my feet after hiking on the Rennsteig.
An image of my feet after hiking on the Rennsteig.

The Feuerle Deception

So, to begin the season with and because I had friends from Madrid staying over, I thought it would be a nice one to finally go and check out the Feuerle Collection in Berlin (Sammlung Feuerle).


To make it clear at the very beginning: This little report will tell you not to go, unless you want to waste your time, be scammed, or else have spacial interests (whatever). But it is quite obvious to me that this venue is trying to emulate a level of sophistication which it definitely only achieves in the vain sense. Because what you get to see for 18 Euros is devoid of any meaning whatsoever (at least considering the huge charlatanism they produce in order to impress the visitor).


Quite a bit of pretension is generated at the very beginning to have you think that you are going to enter a holy place with a special atmosphere. No pictures take, obviously, and please very quiet voices. The aura is created as a narrative that you are supposed to follow. Truth as construction. Read Walter Benjamin and you will have a better time …

The first room is one devoid of light and is dedicated to cleaning the mind. For two minutes and in total darkness you listen to a piece by John Cage in order to prepare for what is to come. Really?

And that what is to come is something that can be summarized by the simple word juxtaposition, which these days seems to be the last resort if there is nothing more adequate that you can do. Basically if there is no content for you to deliver.

A word on juxtaposition. The placing of one thing next to the other, usually things that seem to be disconnected, to create something new or interesting, to pose a question, to be inspiring even, is something that is not too hard to do, one should think. However, it’s a doing that requires at least a minimum of thought of the juxtaposing creator. A minimum!

Such is the case with a little exhibition that one can still visit in Berlin and that I highly recommend: “Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode-Museum”. Sculptural pieces from Europe from the Middle Ages on have been combined throughout the museum with sculptural pieces from Africa. Some of the combinations have you compare a mere similarity in morphology. Some have you think of a resemblance in iconography. Some of the pieces seem to have served a similar function … but maybe not? Very interesting encounters that inspire thought on various aspects of art production and also have you think about the concept of art in general (I know this one is kind of generic, but sometimes it does lead you there).


None of that is to be found on Désiré Feuerle’s site. You are shown two rooms (sic!) with (admittedly) well illuminated pieces of Cambodia, some furniture of China and then mainly photography of current times (plus some sculpture, Anish Kapoor and Cristina Iglesias to name some).

In the lower room you can look at an “artificial lake” that has been installed in an adjacent space, which plays with the fact that most of the sculptures were originally placed in temples where rivers and lakes were not far. Now that sounds deep (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t resist the shallowness … ups, again).

No information in the rooms on anything to be seen as you are supposed to let go and make this a very special journey of the senses, falling into the depth of an aesthetic perception and allowing inspiration to take hold of you … After 20 minutes you are ushered into the upper room which is clad with even less concept. That’s were you find the Chinese furniture (yes, of imperial origin, but hey, how about stopping by at your local ethnographic museum?) and that’s also where, unless you have any questions, you are free to leave the same way you got in.

Clearly, the idea of having a bunker, in Berlin (obviously), to show parts of your art collection seemed like a good idea a couple of years ago. Some other dominant minds of our time have done that previously and one has to admit with greater mastery. If the major concept of this site is to combine Berlin’s roughness (still?) with the sophistication of ancient Asian artefacts, then clearly it’s what you get. A misunderstanding of what an interesting presentation is all about.

If you were interested in the so-called “Incense Room” then look further. It is something that is not on display for the money you pay. That one is not for the dirty and lower crowds.

It’s the very typical thing: attract people with a bunker and have them think they see something meaningful. Most people will look at the container, or the wrapping, if you so want, such that the void inside goes unnoticed.

By the way, if what you want to see is a bunker, go try Berliner Unterwelten. Better, honest, more content. Definitely (better) value for money.

A silent end of season: the Alps!

A picture of the Alps in Piedmont, Italy

After most of the season has passed by, me and the love went for a different vacation – hiking the Alps as I had not done for such a long time. A different type of culture and a very different type of architecture (and hey, I know this one is not about Berlin, but why not tell you something about a different part of the world?).

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Celts and Romans

So we decided to hike on the so-called GTA (Grande Traversata delle Alpi), which is a long-distance hiking trail passing the Italian region of Piedmont, choosing a part of the trail that led us through the Lanzo valleys and into Susa. The Lanzo valleys have always been a bit hidden, due to the fact that no important Roman route went through them and the space in the valleys is rather tight (the Romans started to conquer the whole area in about 50 B.C., before that is was the Celts that had left their mark on the culture.). Later on those valleys were at first more connected with France than with Piedmont, the traces of which can still be seen in the local Piedmontese vernacular. In the late Middle Ages this connection turns around and the Lanzo valleys become more dependent on the whole area surrounding Turin.

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Traditional economy in the Alps

Just like in the neighbouring valleys, the area’s economy was based on a mix of transhumance, a type of pastoral nomadism, in higher parts of the Alps as well as farming in the lower parts. The harsh conditions, long winters and scarce farmland, favoured the development of a tradition called winter cohabitation, where the family shares a living quarter with the livestock during the winter months in order to save energy. Humans would either stay in the front part of the shelter, near the door, and the animals stay in the darker back part, or shelters would have two floors, where the family would share the upper level and be kept warm by the animals on the ground floor.

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Hiking the Alps on the GTA you will pass many of those buildings, some being still in use. Most fascinating is the fact how they blend into their surroundings, due to the near exclusive use of local stone for the construction of all of the outer (and often inner) parts. It is even so that the quality of the stone at hand in one area would determine the layout of the house and make it different from the houses of a nearby area: If the stone is firm, then a higher building with two storeys is feasible. If the stone is rather brittle, the house will be on one level and much simpler.

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Apart from pastoral and agricultural activities, ore mining became an important part of the economy of the Lanzo valleys. Iron, silver and cobalt were mined and processed in the valleys.

Industrial revolution

However, the population of the valleys has been in decline since the 19th century and most of the local culture has changed a lot. The upcoming market economy with a focus on Turin and the early success of Fiat and other companies (for instance the coffee Lavazza, the vermouth Martini and the publishing house Einaudi) dragged many of the old inhabitants into the usual subjection to assembly lines and a life in suburbia.

(Needless to say that you can and should combine such a tour with a visit to places like Turin. We went to have a look at the old Fiat factory at Lingotto, which in its days was the most modern factory to produce cars. It even has a testing track on the top of the building, which allowed for every car to be tested on site after being assembled. These days the building serves as a rather sad shopping mall – but hey, it thus survived destruction and can be visited!)

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Grande Traversata delle Alpi

The hiking trail GTA (Great Crossing of the Alps) came up the 70s of the 20th century and followed the idea of implementing a mild form of tourism in areas of the Alps that had hitherto not developed any such industry. No new trails were laid out and the whole path uses old existing tracks that in former times were used to connect the different valleys. Accommodation is only offered in the valleys, thus supporting the local economy. On the other hand this means crossing mountain passes, sometimes two, and differences in altitude of 1000 meters and more (about 3300 feet) up and sometimes down need to be accomplished every day. The rewards though are excellent. Not only the views of majestic mountain perspectives, but also insights into fauna and flora are phenomenal. I can proudly say that I passed the following mountain passes: Colle della Crocetta (2641 m), Colle di Trione (2486 m), Passo Paschiet (2435 m) and the Colle della Croce di Ferro (2558 m).

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For a good guide-book to the Great Crossing of the Alps check out “GTA Grande Traversata delle Alpi” which is the English translation of the German Rother Walking Guide. The authors are Kürschner and Haas. As for maps, we found those of the Istituto Geografico Centrale IGC as well as those of Fraternali Editore useful.

To learn more about me and my tours of Berlin, check out my welcoming post!

The reliquary of the GDR. A palace, a balcony and another palace.

View of the building of the former State Council of the GDR.

I feel quite tired lately of pointing out the apparent tastelessness of the new Berlin City Palace (future Humboldt Forum). I am tired of speaking about the unbelievable brutishness that can be seen from anywhere in the Pleasure Garden or when approaching from Breite Straße, trying to explain how it is possible that a group of people advocated a contemporary functional building with baroque facades glued to it and how a majority of decision-makers then followed that phantasm.

A toy-like house, similar to the specimen that can be found in Potsdam since 2014, this newest of acquisitions of Berlin’s History Disneyland will be a unique attraction opposite to the UNESCO World Heritage Museum Island. An attraction that will look like heritage – that will look like what it used to be: a unique example of a northern baroque style. A new photo background for those in love with a royal ambience.

Image of the balcony of Karl Liebeknecht of the former State Council in Berlin.
The balcony of Karl Liebeknecht, seen from inside. Curiously now looking onto the new toy-Palace …

A silent witness

A small anecdote remains to be told, which is going to be the main topic of this article: original parts of the former City Palace still exist and are on display (and have been for the past 52 years). These remains are standing quite unnoticed opposite today’s bilding site. They are part of the building which represented the very political power that was responsible for deleting the old City Palace in the first place: The building of the former State Council of the GDR still shows parts of the old portal number IV of the Berlin home to the Hohenzollern rulers. A building which today ironically is a school for future managers, the European School of Management and Technology.

Front view of the reconstructed gate IV of the Berlin City Palace..
Front view of the reconstructed gate IV. It is from the smaller balcony on the first floor that Karl Liebknecht delivered his speech to the masses on November 9th, 1918.

How could it be that socialist government architecture was so radically blended with a palatial entry portal? The connection goes back to the end of World War I.

November Revolution

On November 9th, 1918 the century-long ruling of the Hohenzollern family came to an end. Germany and Berlin were going all haywire. The end of World War I is near. Calls for the abdication of the emperor were growing louder and louder. Various ships of the German fleet had refused to attack English ships in what they regarded as a futile act of sacrifice. What had started at sea developed into a general strike with more and more workers participating all over the nation. The Kingdom of Bavaria had already ceased to exist with the declaration of the Free State. And in Berlin people were marching towards the centre of town on that very day. There was trouble ahead.

The Chancellor of the Reich, Max von Baden, declared the emperor William II abdicated. Rumor had it, that the left-wing socialists, led by the lawyer Karl Liebknecht, were planning to read a declaration to the people. The more moderate Philipp Scheidemann, member of Parliament himself and eager to go first, steps onto one of the windows of the Reichstag building and proclaims the Republic as the new form of state at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Karl Liebknecht refuses to be silenced and two hours later he is standing on a car in front of the City Palace, facing the Pleasure Gardens, speaking to the masses. He proclaims a socialist republic in the Russian tradition. While he is speaking, the palace behind him is taken by storm and as a consequence is lead to the balcony on the first floor (remember, in Germany we have a ground floor, followed by a first floor) of portal IV, where he continues to address the people. It is just the same balcony that William II used to declare the mobilization in 1914.

Image of the Berlin City Palace before the destruction.
The Berlin City Palace in its full splendour before the destruction of World War II. To the right underneath the dome is the so-called gate of Eosander, the second gate from the left is gate IV (Liebknecht).

Following the two speeches on that day, it seems that the newspapers talk a lot more about Karl Liebknecht’s proclamation than the one of his moderate colleague Scheidemann. Being less popular though than the representatives of the moderate wing of the party, it is the bourgeois version of a republic that in the end becomes reality, leading Germany into the so-called Weimar Republic. The Marxists need to wait for another 31 years and another World War before they can bring their own version of a state to life in the form of the GDR.

Although it was the speech of Philipp Scheidemann that had been more influential in 1918, it is the one of Karl Liebknecht wich is not forgotten in 1949 when the instance is to be transformed into the myth of origin of the new socialist Germany. Similar to the cult of saints in some churches, the balcony from which Liebknecht spoke is rescued from destruction and kept for further veneration … sorry, for further use. But I’ll come to that later.

What happened to the City Palace after the events of 1918? Following the revolution, the palace is eviscerated in various rounds. The more or less emptied rooms were then used by museum administrations, parts were opened to the public and concerts were held in the famous Schlüter courtyard (named after one of the later architects of the building).


The next episode in the history of the palace is shaped by World War II. During a raid on 3 February 1945, large parts perish in the fire. The inside of the palace is considerably damaged, whereas the facades withstand the fighting in a promising condition.

Image of the damaged Berlin City Palace in 1950.
The Berlin City Palace in 1950, five years after the air raid. 32 Million Marks would have saved it, 10 Million Marks cost the complete destruction.

What to do with the damaged building after the end of war? For quite some time it was unclear what the future of the palace would look like. Following the liberation of Germany, the City Palace remained in the Soviet zone. As early as 1946 the head of municipal planning, Hans Scharoun (future architect of the building of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the new State Library, both behind Potsdamer Platz), arranged for the first measures of preservation. In 1949, after the separation of Germany into two different states, the building finds itself on the new ground of the GDR.

Experts agreed on the fact that even five years after the war damages took place, the building could have been rescued with a moderate amount of money. The communist regime however regarded the palace as a symbol of Prussian absolutism. Since the founding of the GDR in 1949, the heads of planning in east Berlin were incorporating principles of Russian origin in their own considerations. After various visits to the Soviet Union, socialist planners presented the „16 Principles for the Reconstruction of Towns“, which were subsequently incorporated into the new 1950 Statute of Reconstruction.

It is open to question which of the 16 principles were seen as a guideline for the relevant decisions regarding the palace. The articles are rather vague and theoretic. Principle number 5 though can be read with some sarcasm when it comes to the question of demolition:

«When discussing urban planning, organic principles and the consideration of historic structures need to be the foundation of the elimination of damages. It is to be noted that this axiom requires the analysis of historic structures and not the blind duplication of them. The town planner needs to work on the elimination of shortcomings within the historically grown structures. For this end he needs to rigorously assess what is to be seen as a shortcoming, how it is to be eliminated, with what means, at what cost and in what time. Of course a consideration of economic efficiency plays a vital role and we were shown buildings in Moscow that were destined for elimination, whose destruction however had been postponed for economic reasons as well as such of amortization.»

Costs were thought to be the strongest argument and a study was conducted as to how much the restoration of the whole palace would amount to. The study was initiated by the Ministry of Reconstruction of the GDR, but soon after put aside without any comment as the result showed a lower figure than expected: A mere 32 Million GDR-Marks would have been needed to restore the palace. Later on, the elimination of what was left of the palace cost the state some 10 millions in total …

The decision which was finally put into action can be found ahead of time in a note for a file of the department of construction and housing of the Magistrate of Berlin dating from 5 September 1949:

«The meeting of the planning collective discussed the question of the City Palace and came to the agreement that the courtyard of Schlüter („Schlüterhof“) is to be kept in its current form and to be re-erected in later times, and that the front of the palace itself be eliminated due to its deterioration.»

It is in terms of those guidelines that Walter Ulbricht, then first secretary of the Socialist Unity Party at the time, declared on the party’s third convention in 1950:

«The centre of our capital, namely the Pleasure Garden and the area of the current ruin of the palace, must become the grand venue for demonstrations, on which the will of our people to fight and build can express itself.»

On 15 August 1950 the politburo decreed the demolition of the City Palace, which was approved of by government on August 23rd and accepted by the Magistrate on August 31st. The decision was announced to the public and a multitude of protest ensued, amongst which many architects, preservationists and scientists presented their rational arguments against such act of vandalism.

The official government position, compliant with Soviet perspective, stated that the palace had been built by subjects on piece rates under slave-like conditions. It was a monument to feudalism and the paradigm of imperial decline.

The former director of the State Palaces, Professor Gall, wrote a wonderful reply in an article that was published in the journal „Kunstchronik“ of the same year:

«It seems that the intention is to eradicate a monarchic and aristocratic tradition. What a naive and unskilled misunderstanding of artistic content and circumstances! Surely every old building served some objective purpose, but no grand artist constructs for their time exclusively, they always look at eternity. The Berlin Palace not only represents the striving for power as well as the dignity of the young Prussian royalty from its very beginning, its form also bears witness to the high-spirited willingness and the powerful being per se. The Egyptian pyramid, the Greek temple, the Roman Pantheon, the gothic cathedral – they are all monuments of limited thought patterns, but as pieces of art they are so much more than that. They did long ago fulfill their commitment as envisaged by their creators. What remains is their enigmatic life as a shaped form, radiating a creative wealth that keeps reflecting itself in the ever-changing context.»


However, the battle was lost. The demolition began on September 7th of 1950 and destroyed one of the most remarkable baroque monuments of northern Europe. The oldest part of the entire complex, the pharmacy, was demolished with two detonations at 10.28 a.m. and 1 p.m. 90 kilograms of exploder had been distributed into some 500 blast holes. After various other detonations it was on December 30th that the destruction of the so-called gate of Eosander (named after its builder Johann Friedrich Eosander von Göthe) deleted the last famous structure. Smaller explosions happened until March of 1951 to shred larger parts of debris. In April of that year, the area that had been the location of the City Palace for the past 500 years was finally empty.

What happened to the debris and which parts were kept? Most rubble was searched for reusable materials such as metals and bricks. The majority of the remains was transported with trains, some trucks as well as ships to the east of Berlin. Some of it piled up in the form of the mountain of rubble that lies east of the zoo in Friedrichsfelde. Some was dumped in Berlin’s forests. Another large portion of it was incorporated into the growing mountain of Volkspark Friedrichshain. Some sandstone was transformed into ashlar stones that today constitute the stairs on the hill as well as the walls on the way up the hill. A walk in that park will literally bring you in touch with the former palace.

Some decorative parts of the facade were kept, amongst which was the known gate with the balcony of Karl Liebknecht’s unsuccessful proclamation of a socialist republic back in 1918. Owing to the extreme workload, those cherished parts could not be carefully dismantled though. They had partly been wrapped in straw and let to fall apart during the detonations. Naturally, quite some damage happened to the elements that were to be kept. They were subsequently transported to a provisional storing place in Pankow-Heinersdorf to the north of Berlin. The storing place was more of a dump and the rescued pieces were left in the outside for years, which caused further damage. Until then, nobody knew what do to with the remains which officially had the status of a relic.


It is only in 1960 that things move on. After the death of Wilhelm Pieck, the first president of the GDR, a collective State Council as Head of State is introduced. The plan was to house the new institution together with other organs of government in a central building that was to appear at Marx-Engels square, a bit to the west of today’s TV-tower. If you have been to Warsaw, then you have seen the Palace of Culture and Science and you have a good image of what the central building in Berlin would have looked like. It was mainly a lack of funding that prevented a similar statement from being erected in Berlin. The newly formed State Council had to look for an alternative.

The building that was later to become the permanent address for that organ was first devised as a provisional home. And it had to be ready for 1964, the year in which the GDR was going to celebrate its 15 years of existence. The idea to add the existing parts of Karl Liebknecht’s balcony to the new State Council was initially voiced by Hermann Henselmann, the main responsible architect for today’s Karl-Marx-Allee and former lead-planner of the Magistrate of Greater Berlin.

The new home to the State Council was the first governmental building to be constructed in central Berlin after the war. Implementing Henselmann’s initial idea, the structure of sandstone and red granite was conceived along the proportions of the former palace’s gate IV. The few remaining parts of the gate were rescued from the dump and incorporated into the new construction more than ten years after the demolition of their original context. The young republic could thus use the proclamation of 1918 as part of their own narrative. In the end only 49 pieces of the original were used in the reconstruction of the gate. Even the grille on the balcony of the second floor is from a different part of the palace.

View of the building of the former State Council of the GDR.
Only some 49 pieces of the original gate were incorporated into the reconstruction. You can see where it is original as the patches hint at the earlier damages from the war. The rest of the gate has been constructed using sandstone (unlike the original structure which was made out of bricks).

The government of the „first socialist republic on German ground“ thus presented itself as completing the work that Karl Liebknecht had begun in the November Revolution. The adoption of the gate’s main proportions as seen in the height of floors for the new building ironically led to palace-like dimensions on the inside. The GDR had caused the elimination of the old City Palace as it was a remnant of the monarchic empire, just to house its State Council in a building that by subordination acquired palatial dimensions itself. After all, the Socialists were back in a new palace.

Detail of gemmail glass work by Walter Womacka.
The entire staircase is decorated with a gemmail glass by Walter Womacka. Womacka, former head of the School of Art and Design Berlin-Weissensee, chose common socialist iconography to tell the history of the young republic. When in Berlin, you might have noticed his other prominent work, the large mosaic mural that decorates the House of the Teacher at Alexanderplatz.

Detail of the gemmail glass by Walter Womacka.
Detail of the gemmail glass by Walter Womacka.

Later on the history of the building witnesses a new, unexpected turn – or repetition in history. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it is the home of the State Council of the GDR that is endangered by demolition. It became a listed building as early as 1990, but its elimination was openly discussed in 1992. It was finally saved and from 1999 to 2001 served as a provisional chancellery to Gerhard Schröder, until the new one near the old Reichstag building was finished.

Oh, History …

Every age tries to prove that it is right. When Karl Liebknecht’s gate was incorporated into the new building in the early 1960s, the Prussian eagle that was part of the decoration was eliminated. And with the German reunification it was the national coat of arms of the GDR that had to disappear from the place it had been assigned to in 1964. Systems change and thus symbols have to follow.

Image of the coat of arms of the GDR
The national coat of arms of the GDR. It had to disappear from the main entrance, but luckily it is an integral part of the main conference room, so it cannot be taken away. Only: notice the curtains … You may want to cover it if you rent the place and find it “inappropriate.”

In today’s context it is interesting to remember the two figures of 10 and 32 million Marks. A few years after the City Palace was taken away to establish a rather unattractive space for demonstrations, a new palace was built on the former site. It was known as the Palace of the Republic and official figures of the time priced it at 485 Million Marks – a figure that today is thought to be double as high. Today we are again building a new palace. It is going to be the old City Palace, modern on the inside with baroque facades glued to it. 600 Million Euros. Guess what: the Palace of the Republic had to go. Oh well.

Image of tiles of the interior of the former State Council in Berlin.
Parts of the entrance hall of the former State Council are decorated with wonderful tiles made in Meissen to the northwest of Dresden in Saxony.

The logo of Meissen porcelain.
The logo of Meissen porcelain that we normally know from china ware.

Image of curtains inside the former State Council.
Lots of long, brown curtains. Excellent!

No storytelling no more.

Wie kann ein guter Kompromiss aussehen? Was ist ein fauler Kompromiss? Wann ist der Kompromiss so faul, dass er buchstäblich bis zum Himmel stinkt? Und was tut man nicht alles, um die Fäule einige Zeit lang nicht zu bemerken?

Ich habe diese Geschichte schon häufig erzählt – warum also nicht hier posten, in einer meiner Muttersprachen. Vielleicht nutzt es dem ein oder der anderen zur Motivation. Was ist Motivation und was kann sie im Leben bewirken?

Das interessierte Kind (in uns)

Als Kind und Jugendlicher war ich immer daran interessiert, zu verstehen, wie ES funktioniert. ES war im Grunde alles – die ultimative Frage nach dem Leben, dem Universum und allem anderen (später verstand ich, dass 42 ein guter, aber wenig befriedigender Versuch einer Antwort war).* Ich hatte immer den Eindruck, Dinge erst verstanden zu haben, wenn ich sie selbst erklären konnte. Und ich wollte sehen, wie alles funktioniert. Von innen, dabei sein, selbst machen.

Ich studierte Molekularbiologie und später dann auch Philosophie. Das war total aufregend und ich genoss die Einblicke, die ich mir erarbeitete. Einblicke in die kleinsten konkreten Bestandteile lebendiger Materie und die größten Sinnfragen, die Menschen schon immer bemüht haben. Ich lernte Prinzipien kennen, die dafür verantwortlich sind, dass wir körperlich weitestgehend symmetrisch aufgebaut sind, und ich verstand, dass Gerechtigkeit nicht immer etwas mit einer Verteilungsgleichheit von Ressourcen zu tun hat.

Nach Abschluss beider Studiengänge begann ich nach einer kurzen Auszeit mit einer Promotion in der Philosophie zum Begriff der Realität. Zu diesem Zeitpunkt war ich allerdings schon zehn Jahre an der Uni gewesen, und mein Körper zeigte mir deutliche Ermüdungserscheinungen. Ich schlief einfach jedes Mal nach zehn Minuten in der Bibliothek ein. Nach einigen krisenhaften Monaten kam ich zu dem Entschluss, dass es hier für mich nicht weitergehen würde. Was nun? Ich hatte schließlich „nichts Richtiges“ gelernt, was sollte ich im Fall eines Abbruchs machen?

Go east

Irgendwie packte ich den Mut zusammen, exmatrikulierte mich (entgegen sehr freundlichen Warnungen) und landete über kurze Umwege in der Unternehmenskommunikation. Dieser große Schritt beinhaltete auch eine räumliche Veränderung. Ich verließ das fröhliche Rheinland und suchte im kargen Preußen mein Glück. Schnell begann ich, in einer Agentur für Kommunikation zu arbeiten und innerhalb weniger Jahre entwickelte ich mit einem Team Kampagnen, gab Unternehmen ein neues Antlitz und erarbeitete in Kunden-Workshops Markenkerne und Strategien für die Außenwahrnehmung.

Hatte ich in der Zeit an der Uni versucht zu verstehen, was Wahrnehmung ist, wie sie funktioniert und welche Grenzen ihr vielleicht auferlegt sind, so war ich nun damit beschäftigt, Wahrnehmung zu konzipieren, zu leiten und vor allem umzubiegen. Das ging einige Zeit gut, bevor mir langsam klar wurde, dass die Arbeit immer anstrengender wurde und ich mich immer bleierner fühlte.

Im Laufe der Zeit wurden körperliche Signale immer lauter, die mir zunächst kurios vorkamen, die ich aber irgendwann verstand: Saß ich am Schreibtisch, um an einem zuvor verkauften Projekt zu arbeiten, wurde ich immer unruhiger. Meine Beine wippten und ich musste ständig aufstehen und mich bewegen. Ich hatte irgendwann das Bild, dass fast die Gesamtheit der Zellen in meinem Körper von diesem Schreibtisch und den Aufgaben weg wollte. Jede Muskelfaser in mir wollte meinen Körper dazu bewegen, aufzustehen und wegzugehen. Weg von diesem Schreibtisch, weg von den Fragestellungen und Zielsetzungen, die mich nicht im Geringsten interessierten, und bei denen ich absolut keinen Sinn sah – weder für mich, noch für den Kunden.

Die Erinnerung an diese körperlichen Symptome sind noch sehr lebhaft, und ich bin froh, dass mir mein Körper ein zweites Mal mit allen möglichen Mitteln angezeigt hat, wo der Weg nicht mehr langgehen kann. Ich dachte damals an zahlreiche Biographien, von denen ich schon einmal gehört hatte – von Menschen, die erst richtig krank werden mussten, bevor sie einen neuen Weg in ihrem Leben einschlugen. Da wollte ich auf keinen Fall hin. Es erschien mir traurig, erst abwarten zu müssen, bis mein Körper krank oder kaputt ist, um erst dann eine anerkannte Begründung zu haben, meiner Motivation zu folgen und den Wert meines eigenen Lebens voll auszuschöpfen.

Und was machst du so?

Zufälligerweise traf ich jemanden, der mir den nächsten Schritt anbot. Auf meine Frage bei einer Party, „was machst du denn so“, sagte mir ein Bekannter, er würde mit Jugendlichen durch Europa fahren und ihnen die Kultur des Kontinents näherbringen. Ich war selbst erstaunt, als ich mich wortwörtlich selbst hörte: „Das will ich auch machen“ … Ich hatte noch nie mit Jugendlichen gearbeitet, wollte sicherlich nichts mit Tourismus zu tun haben und überhaupt!

Gleichwohl folgte ich meiner Intuition und ließ mich (ein wenig) ein. Nach einigen Bewerbungshürden ging es los, zunächst noch parallel zum Agenturbetrieb: Ich begann, amerikanische Jugendliche durch Europa zu begleiten und ihnen dabei den Kontinent, die Geschichte, seine Kunst und Architektur, unsere Denkweise und vieles mehr nahezubringen. Dabei konnte ich meinen Interessen freien Lauf lassen und mein Verständnis von Einsicht voll ausleben: Was motivierte die Menschen, sich auf die Französische Revolution einzulassen und war danach wirklich alles besser als zuvor? Sind Konzentrationslager eine Sache der Vergangenheit oder finden wir solche Strukturen auch heute noch in unserer aufgeklärten und modernen Welt? Welche Gestaltungselemente fügten die Römer in die griechische Baukunst ein, die uns noch heute Räume erleben lassen?

Ich konnte Diskussionen führen über Geschichte, über das, was wir wissen können und über das, was vielleicht eine schöne Hypothese ist. Ich konnte mich auf Fragen einlassen und meine Überzeugung weitergeben, dass oftmals nicht die Antwort das wesentliche Element des Verstehens ist, sondern eine akkurat formulierte Frage.

Auch in Berlin fing ich an, Menschen durch die Stadt zu führen und mich mit ihnen über Geschichte und auch aktuelle Themen zu unterhalten. Gibt es Parallelen zwischen dem Alten Fritz, seiner Eroberung Schlesiens und der aktuellen Situation auf der Krim? Ist das Verschwinden des Palastes der Republik in irgendeiner Weise zu vergleichen mit dem Verschwinden des alten Stadtschlosses 1950?

All diese Fragen schienen mir real zu sein. Realer und für mich interessanter als die Antworten, die ich Menschen durch Kampagnen in ihr Gehirn einpflanzen wollte. In der Unternehmenskommunikation dachte ich mir Geschichten aus, die das Verhalten von Menschen beeinflussen sollten. Bei meinen Führungen dachte ich mir Fragen aus, die Menschen mit den Begriffen der Wahrheit und der Erkenntnis spielen ließen. Und mein Körper sagte mir ganz klar, welche der beiden Tätigkeiten ihm besser tat.

Angel und Gäste vor der Berliner Dom
Ist das jetzt ein gutes Beispiel für Renaissance-Architektur oder nicht? Angel mit Zuhörerschaft vor dem Berliner Dom.


Also noch einmal umschwenken? Alles auf eine Karte setzen? Natürlich habe ich mir die Frage gestellt, ob ich es schaffe, mich zu ernähren. Bei all dem lustigen Geblubber von Selbstverwirklichung und Lebensenergie und Lust am Machen darf man eine Sache nicht aus den Augen verlieren: Man muss sich am nackten Leben halten. Es muss einfach am oberen Ende genügend reinkommen, damit am unteren Ende ausgeschieden werden kann – man verzeihe mir diese Plattheit, aber es muss meines Erachtens mit genau dieser Klarheit darauf verwiesen werden. Sitzt man nicht zufälligerweise auf einem Sack Geld, so muss die erste Selbstverwirklichungstat lauten, sich am Leben zu halten.

Auf eine Sache aber konnte ich mich verlassen. Mich selbst. In den vergangenen zehn Jahren erlebte ich immer wieder Situationen, in denen ich fast verzweifelt wäre. Wie soll dieses oder jenes Projekt weiterlaufen? Wie kann ich diesen Auftrag umsetzen? Wie soll um Himmelswillen dieser Zeitplan funktionieren? In allen diesen Situationen hatte ich erlebt, dass ich mich immer auf mich und meine Kompetenzen, meine Urteilskraft und meinen Willen verlassen konnte. Das wirst du schon schaffen. Du hast es bisher immer geschafft. Augen auf, Hirn an und dran bleiben!

Mit war bereits klar geworden, dass im Bereich der Kulturvermittlung Chancen steckten. Da ging was. Mit ein wenig Geschick wäre das kein Sprung ins komplett Ungewisse. Mit einem etwas kühlen Kopf könnte ich daraus etwas machen – ein Versuch wäre es wert. Heute bin ich froh, dass ich mich immer wieder dafür entschieden habe, auf meinen Körper zu hören und meinen Kopf und Verstand dabei nicht gänzlich auszuschalten. Dass ich darauf vertraut habe, immer meinen eigenen Weg zu suchen und erst einmal einige Schritte auszuprobieren.

Und besser noch: Ich hatte Blut geleckt. Die Erinnerung an meine alte Liebe für Einblicke, Verständnis und das Betrachten von Zusammenhängen … alles war wieder da. Ich fing an, neue Projekte zu entwickeln, teilweise künstlerischer Art, teilweise wissenschaftlich in der Herangehensweise. Bei meinen Reisen durch Europa sprach ich über Geschichte und Architektur, ich lief durch Berlin und sprach über Preußen und die Herausforderung, in einer Hipster-Stadt zu leben. Und ich hatte noch genügend Zeit, anderen Projekten nachzugehen. Heute arbeite ich an einem Film zum religiösen Glauben und stelle dabei die Frage, was eigentlich Glaubensgemeinschaften zusammenhält. Ich interviewe Menschen zu ihrem Glauben und gehe Fragen nach, die mir schon lange auf der Seele brennen. Weil es mir Freude macht. Weil es mich ausmacht. (Und falls sich jemand angesprochen fühlt: ich suche aktuell noch nach Interviewpartnern. Einfach mal reinschauen in das Projekt, mitmachen oder frech weiterleiten.)

Was zählt? Zufriedenheit am Morgen

Unterm Strich schaffe ich es heute, die Balance zu halten, zwischen einer Arbeit, die mich reizt, interessiert, mich bereichert, und mir deshalb keine Energie raubt, so dass ich mich zusätzlich ganz persönlichen Projekten widmen kann. Ist das Verwirklichung? Es fühlt sich zumindest saugut an!

Ich bin wieder näher am Content – oder an dem, was ich als solchen verstehe. Ich suche wieder nach Wahrheit und nach tatsächlichem Verständnis tatsächlicher Zusammenhänge, weg von einem – vielleicht nicht platten – aber doch aufgesetzten Storytelling. Ich erzähle meine eigene Story. Oder besser noch: Ich verfolge sie selbst.

Hätte ich mir diesen Weg ausgesucht? Nein. Hätte ich mir einen Job gesucht, der im Bereich Tourismus liegt? Nein. Fühle ich mich gut, bin ich nah an meinen Interessen und kann ich mit ruhigem Gewissen das vertreten, was ich mache und dabei morgens mit Freude aufwachen? Ja.

* Vgl. Douglas Adams: Per Anhalter durch die Galaxis.
Dieser Beitrag ist gleichzeitig eine Teilnahme am Blog-Award der Ergo #DeinWeg.

The hidden Mies – Haus Lemke Berlin

Picture of Haus Lemke Berlin by Mies van der Rohe

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood: This here is not a Mies van der Rohe blog. It is a pure coincidence that the second entry is on one of his buildings again (previous entry talking about the New National Gallery). But this Sunday’s afternoon walk took me to visit one of Mies’s less known buildings.

After some of the more grey weeks that Berlin has to offer in winter, today’s sun urged me to take a walk and enjoy the bright yellows of the leafs and the fresh air of damp grounds in the parks. So I went up north to the area of Weißensee, to circle the local lake and to turn east, past one of the many neighbourhoods where Bruno Taut left his marks, namely coloured windows, and then into Hohenschönhausen. There, located right by another lake (there are quite a few in that part of Berlin) is to be found the rather unobtrusive and kind of unspectacular Haus Lemke. It is easy to walk past it as most of the houses left and right do more in order to attract the visitor’s attention.

Fassade of Haus Lemke Berlin
Simple brick is what you get from the outside when you approach from the street.

Small and yet impressive

Built from 1932 to 1933, the house is quite stunning as to its size. It is small. Very small if you compare it to its surrounding buildings. And it follows one of the principles of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture in a most pleasant way: It is neutral and somehow steps back, merely offering space for what is happening inside without competing for attention.

Initially intended to be a two-storey home, it was built with a ground floor only. The fact that today it is the smallest house with the biggest garden is due to the fact that the proprietors bought two lots in the early 1930s. Karl Lemke had made his money with a printing company in Berlin, and it was through a suggestion of a friend that he and his wife Marta turned to the then director of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, to design a house for the plot they had bought. Here, the businessman Lemke would also hold receptions in order to impress his clients with the beautiful scenery.

View of the garden and lake of Haus Lemke.
View of the garden and lake of Haus Lemke. Pure poetry.

Haus Lemke Berlin in autumn
View from the other side of the lake at early evening in autumn. It is difficult to see the house, due to its size as compared to the other buildings that surround it.

In the end, it was going to be Mies’ last private house to construct before he emigrated to the USA in 1938. Even the furniture was developed by Mies and his colleague Lilly Reich, some of which can be seen today at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts).

Today it is hard to imagine that the initial plan was to build a second floor. The present house is very much connected to the ground. Following a very modern fashion of the time, the interior of the rooms is at exactly the same level as the outside. Stressed by the large windows and the reticent design of borders between the inside and the outside, the rooms form a spectacularly simple unity with the garden, opening up to the lake.

Connection between inside and outside at Haus Lemke Berlin
When inside one is connected with the outside and the space feels much bigger.

Beautiful wooden floor inside.
Beautiful wooden floor inside.

From home to laundry to Mies landmark

Given its famous author, one is surprised that it took a few years in order to restore the house and open it to the public in the early 2000s. Marta and Karl Lemke only lived in their house for about twelve years, when they were “kindly asked” by the Red Army to abandon it as the whole area had been declared a restricted zone. From 1945 up to the 60s it was used by the Soviets as a garage, followed by the secret police of the GDR who would use it as a laundry as well as a canteen for their employees. Only in the late 70s some new consciousness for the history of Mies’ building arose and it was finally a private initiative to secure the site as the landmark it is today.

Haus Lemke Berlin
Many details to be found inside after the restoration of the early 2000s.

The house is open to the public and can be visited. Guided tours are offered as well, enquire on site.

The architecture of the Neue Nationalgalerie

Image of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin

“An icon of modern architecture”—I sometimes hear myself saying. Normally I am then standing somewhere near the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), pointing at the box made of glass and steel, formerly presented as a draft for the new headquarters of Bacardi in Cuba, but then never constructed due to the upcoming revolution. My companions keep looking at the buildings around us that show a clear connection to the post-war era.

I then sometimes sense questions in the minds of my listeners. Why on earth are we standing next to this confusing intersection of busy roads, near an area which wants to be a square but obviously struggles in doing so. An odd space that is not quite part of the town. You can clearly see Potsdamer Platz behind us (also something for a very special taste) and to the other side Potsdamer Straße, entering a different neighbourhood. Both elements are quite clearly recognized as urban entities. But what about this spot in between?

Looking onto Potsdamer Platz
Looking onto Potsdamer Platz

Image of The square in between Neue Nationalgalerie and Philharmonic Orchestra
The square in between Neue Nationalgalerie and Philharmonic Orchestra

Currently the building of the New National Gallery is under refurbishment, which does not make it the least more attractive. Grass is growing in between the slabs of stone on the surrounding platform, as there are no visitors. And maybe it is this reduction to its constructive essentials that makes it even more interesting to visit the building once more.

What is it that makes this building appear as a very clever example of its own kind? In what way is it a commentary on the history of architecture? And why the devil does it have to stand here in this hopeless spot?

History of the neighbourhood

The arrangement of Berlin was a different one before the war than it is today. The square of Potsdamer Platz was the busiest crossroad of Europe, a pulsating and dynamic hub, regulated by Europe’s first electric signal light. West of this hub, buildings of a new upper middle-class had been erected in the second half of the 19th century. The founding of the new German nation in 1871 caused a fast development in Berlin as well as elsewhere in Germany. The church in the neighbourhood, Saint Matthew, was planned by the father of the New Museum on Museum Island, Friedrich August Stühler. It is in that church that later on Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a member of the resistance against the Nazis—was ordained a priest in 1931. The church is still standing, or should I say standing again. It was heavily damaged in the fights approaching the old government area of Berlin and was put back into functionality in the 1950s.

Image of The church of Saint Matthews at Kulturforum in Berlin
The church of Saint Matthews at Kulturforum in Berlin

The quarter around that church had begun to see some changes before being destroyed in the war. For the new monumental capital called Germania that Hitler and his architect Albert Speer had envisioned, entire buildings had had to disappear. The church itself was going to be dismantled and reconstructed in Spandau. The war brought these developments to a halt and vast parts of Berlin were turned into ruins.

A museum hadn’t existed here before. The artistic and scientific focus of Berlin had been in the historic centre, by the royal palace, on the island in the Spree river, near the university that had started lecturing in 1810. It was in that area that most of the well-known museums had been located.

The war changes everything

However, by the end of the second world war the capital of Germany was a field of debris. After total of 363 air-raids on Berlin, 11 percent of the buildings had been completely destroyed. 8 percent were badly damaged and about 10 percent could be saved. 600,000 of the existing 1.5 million apartments were not inhabitable any longer. Museums and other official buildings shared the same fate.

The art, which in Berlin had started to be a major point of public attraction since the early 19th century, had previously been scattered throughout the town in various bunkers, bank vaults, etc. in order to be protected from the approaching atrocities. As early as 1942 some museums had started to evacuate precious objects.

When the bombing and fighting stopped in 1945, most museums showed major damages, just like any other building in those days. And in 1949 persisting disagreement between the four victorious powers of the war in Europe led to the proclamation of two new states: the Federal Democratic Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic.

The process of returning the art collections to their homes was overshadowed by these days’ political realities. Partly the museums didn’t exist anymore. And partly communication between the players was becoming more and more difficult due to the escalating Cold War. Finally in 1961 it is the Berlin Wall that represents to the inhabitants of Berlin the most insurmountable obstacle.

At the same time, a wish started to become palpable in Berlin to develop a collection of art of the 20th century. The realization of that wish however remained an ambition with the separation into two nations in 1949. From then on, various institutions in the western part of town began with the consolidation of the existing pieces. Finally in 1961 it became clear with the Berlin Wall that a joint collection was not going to be a feasible project. By then, West Berlin had started to look out for a solution.

A new perspective for West Berlin

It is in that context that the New National Gallery comes onto the agenda. The new museum is inaugurated in 1968 after a construction period of three years. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had recycled two old drafts which had then been put together by his nephew (Mies was too old to conduct the construction and only came to Berlin twice during the building process.) The former director of the Bauhaus passed on his vision of a room as well as his name to the new emerging town. The building was to be the focal point for the new development of the Kulturforum near Potsdamer Platz, the square that with the installation of the Berlin Wall now remained within the so-called death strip. This area could easily be seen as the end of the western world, and nonetheless was to become a new centre for the arts and sciences. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the new State Library joined the New National Gallery and other museums of the Kulturforum in that endeavour.

Image of the Philarmonic Orchestra in Berlin from the Neue Nationalgalerie
View of the Philarmonic Orchestra in Berlin from the Neue Nationalgalerie

Image of The façade of the New State Library in Berlin
The façade of the New State Library in Berlin

The New National Gallery as a commentary on architecture

Looking at the modern construction, made of glass and steel (not taking the lower part into account), the connection to antique architecture is not apparent—and at the same time it is. The functional elements of Mies’ pavilion, post and lintel, stand in close analogy to ancient tradition that had also been used by architects of the 19th century. The connection becomes clear when one thinks of the Altes Museum by Schinkel as well as the neighbouring building of the Old National Gallery. The characteristics of the old temple, standing on a podium, columns holding a roof, become evident.

Columns as a constructive element appear in a dominant form in Egypt, where a long-lasting political stability had created a continuity in architectural language as well as artistic representations. Temples in the form of large columned halls emerged. It is that very principle of the use of vertical supports for beams in order to create room that becomes a notable motif in Egypt and is passed on to later cultures.

Greek antiquity adopts the constructive principle of the column, entablature and further constructions for the roof. Nonetheless, Greek temples are less monumental than their Egyptian predecessors. Columns became categorized in different types, emerging in different times and regions of the Greek culture. We speak of these types as “orders” and mainly name the doric, ionic and corinthian order when we speak about the proportion as well as the base and the capital. Roman architecture once more adopted these then Greek principles and added further construction principles in the form of the arch and the vault.

When in the 4th century A.D. the emperor Constantine finally recognizes Christianity as a religion and the prosecution of its members ends, early Christian architecture adopts the basilica architecture as a place for assembly. The ancient, then pagan temples had been constructed with a very different use in mind, where only few priests would enter the building and the common people waited outside. The Christian rite on the other hand was devoted to the congregation of many people and could thus not take place in the old temples. The adoption of the ancient architecture of assembly, the basilica, was going to influence the form of Christian churches until the very day: a columned hall, holding a roof. Every visit to a gothic church in the North of France reminds us of that fact. A regular pattern of strong and sometimes very lean columns that create impressive rooms. Not in the North of France but undoubtedly one of the most impressive examples is the cathedral of Seville in the South of Spain. Even mosques as a type of construction are connected to that principle via the Byzantine architecture.

Renaissance architecture and the emerging theory of construction and the mentioned orders carry the principle of post and lintel into the modern times. Later on Classicism, emerging in England and then spreading throughout Europe, refers to renaissance itself and also to Antiquity. Examples of that time in Berlin are the Brandenburg Gate by Carl Gotthard Langhans and the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) by Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

It is then the second director of the Bauhaus school of Germany, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who adapts this essential principle of European architectonics, combining it with the principles of functionality as developed by Bauhaus. The construction of the New National Gallery refers to the Old National Gallery, the latter making use of classical temple architecture with a gable façade and a pseudoperipteral structure. At the same time Mies van der Rohe presents the principle in its pure form. A flat roof, held up by eight supports and thus creating an otherwise not structured room. The New National Gallery refers to this simple principle and makes it the centre of attention. The simple room, that renders an inside and outside to the spectator.

This building was envisioned to become a temple for modernity in a very classical conception, thus bringing together the three terms that may serve as a summary for the connection that the box of glass and steel creates: #temple #classic #modern

Today, the building is being refurbished by David Chipperfield Architects and remains closed to the public until 2020. Again, as in the 1960s, Mies’ nephew is going to be part of the project. Until then, take a walk and have a look at the temple from the outside.

Image of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin
Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin

Image of Neue Nationalgalerie seen from behind
Neue Nationalgalerie seen from behind