DEA BIRKETT Berlin walls
Dea Birkett finds that the German capital’s new architectural splendour can oppress rather than enlighten
I have returned to Berlin after 30 years. It is younger than I remember, and far cooler. It’s Shoreditch on Spree – I barely met anyone aged over 30. And everyone had come to Berlin from elsewhere to become something else.
The city itself reflects this quest for self-invention; Berlin is still being built. In this city that is reconstructing itself, cultural venues are at the forefront of not only explaining its past, but defining its future. But the danger of this emphasis on construction is that the shell of the venue becomes more important than what is happening or being displayed inside. Buildings rule in Berlin. Architects have become the emperors of this new city.
This is most apparent at the Neues Museum, reopened in 2009. British architect David Chipperfield pieced together the splinters of the bomb damaged mid-19th century building, abandoned since the Second World War, filling in the shell damaged holes with shards of glass and warm bricks. The splinters of the old are incorporated into the icy design of the new, in a calculated distressed look. It’s a triumphant giant jigsaw of two centuries. Now even the museum’s own website talks more about Chipperfield than the Treasures of Priam. It’s his genius, not those of the ancient Trojans, we’re encouraged to go and see.
The Neues Museum boastfully begs us look up at it, rather than down at the wonders in the cabinets below. Other Berlin museums and cultural institutions, some still being built, seek to emulate this direction of gaze. There’s a slight Emirates ambition about these grand designs – costly palaces to be filled with loot. Architect Sean Griffiths once described the late Zaha Hadid’s design as, "basically an empty vessel that sucks in whatever ideology might be in proximity to it", even if that ideology is that of a brutal dictator.
Berlin’s astounding buildings are no longer occupied by dictators, but they have that same disconnected feel from the vibrant streets outside, where creativity and culture takes a very different form. They promulgate permanence rather than flux, in the style of fortresses. Yet surely creativity is something that needs a bit of bend.
What are we missing by placing extraordinary objects inside buildings that overbear them? While we might like to gaze up at architectural wonders from the outside, I’m not at all convinced that they tempt people in. The summer Saturday I was at the Neues Museum, the galleries were empty. Even Queen Nefertiti’s bust didn’t draw a crowd. Less than a dozen people were gazing at her swanlike neck and almond eyes.
Where Berlin’s reconstructed buildings work best is when they compliment, rather than fight, what they contain. The 1906 Chameleon Theatre has been restored, not as replica of the original, but in the spirit of it, with the same charm, character and intimacy. The space has a history of alternative performance; during the 1980s, late night pop-up shows were put on in its dilapidated shell. The renovation makes reference to this history, without crudely imitating it. Now it’s Art Deco interior sparkles, the small dark wood cabaret tables fill the 270-seater auditorium, and it has become Germany’s only permanent home to contemporary circus from around the globe. The space and what happens in it feel comfortable together, compliment and support each other. They’re both chal- lenging. They’re not in a struggle to see which you’ll no- tice first. The performances sell out.
Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum, is taking another mighty Berlin building project forward – the museum at the Humboldt Forum, billed as Berlin’s newest schloss, a cultural castle. After his tremendous transformation of the British Museum, I hope the £435 million Humboldt will also become something we all want to wander inside, not just admire from outside. Otherwise Berlin’s vibrant streets will remain where the real culture happens.