Millais on rebuilding Berlin

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The Berliner Schloss, completed in 1845, bombed in 1945 and replaced by East Germany with the modernist People’s Palace, has been rebuit with three sides traditional and one modernist.

Malcolm Millais, author of Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect and Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, recently visited Berlin, in part to investigate four examples of how Germans have reconstructed historic buildings damaged by Allied bombs in World War II. His unique combination of pasted excerpts from online descriptions of the four examples, separated by his commentary upon them and followed by his conclusions, is a valuable short course in the rise and fall of European historical preservation.

It value is heightened considerably by the extensive links included by Millais, clustered after each of the four examples, that allow readers to draw their own conclusions about the debate that has raged in Berlin and Germany for decades. [To view document, click on the PDF link at the end of this post.]

And its value survives the dangers of working with multiple online sources in a difficult format. These include redundancies caused by clips from different sources that cover the same ground, pastings where dropped words lead to awkward phraseology, and page-design challenges.

Still, the evidence of vast confusion in directing Germany’s reconstruction over the half century or more since the war is damning. The modernist influence Millais describes and rightly condemns has inscribed the face of Berlin with vast architecture incoherence – especially regrettable in the city’s most venerable historical structures.

Visiting the now “restored” Neues Museum, colloquialisms like “mish-mash,” “pig’s ear” and “dog’s breakfast” come to mind. This just illustrates the incompatibility between normal building and what is known as modern architecture. The fact that the restoration has generated bitter controversy is unsurprising.

Perhaps the consensus ought to have been to destroy what remained of buildings whose erection was directly linked to the hubris that caused Germany to initiate two world wars (though the causes of the first were mixed in ways that causes of the second were not). And maybe this was the course taken with many ruins in the postwar years. It would take more familiarity with German cities than I claim to make such a judgment.

The four buildings described in their various types of restoration are the Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace), Berlin Dom (Cathedral), the Neues (New) Museum and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

The examples presented by Millais argue strenuously for an even higher priority in favor not of monkeying around with these cultural artifacts but of rebuilding ruins as they were before the buildings were damaged. This may explain the public’s apparent preference (as I read it) for keeping historical accuracy uppermost in mind.

Upon seeing this post, Malcolm sent me a quote he’d just stumbled on in Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin:

… are modernist lamps, designed to look like pressure-gauges, thermometers and switchboard dials. But the furniture doesn’t match the house and its fittings. The place is like a power-station which the engineers have tried to make comfortable with chairs and tables from an old-fashioned, highly respectable boarding-house. On the austere metal walls hang highly varnished nineteenth-century landscapes in massive gold frames. Herr Bernstein probably ordered the villa from a popular avant-garde architect in a moment of recklessness, was horrified at the result and tried to cover it up as much as possible with family belongings.

Fates of Four of Berlin_s Iconic Buildings copy

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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