Averted from the city and very modern – Franco Stella’s design for the Humboldt Forum

An urbanistic critique of Franco Stellas design for the Humboldt-Forum by Philipp Oswalt

Discontent with contemporary architecture has had the widespread result of making reconstructions of major historical buildings and groups of buildings into something popular. The rebuilding of historical structures is meant to heal the wounds inflicted by urban development, for modernism, we are told, is finished. But it can seen from the reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss that this is a very questionable assertion. For it is rapidly becoming clear that the intended construction of the Humboldt Forum to the plans of Franco Stella represents by no means a successful urban design. More: in the last resort, and in a very problematic way, it is shaped by a modern understanding of architecture and urban development.

The most serious problem is that the building is averted from its public space. In its original function as the seat of a ruler, the palace was not primarily a place for an urban public. Thus, for instance, the window openings in the reconstructed façades will only begin well above eye level, at three metres and more. Anyone passing the palace will go along a closed stone base.
It was not without reason that the late architectural historian Julius Posener saw the historical building, with which he was familiar personally, as a cold, grey, inimical lump. And, like a shopping centre, the introverted building can only be entered through one of five portals. But that is not all. Once you are inside, you are surrounded in Stella’s design almost exclusively by inaccessible rooms for stores, facility management, offices etc. It is so absurd that you would think it was a mistake if you did not know that in the historical palace too the ground floor was taken up by all the service facilities and ancillary functions, above which royalty then resided. This kind of elite separation is a suitable gesture for a king’s residence, but for a public building devoted to the arts, with ten thousand visitors a day, it is an impediment. If a visitor wants to go to a event, a bistro or restaurant, he must go down into the cellar, without daylight. If he wants to find the programmatic heart of the Humboldt Forum, however – the non-European collections – he must climb 14 metres up by foot, via long staircases. There is no escalator, and the few small lifts will not be able to carry the volume of visitors required.

The dilemma of separation was already implied in the competition announcement. What the palace lacks is a gesture of opening, a linkage between the building and the public space of the street. Schinkel’s splendid Altes Museum on the other side of the Lustgarten shows what is missing here: the loggia with the large flight of steps is an urban location par excellence. Or a few steps down Unter den Linden stands the State Opera House, whose audience foyer is open to the pavement, so that during the intervals the opera-goers can walk out into the street.

That things could have been different is shown by the special prize awarded to Kuehn Malvezzi, who so modifies the historical façade that it opens up on its west side, becoming porous: a public forecourt is created, which communicates with the surrounding city. But Stella takes the opposite route: to the east, where, without difficulty and without change to the historical guidelines, the building could have been opened, he closes it off hermetically with a firewall, in front of which he places an isolated „loggia“, which has noticeable similarities with his design for a multi-storey car park on the Lützowplatz of 1981.

While this problem of de-coupling the building from its urban surroundings results from an aggravation of historical circumstances, the structure of the palace in Stella’s design, as in most of the other competition designs, is given an urban reinterpretation which transforms the historical situation into its reverse. Unlike the prototypical baroque palaces – think of Karlsruh, for instance – the Berliner Schloss was not a freestanding monument upon which the city’s axial roads and views were focused. Until its demolition you could only approach the Berliner Schloss from the side, i.e. tangentially. The structure was interwoven with the city through a series of adjoining buildings: whether through the old Cathedral to the south, the buildings on the Schlossfreiheit to the west , or the Apothekerflügel to the north. In this way the urban surroundings were arranged in an articulated sequence. But that is over. Stella exposes the structure of the Berliner Schloss, making it into an idealised, solitary monument which, with reference only to itself and without any secure foothold, stands in a large empty space, not unlike the modern solitaire buildings of the Kulturforum.

This idealisation of the structure leads to yet something else: the historical palace had grown, been extended and constantly rebuilt over many centuries. The various stages of its historical development could be clearly told from the original structure; the building was a document of its own history. But Stella’s design, through reduction and symmetricisation, destroys all historicity, casting what he found into an idealised platonic structure which never existed in the first place. History cannot be told; it has been reduced to vanishing point. .

Stella’s reductionism, however, affects not just the shaping of the structure, but also characterises his approach to the reconstruction of the façades. The architectural highlight of the palace was the Schlüterhof; in this section Schlüter’s ability showed itself better than anywhere else. The plastic shaping of the façade was the result of a comprehensive spatial concept, the heart of which was the three splendid staircases. While the special prize for Kuehn Malvezzi and many other competition entrants reconstructed this respectfully, in Stella’s design the Schlüterhof is reduced to a pure façade surface. The portals are robbed of all meaning because the wonderful staircases are no longer there , but storage and office rooms, conference rooms and a staff cafeteria. A spatial composition is reduced to a superficial external reproduction.

That Stella’s design was unanimously chosen for the first prize was probably because, more than any other, it realised the spirit of this questionable competition on an absolutely one-to-one basis. What was wanted was the actual provision of a long-lost and mourned-for image from a past age. Almost none of the people involved in the façade reconstruction knows the palace from their own observation. Their longing for the past is fed by what the media have handed down in pictures and texts. Actually the reconstruction project is quite definitely modern: it is the expression of a media society, it is media architecture in a dual sense:

In the first place, there are no structural parts of the palace left, nor any original plans, or as good as none. What is left of it is a large number of photographs dating from the last hundred years of its existence. To rebuild it, its former state will be reconstructed, using digital photogrammetry. When the photographs have been scanned in, computed three-dimensional information will be generated from a combination of several two-dimensional pictures. It is the birth of architecture from photography. But there is more to it than that.

Like its production, the reception of such an architecture exposes its media-based character. The pseudo-historical development on the Pariser Platz at the Brandenburg Gate has already provided a good example of this. This city square, supposedly reconstructed, has become the city studio of TV stations and advertising agencies. Film shots and TV recordings take place here almost daily, to market products, politicians or cultural events in front of the historical backdrop, while between events it is photographed and filmed by tourists. The Berliner Schloss is rebuilt accordance to technical images and will serve primarily to create new images.

To function well in today’s media society, what was once complicated, contradictory and objectionable should be reduced to the acceptable and easily consumable. The smoothing out and manipulation of history which this involves is no mistake; it is intentional. Thus the news magazine Der Spiegel praises, without any irony, the pseudo-historical architecture of the Hotel Adlon on the Pariser Platz in Berlin as a building which „looks as though it had always been there, as if its demolition, all the pain of history, had never been.“

On the surface, reconstruction projects seem to be architecture without contemporary architects. Not without reason does Franco Stella state that his „two most important co-workers were the baroque architects Andreas Schlüter and Eosander von Göthe.“ But nowhere is the spirit of the present age reflected more than in these reconstruction projects; nowhere else is the architecture more modern than here. What seems to be historical is de facto hypermodern. There is an essential problem in this: a media architecture of this kind, fixated upon images, mostly fails to lead to any good urban development.

Published in the book: „Humboldt-From. The project“ edited by Hermann Parzinger und Thomas Flierl, 2009



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