The City That Never Was Architectural Exhibition Presents Unrealized Visions of Berlin

Berlin's state of flux has inspired architects like no other city. There have always been holes in the cityscape, both metaphorically and geographically. A new exhibition presents architectural visions that were never realized. By showing the spirit of the times, the exhibits offer inspiration for the future

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There are plenty of people who agree that Berlin is an ugly city -- especially when compared to more attractive metropolises like London, Paris or Madrid. Then again, which city has seen as much history as Berlin? No other city was destroyed to the same degree in World War II, and no other city divided afterward.

Rather than discouraging architects and urban planners, the German capital's divisive history, with all the joy and tragedy it entails, has never ceased to inspire. They have flocked to compete in architectural contests from all over the world -- and this despite the fact that most of the entries in these competitions, which took place throughout the 20th century, could never become reality.

Currently those unbuilt plans can be seen on display at Café Moskau, an appropriately historical building from the early 1960s in the city center. The exhibition, named "The Unbuilt Berlin," presents a hundred ideas from 100 architects in the form of plans and drawings. These come complete with supplementary information in respective folders, as well as 13 models created especially for the exhibition to demonstrate some of the plans.

Two Years Collecting

Architect Carsten Krohn, 44, spent two years collecting the unbuilt Berlin projects from throughout the 20th century. He used the €40,000 ($51,600) in subsidies from the Capital Cultural Fund in Berlin, money set aside to enhance the culture in Germany's biggest city, to publish a wonderful catalog that documents all of the unbuilt projects chronologically, with images and text.

During the exhibition Krohn is also showing short films in which he conducted interviews with 29 architects. Among them are big names in contemporary architecture like Daniel Libeskind of the United States, Alvaro Siza of Portugal and Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, who, in 1991, famously quit the panel assessing the reconstruction of Berlin's central Potsdamer Platz because he felt the conditions that the city's administration had given for the architecture were too restrictive. Krohn even managed to get an on-camera interview with shy but venerated German architect Ludwig Leo, who gave up the profession after completing several grand buildings in the city.

Unbuilt Icons

The main features of the exhibition, though, are unbuilt architectural projects from between 1907 and 1997. Some have become modern icons, such as Mies van der Rohe's plans for a skyscraper on Friedrich Strasse in 1921 -- such buildings were unheard of at the time -- while others have simply became notorious, such as the gigantic designs for Hitler's utopian German capital, Germania, developed by his architect Albert Speer.

The city's history is seen through the plans that were never realized. With the erection of the Berlin Wall and the division of the city, a lot of planned building never happened: Such as the 1958 blueprint that Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier developed for the city's reconstruction after WWII. A large part of Corbusier's plan, which did not actually win the competition anyway, stretched into the east of the city. The fall of the Wall in 1989 was also disruptive. For example, in 1988 Italian architect Aldo Rossi won the contest to build the Museum of German History in Berlin near the Reichstag. But that design, too, has since been consigned to history.

The exhibition begins with early plans for the central Berlin square, Pariser Platz, by Austrian architect Joseph Maria Olbrich. It is actually astounding to see how many of the locations the exhibition covers that remain unfinished today -- they are either still being planned, are unbuilt or currently under construction.

So Modern They Could Be Built Today

Some of the plans still seem so fresh and so modern that one can imagine them being commissioned today. One example of this is the 1925 plan by Dutch architect Cornelis van Eesteren for Berlin's famous Unter den Linden boulevard. The plan envisages maintaining older buildings at the east end of the street, while building four-story commercial buildings, with towers reaching up to 45 meters (150-feet)high, at the west end. At the interface there would be a 170-meter tall high-rise. Nearby, on the historic Gendarmenmarkt square, German architect Hugo Häring, who once shared an office with van der Rohe, came up with a logical design for a city of high-rise buildings. For Ludwig Hilbersheimer, who taught at the Bauhaus School, this was the ideal place for his radical 1924 vision of a "commercial city," his answer to Le Corbusier's urban planning.

Equally uncompromising was the 1928 "Tiergarten-ring" by young German architect Werner Kallmorgen, who was just 26 at the time. He imagined a 14 kilometer- (8.7 mile-) long, four-story development encircling the famous Berlin park that would enclose it, thereby turning it into a recreational area. Berlin architects Ursulina Schüler-Witte and Ralf Schüler, who established an architectural practice together in the city in 1967, had a similar idea: They wanted to cover 9.5 kilometers of the highway that runs through the city's Grunewald forested area with terrace housing. Crazy? Not really. These sorts of redevelopment plans, where older areas are covered with newer buildings, are currently being planned in Rem Koolhaas' offices as a scheme of last resort.

Holes in Cityscape Inspiring

Science fiction fans will not be disappointed either. In 1988, American architect and artist Lebheus Woods, who now mainly works in architectural theory, developed a plan for a "Berlin Underground." His was a vision that was supposed to lead to the formation of an underground government, which would eventually lead to a reunified Germany.

Of course, there are also less pleasant discoveries to be made at the exhibition. For instance, German architect Emil Fahrenkamp, the architect behind the wonderful 1930s Shell House in Berlin, considered his 1937 plans for a competition for a college complex that might have become part of Albert Speer's notorious "Germania" as a sign of the "glorious past."

Over the years, and especially after reunification, Berlin has been a city of dreams for many architects -- after all, there are not many cities where one would find such huge holes in the center of the such a big city. Even in this century, many of those holes still exist -- and great architectural ideas are still being solicited. Examples include the closed Tempelhof airport and the as-yet-unbuilt, and much disputed, Berlin city palace. There is plenty of inspiration to be found at this exhibition. It is so good that it won't just excite retired architects, it even has the potential to rouse sleepy city planners from their slumber.


Exhibition: Café Moskau, Karl-Marx-Allee 34, 10178 Berlin, Germany. Runs through August 15.

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