A new exhibition in Berlin reflects on contemporary German architecture after the fall of the wall - and on ways the country's built space mirrors its changing identity.
One of the more spectacular examples of modern German architecture - the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann
According to Ullrich Schwarz, "the whole world knows that Germans buy good cars. A German car is like a badge of social dinstinction".
But "has German architecture achieved as much in the world?", he asks in the introduction to the exhibition "A New German Architecture. A Reflexive Modernism".
Ullrich Schwarz, exhibition curator, sits in a large room in the Martin Gropius Bau, prior to the exhibition opening, and reflects on German architecture. Only a few metres from where he sits, heavy traffic chugs its way down the main streets circling Postdamer Platz, while tourists swarm the square like insects. The Potsdamer Platz with its huge buildings, including one designed by architect Hans Kolhoff, is one example of contemporary German architecture renowed throughout the world. However, the Potsdamer Platz is just one of only few.
Focused on an international audience
"The reason for the exhibtion lies in the huge discrepancy between the reputation of German architecture in Germany, and abroad", Konstantin Kleffel, President of the Hamburg Architect’s Association, explains.
"The knowledge of German architecture abroad is remarkably low", Ullrich Schwarz says. "Therefore the international aspect of the exhibition is one of the main points".
In order to prove to the outside world that there is more to German architecture than the acclaimed Mies van der Rohe, the exhibition will be on tour for at least five years, travelling Asia, North America, and Europe.
The first stop abroad is Italy, where the exhibtion will be on show in Milan and Rome. Next follows Northern Europe, inculding Stockholm in Sweden.
Cross-section of German architecture
The exhibition is a "cross-section of German architecture".
Works of 25 architects show various aspects of German architecture ranging from churches and museums to schools and kindergardens. Famous architects, such as Axel Schulte and Hans Kolhoff are included, as well as other architects relatively unknown abroad, such as Hoefer Lorch and Hirsch, who designed the new synagogue in Dresden.
The 25 exhibits were chosen from a selection of 800 by an international jury. "The deciding factor was not the beauty of the buildings", Swiss architect Ernst Hubeli explains, "and it is was not meant to turn into a documentation". Instead, social issues and problems, such as the boundaries of architecture, were to be made clearer by the exhibition.
"We looked at the social relevance of these buildings," Hubeli says. "The buildings were not just supposed to be brilliant, there were to document specific urban problems, such as urban sprawl, and environmental issues".
In addition, the section "signatures", depicts the "old masters" (Hubeli), architects who play a leading role in modern German architecture, revealing their aims and achievements. Here, the likes of Kleihues and Libeskind are included.
What makes German architecture German?
Libeskind was born in Poland, and has American citizenship, architect Hadi Teherani, also featured in the exhibition, was born in Iran. So what makes German architecture German?
"The exhibition is more about architects in Germany than about German architects", Hubeli explains.
"A German architect", Schwarz adds, " was for the makers of the exhibition someone who lives and works in Germany, who has the centre of his working life here" - therefore the decision to include Daniel Libeskind, who is registered as an architect in Germany with the Bund Deutscher Architekten (BDA).
No "superficial media bang"
But despite the works of renowned architects such as Daniel Libeskind and Werner Kleihues, contemporary German architecture has failed to attract attention beyond a handful of world famous architects in recent years.
For Schwarz there are various reasons for this. In Germany, the awareness that the country’s architecture was a product which needed to be positioned in the international market arose as late as in the eighties. As a result, Germany lacks the architectural policy-making institutions on a national level, such as the Institut francais d’architecture in France.
Another reason for the insufficient recognition of contemporary German architecture lies in the visual impact of these buildings. "The global economy of attention demands the spectacular", Schwarz says. The "superficial media bang" (Ernst Hubeli) is not a quality of German architecture.
Instead, contemporary German architecture is thought to be quieter, and more subdued, striving for more substance and more depth, and concentrating more on quality than on media flash.
Indeed, the signature of German architecture can not be explained on the basis of buildings alone. "The specific characteristics of present-day German architecture must be understood as the expression and the product of postwar history", Schwarz says. "When we examine German architecture of today, it is not "architecture" itself we are dealing with, but a social and cultural phenomenon".
A Reflection of change
It is therefore no coincidence that Berlin is the first stop of the exhibition - Berlin still stands for the fall of the wall and the turmoil and atmosphere of change which followed.
Since the collapse of communism, Germany is finding itself in a new social, political and cultural situation. "German identity has changed, and is still changing", the exhibition states. "It is this picture of a changing identity that is expressed in"New German architecture".