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Carlos Albuquerque (kjb)
July 6, 2007

The international architecture exhibit Interbau, which opened on July 6, 1957 in Berlin's Hansa neighborhood, came to be seen as a tangible example of Germany's modernization and a side effect of the Cold War.


Summer 1957 was a hot one, wrote the Berliner Zeitung. But soaring temperatures didn't keep some 1.4 million people from visiting the Interbau exhibit in Berlin.

When the show drew to a close in late September, 900,000 people had viewed the Hansa neighborhood alone and 375,000 had ridden the chair-lift specially built for the first Interbau event, added the Berlin paper.

In the early 1950s, West Berliners had been appalled by the view of the new socialist-style apartment and retail buildings along Stalinallee (today Karl-Marx-Allee) in East Berlin and the enthusiasm with which the young GDR built its Workers' Palace, author Nikolaus Bernau told the Berliner Zeitung. As a counterweight to these large-scale Soviet building projects, the West decided to reinstate the tradition of architectural exhibitions.

Competing with the East

A response to the GDR's first major reconstruction plan, Interbau was intended to "demonstrate the new, democratic western Germany to the outside world, which was on the side of the French, British, Italian and Americans, not only politically but also culturally," said Bernau.

This attitude may explain the project's exorbitant cost. Instead of reconstructing post-war ruins and making use of the old infrastructure, property was redistributed, streets were rebuilt and the Interbau exhibit was viewed as a counterbalance to the monumental structures of 1950s East Berlin.

The "city of tomorrow"

In preparation for the exhibit, an architecture contest was announced. Willy Kreuer and Gerhard Jobst took the prize with their relaxed building ideas. In place of the old barrack-like block developments, they generated space by more freely positioning their buildings.

Public parks were a top priority in what was supposed to be the "city of tomorrow": A zoological garden was integrated into the Hansa neighborhood, which was encircled by high-rises, apartment blocks, single-family homes and churches. Shops, restaurants, a movie theater, a library and the subway at Hansa Square were to make up the heart of the district.

By the time the Interbau exhibit ended in 1957, only 601 of today's 1,160 apartment units were completed. The remaining 35 apartment buildings were finished by 1960.

Help from abroad

Fifty-three architects from around the world, some of them internationally renowned, were invited to help. Oscar Niemeyer from Brazil, Arne Jacobsen from Denmark, Alvar Aalto from Finland and the German Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius -- who, according to the Berliner Zeitung, had considered himself an American since his emigration to the US in 1937 -- were among them.

Arne Jacobsen, who fled to Sweden during World War Two because of his Jewish ancestry, built four houses for the Berlin exhibit, all in the style of Mies van der Rohe's 1930s villas.

Oscar Niemeyer's only project in Germany was completed in honor of the Interbau event. His eight-story apartment block set on V-shaped supports celebrates its 50th anniversary this year -- its creator's 100th birthday.

The House of World Cultures, then a convention center, and an apartment block by Le Corbusier in the Charlottenburg district were later integrated into the Interbau project.

The entire Interbau collection received landmark status in 1995.

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