Berlin’s Architectural Transition to Postmodernism Gets an Overdue Examination

The Berlinische Galerie's exhibition Anything Goes? recounts how a global, contradictory Postmodernism took root on both sides of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s.
Office For Metropolitan Architecture Elia Zenghelis Zoe Zenghelis Wohnhaus Am Checkpoint Charlie 1987 Berlinische Galerie

OMA’s 1987 proposal for a residential development at Checkpoint Charlie © Office for Metropolitan Architecture

The 1980s in Berlin was a strange decade: The city on both sides of the wall was dark, gray, largely empty, and strangely slow—as if exhausted from decades of Cold War—and longing for something fresh to happen. Even David Bowie and Iggy Pop had left. Finally, the wall fell in 1989, ending not only the decade but, as some say, a shortened 20th century in Germany.

An ambitious exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie now sets out to rediscover the city’s architecture of the ‘80s, in both the eastern and the western halves of the city. This is something rarely done, as East and West Germany are commonly examined as separate units. But Anything Goes? Berlin Architecture in the 1980s proves that simultaneously looking at both city’s halves can be liberating and enriching. Most of all, Postmodernism didn’t stop at the border, as the exhibition masterfully proves: We can see it blossom in both West and East Berlin at almost the same time.

Kaufhaus Am Marzahner Tor Um 1988 Berlinische Galerie

A commercial development in Marzahn, East Berlin, around 1988 Courtesy Berlinische Galerie

The exhibition starts with a look back to the 1970s, when growing disappointment with postwar Modernism compelled new alternatives on both sides of the Wall. People had rediscovered the human-scale, charming qualities of cities’ old towns, and architects and urban planners soon followed. The exhibition features some early pilot projects for a more socially and architecturally sensitive modernization of historic areas in East and West Berlin, as well as some more radical ideas from O.M. Ungers or the Smithsons that turned disparate historic artifacts of the war-torn city into main characteristics, creating cityscapes of joyful difference and eclecticism. As different as the proposals appear, they all share a fundamental disagreement with the Modernist belief of tabula rasa planning. Instead, they promoted the rediscovery and appreciation of historic city structures.

Audiowalk 3 Gendarmenmarkt Anything Goes Berlinische Galerie

The Gendarmenmarkt, along an audiowalk route © Ludger Paffrath

This backdrop sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. The 1980s in Berlin are presented as a time of architectural and urbanistic experimentation—under the larger umbrella of Postmodernism—which sought out new ways to deal with what is existing and what was lost. The exhibition feasts in contradictions, as it presents the full range of developments. In East Berlin, this stretches from the ongoing construction of large-scale prefab living quarters in peripheral areas like Marzahn to the more historicist reconstructions along Unter den Linden or around Gendarmenmarkt, and of course Nikolaiviertel, which was reconstructed 1980–1987 in an imaginative, droll style one could call prefab-Postmodernism. The exhibition includes an incredible model of the official plans to reconstruct Friedrichstrasse in that same style—a plan that ultimately died with the collapse of the GDR.

Developments in West Berlin center mostly on projects of the Internationale Bau-Ausstellung (IBA), an event that managed to draw a who’s who of the Western architecture scene to Berlin, including John Hejduk, Charles Moore, Peter Eisenman, James Stirling, Frei Otto, Zaha Hadid, Raimund Abraham, and Arata Isozaki. While ideas in the East were state-driven—and thus large-scale and tied to a huge prefab industry—the projects in the West are more focused on small scale. But the interesting point Anything Goes? makes is that the projects on both sides of the Berlin Wall were fundamentally about the same, Postmodern subjects: How to return the inner city to a lively and attractive place.

Spitteleck C Phil Dera Phd 0989

The housing development Spitteleck, included in a project by Guerilla Architect for the exhibition that revisits residential blocks from the era © Phil Dera

It is valuable to rediscover some of these projects from across a 40-year history covered in the show. Some are about aesthetics and style, but the more interesting ones are about city ecology, self-construction, empowerment of residents, and participation. The curators present the 1980s (and thus Postmodernism) as a time of complexities and contradictions, lively debates and built experiments. This is due to the twin crises of the time: the crisis of Modernism that made it necessary to look for alternatives, and the crisis of the Cold War that turned both halves of Berlin into “shopping windows” of their respective political systems. The architectural situation bore the paradox, enjoying comparatively more freedom in the 1980s though the city was still brutally divided by a concrete wall. The freedom to test new ideas had never been greater after the fall of this Wall, when architecture found itself increasingly encaged by the official concept of a pseudo-historic reconstruction based on 19th-century maps and drawings. Anything Goes? makes it quite clear: There are a lot of forgotten threads from the 1980s to which contemporary architecture—in Berlin and beyond—can and should reconnect.

For those who can’t make it to Berlin physically at the moment, the exhibition website is almost as exhaustive as the show itself, featuring a video tour, virtual walks through Berlin, and inhabitants’ interviews—not to mention a splendid catalog with 232 pages of essays, photos, and drawings of these Postmodern adventures in the two Berlins of the 1980s.

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Categories: Architecture, Arts + Culture