Berlin’s brutalist architecture

Berlin is certainly not known for architectural excellence. If I was to pinpoint this city’s defining building style, I’d decide for inconsistency in urban planning and at present, a lack of taste. However, there were times, when Berlin was on par with the world – such as in the seventies, when brutalism was in vogue.

During last year’s Notting Hill Carnival we passed a peculiar building in the district of North Kensington: a concrete tower block, 31 grey storeys stacked up into London’s summer sky. The sight dazzled us, since this dismal monument rose eerily and high above the cheerful crowd of musicians, dancers and the like. As I learned months later, the building I since then both admired and detested, was the famous Trellick Tower, a paramount example of brutalist architecture.

Back in Berlin, my commute led me through parts of Steglitz and some similarly strange buildings that were clearly built in the same time.

My route ended in a Lichterfelde side road, flanked by two massive concrete blocks which sat heavily on the ground. The one to the left had only few and narrow windows that breached through the grey facade of béton brut.

A long ramp lead to the main door, separating the structure from the ground like it was ready to take off. The building to the right had the skewed exterior walls of a concrete prism, that acid rain had blackened over time. Strange ventilation pipes crushed through the hull. Its windows were of an uncommon triangular shape that bulged from the corpus, all facing to the front of the peculiar structure.

These buildings looked like spaceships. Not the stylish ones from several sci-fi movies, more like the rough version as in Battleship Galactica. Concrete spaceships, built for yearning society that watched the first man walking on the moon and felt the future would be near.

These two particular buildings, facilities of medical research and microbiological laboratories, were designed in respect of their function and received an appearance that expressed their superior claim of scientific excellence by aesthetic means of the sixties and seventies.But the story could’ve been told differently: By the time the devastations had to be replaced, modern West German architects had to decide to reconstruct older buildings or opt for a contemporary architecture style that started to develop in pre-war times and now flourished in other countries. Different approaches were seen across the country. Perhaps, after 1957’s famous Interbau came up with impressive buildings in Berlin’s Hansaviertel, the general agenda was set: Modern architecture, prepared for current and future demands in infrastructure and dwelling, was on the rise.

Functional, low-cost structures with an outstanding aesthetic affirmation of the modern society were in favour. Concrete was discovered for its economic and convenient qualities in versatile constructing. Soon, the most exciting ideas were advanced and eventually put into action.

However, this isolated island of the Western world amidst Eastern territory was always subject to propagandistic interests.

Impressive brutalist buildings in Berlin

In Berlin, The West was on public display. Affected by this, West-Berlin architecture had to reflect contemporary styles.

Soon, key buildings were constructed to exemplify the Western power to serve for superior solutions to current demands. Schöneberg’s Pallasseum introduced new dimensions of industrialized building. Hospital Steglitz (now Charité Campus Benjamin Franklin) unified all medical fields in a single center of maximal care.

Kreuzberg’s St. Agnes church approached a modern form of sacral building. Not to forget the “Bierpinsel“, as we call it: a landmark of inventive and playful architecture on Schloßstraße, built for a simple function such as a restaurant. Even the former Eastern part of Berlin had its brutalist buildings: The embassy of Czech Republic is a fine and bold example of successful adaptation of a Western architecture style.

But as years went by the promises of these buildings faded. Aesthetic demands changed, soon these buildings from brutalist times were considered to be hideous, clumsy, by no means appropriate and up-to-date. The concrete seems to have turned even more grey or brownish and the notion of being futuristic is completely gone.

Pallasseum developed into a socially deprived hot spot; the beloved Bierpinsel stood empty and was recently painted over by some urban art activists and St. Agnes church waits for refurbishment to become Johann König’s new gallery.

As time goes by, these once fine examples of brutalist architecture are at risk to fall into oblivion. However, they still make an impact on unsuspecting pedestrians as they eerily rise from the ground they heavily sit on. I for one, am glad that some of these buildings have been reserved and am eager to discover more of them.

Pallaseum in Schöneberg
Bierpinsel in Steglitz
Steglitz Hospital
Embassy of Czech Republic
St. Agnes Church in Kreuzberg

19 thoughts on “Berlin’s brutalist architecture

  1. Great pictures! You can find similar architecture in Mexico City (and other Latin American metropoles), a city that experienced relative economic success in the 70s. I wonder if this kind of sturdy, greige, and sort-of-futuristic concrete structures (often times government buildings) were supposed to communicate wealth and power – and if so, what that implied for the Western notion of success (and how it looks like) during the Cold War.

  2. This was a phenomenon all across Western European urban centers in the 1960s and 70s, and can be seen in Madrid, Lisbon, London and even Milan. Was it a profound lack of creativity, or some great vision for how the European city should look in the 20th century, that led to this passion for brutalism? Probably a little of both, especially as many older and more aesthetically valuable buildings were often knocked down in this renewal process (cf. Tony Judt’s ‘Postwar’). Brutalism MAKES Berlin for me, though, especially in the West. Great photo article!

  3. Dear Kiera, thanks for the hint! I added the locations to all the photos – you just need to hover with your mouse over them and wait for the tool tip window!

  4. hey matthias, great shots! would love to go and see these for myself. can you pin me some locations?

  5. Die Fotos und Bildausschnitte sind ja klasse, aber was ist daran brutal? Gehts darum, Plattenbauten abzufotografieren und formal-merkwürdige Architektur abzubilden? Falls 2. der Fall sein sollte: In Berlin gibts eindeutig brachialere Gebäude. Wie siehts aus mit den Flaktürmen? Der neoklassizistischen/post-stalinistischen Architektur im Osten Berlins? Die vielen verwaisten Industrie- und Fabrikgebäude und Bunker?

  6. Back to the Old School Future ;)
    Some nice shots, Looks empty and crowded. Got 2 bring me there some Time :)

  7. Really Great pictures! This is exactly the Berlin I’m looking for when I visit in 2 weeks. Thanks for the ID’s on the photos. now I’ll have to find the buildings…

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