Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Berlin: A Lesson in History and Free Spirit

We recently traveled through Germany thoroughly enjoying the German beer, extensive history, and their love for art and contemporary architecture. Cosmopolitan, quirky and free Berlin stood out as the star in our travels.

What makes Berlin more interesting than other European or north American city is it's relative newness and it's free spirit. After a long and painful history that culminated with the second world war and then continued with the cold war, the City of Berlin as we know today restarted rebuilding it's legacy in 1990. That is what I mean by the newness. As the city decided to move on, it began by accepting its history and then marching forward with a liberated spirit. The present spirit of Berlin seems more free as the freedom was hard to come by.

Berlin is a big city. It takes a while to get your arms around it. It is teaming with life but still feels empty when one is used to New York, Delhi or Mumbai. Berlin is also a city of neighborhoods that are at various stages of gentrification. The more interesting neighborhoods are the nearly gentrified Prenzlauer Berg and still gentrifying Kruezberg and Friedrichshain.

Bali inspired courtyard at Boutique Hotel Ackselhaus housed in a historic building in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

We stayed at Ackselhaus and Blue Home, a boutique hotel located in two historic buildings in Prenzlauer Berg. Both buildings have been lovingly restored by the owners. But the real treat is to see how contemporary elements have been woven into the historic character of the buildings. One of the buildings has a notable tropical Balinese resort feel. It was refreshing to see seemingly disparate elements of design (Historic European, Contemporary, Tropical) all put together in a unique style statement.

Sunroom in the courtyard with salvaged iron columns from old train station in Berlin and a Balinese daybed

Now let us talk about my favorite part, the contemporary architecture that dots the city of Berlin. One can name any master architect and they have built in Berlin. The history of the city along with its relative newness has allowed architects to build beyond barriers. The result is a refreshing collection of contemporary architecture that spans museums, residential and commercial buildings.
Eisenman's Holocaust Museum in Berlin with Gehry's DZ Bank building in the background
The old and the new building at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Later designed by Daniel Lebiskind

The best of them all was without doubt is the Jewish Museum building by Master-Architect Daniel Lebiskiend (DL). DL was also the very deserving winning architect for the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York. His creation at Ground Zero would have been a piece of art, an apt addition to the New York skyline but sadly the present design and resulting stump of a building is a political compromise that does nothing to advance design and architecture.

The exterior of the Jewish Museum building is clad in Zinc that is oxidizing to give it a blueish color

But I diverge, coming back to the Jewish Museum building in Berlin. I will take a pause to say this - according to me the Jewish Museum is the best building in the world today ! This is a big distinction and the reason I say this is two-fold; one is the ability that the built space has to evoke emotional reactions and second is the limitless extent of design thought and detail that has gone into this building. My reaction to this building is contrary to my proponance for minimalism and the idea of keeping design simple and lucid. The Jewish Museum is a severely complex building but the beauty of it is that everywhere you look one is presented with perfect example of design work where complex geometries, materials and play of light are prefectly composed into multi-dimensional multiple frames of architectural space. The typical problem with complexity in design is that buidlings can very easily look over-designed and it is mostly difficult to justify the complexity. Mostly complexity in design makes it difficult for various elements to come together and the core concept or design driver is lost. None of the above are a problem at the Jewish Museum. DL has built a building that is complex yet true to its central design thought, and the building inside and outside leaves a lasting impact on the viewer/ inhabitant. The building has the ability to evoke strong emotional reactions that are linked to the design concepts weaved into the building.

Words cannot do justice to the building, neither can images, but here are some to offer a taste of what the magnificent piece of architecture has to offer.

Exhibition galleries at lower level where three conceptual axis intersect
Exhibition galleries at lower level where three conceptual axis intersect
Windows seen from inside the gallery space
Window detail
Staircase ceiling detail
Core vertical circulation that connects the gallery space at 3 levels

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