Scharoun / Mies : Gehry / Moneo ? by Jack Burnett-Stuart

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Reading Architektur als Komposition, a recently published book by the German architect Mike Wilkens, my attention was caught by his descriptions of visits he made to the construction sites of Mies’ Nationalgalerie and Scharoun’s Philharmonie while he was studying in Berlin in the 1960′s. [1]

Could there not be a parallel here to be drawn with the building sites on Bunker Hill? In each case, two major cultural buildings being erected almost next to each other on tabula rasa city center sites; at the same time, in each case, two buildings that could not be architecturally more divergent. Added to that is the fact that Gehry’s design is deeply indebted to Scharoun’s. Whether either Gehry’s or Moneo’s buildings will actually be as canonical as Mies’ or Scharoun’s remains to be seen, but there can be no doubting of their ambitions.

What interested me most, however, were Wilkens’ vivid descriptions of the way the two buildings were being constructed. And who could not also be fascinated by watching the emergence of the buildings on Bunker Hill?

The massive steel roof of the Nationalgalerie was welded together laboriously on the podium by shipbuilders (following a complicated welding plan that balanced out warping caused by the welding), and then lifted into position.

The steel roof … required almost exactly the same tonnage of steel as was required on a nearby building site for Baumgarten’s three BEWAG blocks. … Absurd: Mies, who was always presented to us as the true modernist, celebr/ated here an archaic, handmade way of building, that ran counter to all reason. It was a kind of architecture fundamentalism. … What did it matter if the roof was as heavy as three towers – at least it wouldn’t fly away! It was there to stay! He must have thought something along those lines.

Scharoun’s building site was very different:

Here, there was a cheerful mess of plastic sheeting, foam insulation and empty silicon canisters. Every kind of cheap material was being mounted, glued, stuck, or shot together in a rather uninhibited way. Particleboard, on steel angles, on impregnated wood, on concrete ? it all hung together “somehow” ? like sinewy flesh. Even the concrete wings had an unclear, amorphous and statically indefinite (from the engineering aspect, all the more capable) organization. The apparently improvised structure looked terrible. … Hadn’t we learnt, that the shell had to be just right? But then came the opening night: all the sheathing, all the parts were stuck in place, the scaffolding and protective wrapping taken down. And revealed was one of the most beautiful concert halls in Europe. … All made with the cheapest industrial products. … It was in its time the cheapest concert hall in Europe. It was exactly what Hugo Haering had always talked about in the twenties: the taking into service of industrial technology. Scharoun had, instead of worrying about the “correct” use of materials and construction methods, simply drawn the space and the bounding planes, and let the construction firms, with their technical know-how, “pour it out.”

On the one hand, the event of a major building by Gehry on his home turf, post-Bilbao, could be likened to Mies’ return to post-war Berlin as the acknowledged “master” of modern architecture. Now we will have a chance to be bowled-over by the architect, who, since completing his last public works in Los Angeles, has been transformed by the critics from local hero to master of digital architecture and more. My initial excitement, however, over the Tatlin tower-like quality of the steel frame has subsided as more and more steel has been bolted into place, leaving me wondering where the spaces will be inside this hulk of a structure. This building site is clearly more Scharoun than Mies: nothing appears to be very considered about this structure – just anything it takes to make those miraculous curves stand up, and perhaps a bit more besides to make doubly sure it won’t fall down in an earthquake. While it seems likely that one could build a high tower with the same tonnage of steel, it is not, as in the case of Mies, being used for any visible end. In fact, there seems to be something a little absurd about so much structure being necessary to achieve the appearance of a building that is unconstrained by gravitational forces.

There are some interesting things going on here: a massive structure supporting an elaborate body work, and, somewhere hidden in the middle of all that, perhaps a wonderful concert hall. We have, in fact, come a long way from Scharoun, where the forms on the outside were still basically the volumes of the inside. If a precedent is sought for this type of construction, what comes to my mind is not a building in the conventional sense, but the images of the Statue of Liberty under construction. But in that case, of course, the body work is supported by a rather elegant structure designed by Eiffel. This comparison also raises the question of how revolutionary Gehry’s architecture really is. For all the talk about Gehry’s use of advanced computer programs, it doesn’t seem like he’s really doing much that couldn’t be done by hand one hundred and twenty years ago.

To return again to the Philharmonie comparison, there doesn’t seem to be much of a cost restraint here, unless, that is, you count the decision to substitute stone with metal cladding. But, even so, we’re surely not talking here about one of the cheapest concert halls in the United States. And the way in which Scharoun achieved so much with the cheapest materials remains one of the wonders of the Philharmonie. Even that br/onze fiberglass cladding seemed to be perfectly attuned to the late summer coloring of the Potsdamer Platz landscape before its redevelopment. The Philharmonie always seemed much more part of a landscape than part of a city; it now sits uncomfortably in the shadow of the new Sony/ Daimler Benz development that has been planted next door. In comparison, the Disney Concert Hall will most likely seem plain flashy ? and why not? Los Angeles, 2001 is a long way from Berlin, 1963. There’s money and material to spare. But while the most memorable photographic image of Bibao was the view down a gray and rather drab street towards the glittering jewel at the end of the vista, no such beguiling contrast exists here. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, MOCA, the Bunker Hill skyscrapers: already surrounded by opulence, Gehry’s building can only out dazzle (however masterfully it does that) what is already there. There can’t be the excitement of a new public building inserted into an existing city fabr/ic, because there is no city fabr/ic here to speak of. Grand Avenue is like an architectural zoo (for large species only). Don’t misunderstand me, I like going to the zoo – I just don’t confuse it with nature. We now have the interesting (and, I suspect, futile) attempt to add urbanity to Grand Avenue (see John Dale’s article in this newsletter).

Moving to Moneo’s cathedral building site, here there is perhaps something of the archaic quality noted by Wilkens at the Nationalgalerie. In his book, Wilkens uses the two building sites to illustrate a distinction between what he terms “composition” and “design.” By “composition”, he means an architecture in which materials and building elements are put together to become a readable, structural whole. “Composition” is bound up with building in a rather traditional sense. “Design,” on the other hand, (and “design” has rather different connotations in German to English) refers to the creation of forms that are freed from such compositional scruples and invisibly “assembled” with the help of advanced construction techniques.

At the cathedral, the process of pouring concrete imposes a deliberate rhythm, a slow growth of massive walls, pour by pour. Although hardly traditional, this is recognizably “building,” in contrast to the process of assemblage going on at the concert hall. There is satisfaction in seeing the walls emerging complete from the forms; in seeing the complete form of the building at this relatively early stage in the construction process; in seeing mass that is real; and in the reassuring clarity between shell and infill. There is also a sense of mystery about what is now going on inside the shell. At the concert hall, at present, everything is on show: fire proofed steel, studs, massive ductwork, and even taped drywall – everything is happening simultaneously and following, for the observer, no easily understood logic. At the same time, the present confusion gives little idea of what it is to become – for that, we must rely on the helpful depiction on the hoarding below.

Wilkens could sense at the Berlin Nationalgalerie the tension between a ritualized, apparently backward looking building process and the forward looking promise of Mies’ modernism; the apparent irrationality of using steel and glass to build a temple-like structure. There is no such nuance at the cathedral, but neither does there need to be. The symbolism of the massive earthquake resistant walls is meant to be clear to everyone. Whether this symbolism is entirely successful – that will be interesting to see. Although we are unused, in Los Angeles, to experiencing buildings that are built this massively, we actually see wonders of concrete construction on the freeways all the time. If there was a concrete building that was half so daring as those cantilevers on the upper level of the Harbor freeway – now that would be something.

Perhaps the comparison Scharoun / Mies : Gehry / Moneo is nothing more than an interesting diversion. More serious, in my opinion, are questions about urban planning raised by the Berlin Kulturforum and Grand Avenue. In neither case do the cultural institutions have a successful relationship to the surrounding urban fabr/ic. In both cases, cultural institutions are being used to fill voids left by the most destructive kind of urban redevelopment. The wasteland in which the Kulturforum was placed was not entirely the work of allied bombs: much of the demolition had already been done for Speer’s grand North-South axis. And before too much is made of the new “downtown” in Los Angeles, let’s remember that the real downtown is down the hill; Grand Avenue has always been, and always will be, Bunker Hill.

Olive Street on Bunker Hill in 1900 and 1970. (from Views of Los Angeles by Gernot Kuehn, Los Angeles, 1978)


    [1] Mike Wilkens, Architektur als Komposition, Birkhaeuser, 2000. Quotations from pp. 25-29.