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Save Berlin: Mad science II

Last fall, Berlin quietly lost a masterpiece. Known as the Konsistorium, the building was the regional headquarters of the German Protestant Church from 1971-2000. In 2011 it was demolished.

Last fall, Berlin quietly lost a masterpiece. I had ridden past it a million times on the S-Bahn: an angular seven-story office building between Bellevue and Tiergarten. It had a taut skin of aluminum panels with 1970s-style rounded corners that gave it an elegant lightness, like a high-tech house of cards.

Last summer I took a closer look and found it was empty – a ghost. Inside I was struck by custom details: windows that pivoted in steel frames like ship portholes and delicate neoprene gaskets holding the aluminum façade in place. The next time I passed by, the silver ghost was gone.

God’s office building

Known as the Konsistorium, the building was the regional headquarters of the German Protestant Church from 1971-2000. It was designed by a native Berliner, architect Georg Heinrichs, with his partner Hans Christian Mueller. Heinrichs, now in his eighties, is an architect with a taste for horizontal windows and James Bond-style gadgetry. Like Ralf Schüler and Ursulina Schüler-Witte, architects of the Bierpinsel and ICC (my February column), he passionately embraced technology to create intricate machines for living.

Radical neighborhood

Heinrichs’ first triumph was the master plan for West Berlin’s experimental satellite city, the Märkisches Viertel (1963-74, designed with Mueller and Werner Düttmann.) Built on 3.2 square kilometres tight up against the Berlin Wall, it was a chance to apply the machine-for-living philosophy on a giant scale. Heinrichs’ program mixed 17,000 housing units, most in high-rise towers, with other urban necessities. Critics called the instant city ‘sterile’. Residents complained there weren’t enough schools, shops and especially pubs. Rent hikes sparked protests and drove some Viertel residents, including future members of the notorious Red Army Faction, to radicalism. But today, after decades of fine-tuning, Märkisches Viertel is somehow thriving.

Machine for Shopping

In April 1970, West Berlin shoppers poured through the doors of the new Forum Steglitz, one of West Germany’s first indoor retail malls. Heinrichs’ design (with Finn Bartels and Christoph Schmidt-Ott) is a factory-like box punctuated by ventilation towers, but the façade on Schloßstraße is all horizontal strip windows and brightly lit signs. On top, a distinctive pair of glass blocks juts out toward the street. Inside, moving sidewalks gently carry bargain addicts to the next level.

Human Anthill

Heinrichs’ techno-ambitions reached a giddy peak with his design (with Gerhard and Klaus Krebs) for a massive apartment block on top of a highway in Wilmersdorf. The Autobahnüberbauung Schlangenbader Straße aka ‘Schlange’ is a true megastructure, a 600m-long human ant hill mounded up over the busy A-104. Why build apartments over a highway? A combined lack of housing and free land was the official reason, but the designers savored the technical challenges. The most difficult was insulating residents from the roar of cars below their feet. Another Heinrichs touch: pneumatic garbage collection chutes. Instead of becoming a model for the future, the project became a poster child for waste. When it opened its doors in 1980 – years behind schedule and millions over budget – Berlin’s then-mayor Richard von Weizsäcker famously said, “If the Devil wants to put a curse on Berlin, let him wish us another ‘Schlange’.”

When Heinrichs’ Protestant office building was facing demolition last fall, one observer noted it felt like the place where the future had begun. The building’s technological daring was also its undoing – replacing all those custom portholes and gaskets would be like finding spare parts for a UFO. The Konsistorium was doomed by its designer’s impatient rush to the future. Georg Heinrichs’ buildings – always innovative, sometimes radical – are still ahead of their time.