Dan Borden on the chameleonic style of Berlin’s most ubiquitous, least recognised architect, Sergei Tchoban.
After World War II, the Russians constructed a massive embassy on Unter den Linden that announced the era of Soviet control over East Berlin. From Moscow to Magdeburg, buildings in the same bombastic style spread along with the Kremlin’s power, an architectural logo for Josef Stalin’s global brand.
Dictators come and go, and so do styles. In East Berlin, Stalinist Classicism reached its peak with the two-kilometre-long Karl-Marx-Allee. The German architect who headed up that stodgy 1950s housing project, Hermann Henselman, turned around 15 years later and designed the sleek space-age TV Tower.
East Berlin was transformed again by a wave of post-Wall capitalist fervour, and no designer has had a bigger impact than Russian- born Sergei Tchoban. From the Cubix cinema in the shadow of the TV Tower to the sprawling Mall of Berlin to the DomAquarée complex famous for its elevator rising through a giant aquarium (and, appropriately, the DDR Museum), this former Soviet has left his mark all over the city’s former East since leaving then-Leningrad for Germany in 1991. Never heard of him? That’s because, like Henselmann, Tchoban is a stylistic chameleon.
Tchoban is no slouch – his Russian office designed Europe’s tallest building. For decades, Moscow’s skyline was dominated by the so-called “Seven Sisters”, Stalin-era skyscrapers that resemble giant pointed wedding cakes. Today, they’re dwarfed by Tchoban’s Federation Tower, 95 floors of shiny glass offices and flats. It’s the centrepiece of Moscow’s new commercial district, a playground for oligarchs and Kremlin insiders.
So why does Tchoban get no respect in his adopted home of Berlin? He lacks the signature style of “starchitects” like Frank Gehry or David Chipperfield. For a vivid example, check out two side-by-side Tchoban-designed buildings on the Spree River east of the Oberbaumbrücke. The beige brick Hotel Nhow is topped with a silver box jutting out like a snake’s head. Next door, Coca Cola’s Berlin HQ is covered with delicate metal panels painted the soda’s signature red. They couldn’t be less alike.
A few blocks west stands Tchoban’s most notorious project, the Living Levels apartment building. The 14-storey tower sits on the former “Death Strip”, the patch of otherwise-vacant land between the Spree River and that section of the Berlin Wall now dedicated as the East Side Gallery. Berliners were horrified to see anything built on this sacred ground, much less luxury condominiums. When construction began in 2013, thousands turned out to demonstrate, but to no avail.
Some read Tchoban’s self-funded gallery as an act of contrition for commercial projects that are a bit sketchy.
If Tchoban’s name does ring a bell, it’s from Prenzlauer Berg’s Museum for Architectural Drawing, run by Sergei’s namesake Tchoban Foundation. Some have read this self-funded gallery showcasing hand-drawn architectural renderings as Tchoban’s act of contrition for his choice of commercial projects that are a bit, well, sketchy. The jewel-like six-storey building is nearly windowless, covered in concrete panels incised with magnified architectural drawings.
Is it unfair to judge Sergei Tchoban against design giants like Zaha Hadid, Hans Scharoun, Norman Foster – all having the signature touch that Tchoban lacks? Like most architects, he bows to the demands of his clients, but too often his projects register as echoes of better work. Living Levels’ “folded ribbon” facade is a third-generation Xerox copy of the 2002 Eyebeam Museum by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, minus that building’s spatial brilliance.
With his self-designed, self-titled museum, Tchoban is holding himself up for comparison with his better-known peers. And earlier this year, Berlin’s Architektur Galerie presented 11 artworks commissioned by Tchoban – depicting his own Berlin buildings. Tchoban is burnishing his own brand and telling the world he’s ready for his close-up.