Last year, Zum Umsteiger shut its doors after 113 years. The legendary tavern across from Yorckstraße station had survived the Nazis, World War II and the Cold War, but a worse horror was still to come: its new neighbours. The quaint building is wedged between an oppressive apartment complex and an intrusive parking garage entry. Lonely Zum Umsteiger is an unwanted relic screaming out for a bunch of coloured balloons to carry it away.
With its high-pitched roof and faux-gothic brickwork, Umsteiger is a throwback to an architectural style known as historicism. For thousands of years, designing a building meant finding an existing model to copy – every bank was a Roman temple, every apartment block a Florentine palazzo. Historicism was a crutch that helped even mediocre architects create great buildings. However, since modernism arrived a century ago and lifted the yoke of historical styles, anything goes. Genius designers produce an occasional work of brilliance, but they’re just as likely to lay an architectural egg. Despite our ongoing construction boom, try finding one recent building with one-tenth the character of sad little Umsteiger.
Maybe that’s why Germans have embraced a new form of historicism – modern buildings dressed up like long-gone architectural icons. Berlin’s Humboldt Forum is a 21st-century museum wrapped in an 18th-century palace facade. Across the Spree, the 2003 Bertelsmann Foundation HQ is costumed as the baroque Alte Kommandantur. In 2016, Potsdam unveiled two shiny new buildings in the guise of “baroque” palaces, one housing the offices of Brandenburg’s parliament and the other, the nearby Museum Barberini. Frankfurt am Main has recreated a whole new “historic” city centre. Opened last September, the new Altstadt is packed with tourists who love its selfie-friendly faux-olde facades. But the historicalness is only skin deep – it’s a kind of architectural cosplay.
Playing architectural politics
The narrative around Potsdam’s Garnisonkirchehas a familiar ring: after WWII, its bomb-damaged remains were bulldozed, and proponents say its current reconstruction corrects that tragic mistake. However, critics decry the spread of “Disneyfication” and worry about “correcting” the past. Even scarier, the church has links to right-wing politics. The first calls to rebuild it came inthe 1990s from Max Klaar, a notorious Nazi fan whose goal was to restore the place where Adolf Hitler shook hands with Field Marshal Hindenburg and thus secured his position as German chancellor. Similarly, Frankfurt’s Altstadt was the brainchild of Claus Wolfschlag, another right-wing author who links traditional buildings with “true” German identity.
Did Klaar, Wolfschlag and others really hope their resurrected structures would drive Germany’s politics to the right? If so, they’re likely to be disappointed. Buildings are remarkably ineffectual devices of political coercion. For example, no building better embodies Hitler’s politics of intimidation than the Luftwaffe HQ near Potsdamer Platz (1936). Still, it was converted into East Germany’s House of Ministries with the simple addition of a mosaic depicting cheerful socialist workers. Currently serving as Germany’s Finance Ministry, the hulking building has yet to compel passers-by into making a Nazi salute or breaking into a chorus of The Internationale.
Designing a sexy future
In spite of its critics, the resurrection juggernaut seems unstoppable. Is it time to jump on board and seize control from the right-wing nut jobs? After all, what’s more delusional, losing ourselves in rosy nostalgia or looking forward to a “rosy” future personified by soulless beige and grey boxes? Once our Humboldt Forum is finished, workers will cross the Spree and rebuild Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Bauakademie. Then what?
My candidate for reconstruction is Richard Lucae’s 1872 Villa Joachim, which found its higher calling in 1919 as Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research. Hirschfeld was an openly-gay man whose work revolutionised ideas about sex and sexual identity. Though destroyed by the Nazis and WWII, the villa and Hirschfeld’s collection were thoroughly documented by photos, making an accurate reconstruction very doable. Returning it to its rightful home near today’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt would cement Berlin as the true birthplace of modern sexual freedom.