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Save Berlin: Brits on a bender

What happened to British architects experimenting in Berlin?

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Illustration courtesy of Rudi Meisel, Foster + Partners

What happened to British architects experimenting in Berlin?

Remember when Berlin was a giddy architectural funhouse? For about 20 years starting in the mid-1980s, the city was a laboratory welcoming building innovators from around the world – and these British designers led the way.

James Stirling and Michael Wilford

In July 2000, Queen Elizabeth II cut the ribbon for Berlin’s new British Embassy. The edifice replaced a bomb-damaged, pre-World War II consulate and was given a matching sandstone facade – except this one has a gaping hole in the middle revealing its innards: three giant, angled blocks in blue, silver and violet. Huh?

While the queen politely toured the oddball building, her husband Prince Philip was overheard calling it “a waste of space”. It’s likely the designer, architect Michael Wilford, savoured the royal rebuff. He and his late partner James Stirling had specialised in creating cheeky, subversive buildings aimed at exploding weighty architectural precepts and pomposity.

Twelve years earlier, they’d been hired to add on to the WZB Wissenschaftszentrum, a West Berlin research complex in a 19th-century palazzo. Their answer was a collection of five structures shaped like iconic architectural monuments – a basilica, an octagonal tower, etc. All are wrapped in matching pink and blue horizontal stripes with oversized red sandstone window frames. It’s basically the architectural equivalent of a Monty Python skit: Stirling and Wilford toy with architectural history, creating a candy-coloured layer cake version of Renaissance Italy – or is it Albert Speer’s Germania?

Norman Foster

Sir Norman is rightfully proud of his world famous Reichstag re-do completed in 1999, but he initially balked at including its signature dome. Pressured by conservatives to rebuild the parliament’s Victorian-era cupola, Foster countered with its space-age descendant. A giant mirrored cone reflects daylight into the parliament chamber below, and a spiraling, walkable ramp brings the structure to life via a literal incarnation of the building’s populist inscription, Dem Deutsche Volke – “for the German people”.

But Foster’s most mind-blowing Berlin dome lies hidden in Dahlem. The Free University’s Philological Library is a hive of academics studying inside a giant recreation of a human cranium. Below its skull-shaped translucent roof are five levels of books and desks spread over floor plates modeled on lateral sections of a human brain.

Sauerbruch & Hutton

No building embodies the sky’s-the-limit optimism of post-Wall Berlin better than the GSW Headquarters near Checkpoint Charlie. Completed in 1999, the 22-storey tower’s curved western facade is equipped with pink and orange solar blinds that open and close, confetti-like, making the structure a steel-and-glass ode to joy. When they got the job, British-born Louisa Hutton and her German partner Matthias Sauerbruch were based in London, but the tower’s success brought them to Berlin where they generated a series of cheerfully colourful, eco-conscious building projects.

Twenty years later, the pair still work together but with an altered (out)look. Their latest Berlin work is the 2014 TK Maxx flagship store at Alexanderplatz which, along with nearby Primark, has helped turn the once proudly-Communist core of East Berlin into a hub of frenetic, planet-killing capitalism. The building sits wedged between the train station and the TV Tower, a nearly-windowless black box squished under a slab of luxury flats. It’s as cheery as a sullen goth teen at a birthday party.

What ended Berlin’s spree of Brit-driven architectural delirium? Maybe the trauma of that morning in September 2007 when the city woke up next to the Alexa shopping mall? For over a decade, the Hauptstadt has been on a strict architectural diet of gray, black and beige minimalism under the stern eye of the city’s queen of good taste, Swiss-born Building Director Regula Lüscher. It’s no wonder that the only British designer welcome here anymore is David Chipperfield, whose sober buildings, like Museum Island’s new cage-like entrance, dovetail perfectly with Lüscher’s neo-Lutheran asceticism. They are, coincidentally, exactly the kind of buildings that Stirling and Wilford were thumbing their noses at.