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Save Berlin: Mitte’s broken heart

Dan Borden on how the East and West destroyed a pair of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s masterpieces.

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Once home to an art gallery, the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche now faces demolition. Photo by Marie Yako

Dan Borden on how the East and West destroyed a pair of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s masterpieces.

It was East Germany’s cruelest act of architectural vandalism. In 1962, Berlin’s communists demolished the Bauakademie, the crowning masterpiece in the career of the city’s patron saint of architects, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Now another of Berlin’s Schinkel-designed jewels, the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, may be doomed, a victim of capitalist greed.

Schinkel (1781-1841) was architecture’s answer to Beethoven and Bach. He started out designing opera sets, and his instinct for urban theatre helped turn his buildings, from the Neue Wache to the Altes Museum, into beloved Berlin landmarks. His passions for design clarity and innovation reached their peak in a building that jumpstarted modern architecture.

The Bauakademie was a college for building design across the Spree River from the Royal Palace. In 1836, its super-rational plan – a square grid of structural columns – and stripped-down brick façade were revolutionary. Schinkel had invented the construction system known as “curtain wall” which made America’s skyscrapers possible 50 years later. That didn’t stop the East Germans from demolishing the Bauakademie to make way for a sterile 1960s office block, their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In turn, the triumphant West Germans tore down the Ministry and rebuilt Schinkelplatz, a square honouring the architect. His bronze statue stands in front of a full-size vinyl mock-up of the Bauakademie.

Two doors down stands the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, a prim church hiding its own radical past. In 1831, the independent German states were in turmoil with calls to unite under an American-style constitution. Prussia’s monarchy was under threat. When Schinkel designed the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche using the Gothic style, he took a stand for German nationalism in the shadow of the Prussian Royal Palace. It was Berlin’s first new Gothic church after centuries of Classicism. Forget Greece and Rome, Schinkel was saying: Gothic was the true German style. This quaintly nostalgic chapel was actually Schinkel’s model for united Germany’s architectural future.

Using thin, screen-like walls with lots of windows, Schinkel created an open, sunfilled space, ideal for exhibiting art. Bombed in World War II, the church was meticulously repaired, and reopened in 2001 as a branch of the National Gallery spotlighting 19th-century sculpture. Most of Schinkel’s other surviving buildings are reconstructed shells, making Friedrichswerdersche Kirche a rare intact Schinkel interior.

Cracks formed in the church’s walls as it tilted into a pit dug for a neighbouring parking garage.

At the same time, Berlin’s government drew up plans to re-densify the city’s historic centre. The grassy open lots surrounding the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche were quietly sold off to developers. In 2012, bulldozers arrived. Soon, cracks formed in the church’s fragile walls and ceiling as it began tilting into a massive pit dug for a neighbouring parking garage. Tonnes of concrete were injected under the church, but the damage was done.

Today that intricately restored Schinkel interior is closed, filled with scaffolds that prop up its fragile ceiling. Worse, it’s dark. In 1831, Friedrichswerdersche Kirche towered over the two-story houses around it. Now its neighbours in that luxury condo tower peer down on the crumbling church from a seventh-floor pool deck. Its stained glass windows are in permanent shadow, making it virtually useless as a gallery.

Twenty years ago, West Germans pointed to the Bauakademie’s demolition as proof of communist barbarism. Newly installed culture minister Klaus Lederer has similarly decried the fate of Schinkel’s church. Ironically, Lederer represents Die Linke, the former East German communist party. He blames the church’s destruction on crony capitalism that turned a blind eye to obvious threats. The Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, he believes, is beyond saving.

If they build that monument to Germany’s reunification – a giant seesaw in front of the rebuilt Schloss – Schinkelplatz will serve as its poignant twin just across the river. The bronze statue of Schinkel stands flanked by two of his finest works: the Bauakademie destroyed in the name of East German zealotry, and the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, lost in the blind race for profit. It is a monument to two failed ideologies.