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History and memory: one of Berlin's great cultural institutions has been imaginatively remodelled to connect with the life of the city.

The Akademie der Kunste is a bit like the British Royal Academy except that it involves a larger spectrum of arts, including literature, theatre, film and dance as well as painting, sculpture and architecture, and that it draws its membership--currently 370 persons--from an international field. Founded in 1696 under royal patronage, it had various homes until 1907, when it took over the former Arnim Palace at the corner of Pariser Platz. In this central location, on Berlin's east-west axis between Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate, it grew and flourished until 1937, when the arts were ousted in favour of Albert Speer's office for the replanning of 'Germania'. By the end of the War much of the building had been destroyed, and as Pariser Platz lay close to the Wall of 1961 on the Eastern side, it was reduced to a station for border guards.

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Meanwhile, revived academies grew up in new homes separately in the East and West sectors of the city, the Western one in a building by Duttmann in the Hansaviertel. Only after reunification in 1989 could a return to the original home be entertained, and only through combining the East and West academies could it be achieved. The members overcame their differences and accepted the necessary reduction in numbers, so by 1993 a decision had been made to return to the old site.

State funding was promised, a brief was drawn up, and a limited competition was opened to the internationally distinguished architect members, 18 of whom took part. Gunter Behnisch stood aside from the first stage, but after an indecisive outcome he decided to take part in the second, and in 1994 an architectural jury led by Gabriel Epstein was unanimous in declaring the Behnisch design the winner and recommending its construction. Their choice was supported in style and intention by representatives from all the other arts, seeming to point the way to a happy future, but support from the city was less consistent. Delays over permissions and struggles over funding were compounded by contractual difficulties which is why we have had to wait until 2005 to see the completion and opening of Behnisch's building.

Pariser Platz originated as part of the new western suburb of Berlin laid out on a rectangular grid for Friedrich Wilhelm the First of Prussia in 1733. It was part of a processional route used for victory parades, and the name Pariser Platz commemorated victory over Napoleon in 1814. The west side, as main gate, was always the most formal and symmetrical, and the Brandenburg Gate as we know it today was added in 1789. The rest of the square, when first laid out in the 1730s, was fronted by noblemen's palaces in two grand stories with Classical orders and mansards, though irregularly grouped and with varying plot widths. Long deep sites left room for generous gardens behind.

As the city grew in the nineteenth century, the peripheral position became central, and the buildings exchanged their domestic roles for institutional ones. Density of accommodation increased, provoking expansion upwards and rearwards into gardens. The Akademie was typical: it used the existing three-storey Arnim Palace for offices and meeting rooms, then filled the garden to the back with a large block of top-lit exhibition halls, leaving only a narrow open space next to each party wall. After the destruction of 1945 and subsequent clearing of debris, these exhibition halls--protected by flanking rooms added by Speer--were the only remains of the former square apart from the gate.

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To maintain historical continuity and memory of the institution it was desirable to keep at least some of these exhibition rooms, and now that art often consists of installations and performances rather than painting, artists seem to prefer a dialogue with an existing place rather than being framed inescapably by the white room of the architect. But retention of the old chain of rooms was not easy. Taking more than half the length of the site, they ran down the middle, and their roof lights required void overhead. With its many departments, meeting spaces, offices, and archives, the Akademie constituted quite a large programme, constrained by party walls each side, building lines to front and rear, and a height limit respecting the Brandenburg Gate. The site could have been filled with artificially lit and air-conditioned floors like a huge open-plan office, but to meet the accommodation requirements in a civilised way, giving people daylight, views, air and visible spatial progressions, demanded ingenious exploitation of every opportunity for transparency.

Accepting the central string of galleries, Behnisch chose to make a relatively open block fronting the square for the ceremonial and public parts, and a more solid south block to rear for the archives. These set up a fruitful contrast, for while the archive block was to be a straightforward piece of rational modern building with solid and repetitive floors, offices to the facade, and storage within, the front block varied in storey height and took diagonal slices across the plan, varying from one level to the next. This allowed a series of stairs to develop irregularly in the well behind, setting up a rotation in the space. The ascent from level to level was to be a drama and a discovery, with ever-changing views into the spaces behind as well as back through to the Pariser Platz, and a generous open terrace in the middle. Its floors would carry the principal elements of the Akademie: on the ground, foyer and book sales; on first, the reading room for archive material; on second, main lecture hall; and on third, presidential offices. The fourth rooftop level with glass roof and open terrace with views of Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate has become the members' bar. In plans of the developing design, the specific features of each floor varied, but the contrast between floors in shape, height and layout was retained, and the stairwell with its many diagonals remained the vertical visual link.

Having determined the destiny of back and front, there remained the question of the sides. The solid party wall to the west backing onto Frank Gehry's DG Bank (AR August 2001) could take a single row of offices at three upper levels, looking out over the galleries and fed by a corridor behind. On the east, by contrast, the rebuilt Adlon hotel already presented a windowed facade a short distance away, and was best left open. This was the obvious place for a through pedestrian street that links Pariser Platz to Behrenstrasse and the Holocaust Monument beyond (AR July 2005). This public space remains open from dawn to dusk, lit by a glass roof. It contains the Akademie's public cafe on a slightly raised level, for the floor slopes gently up from one side and down to the other. To link the Akademie's front and rear departments more directly outside the public realm, a pier-like passage was added, linked to the main stair system and suspended within the space at first floor level.

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Behnisch is well known for his flowing spaces and his belief in transparency, and the whole idea of the Bonn Parliament (AR March 1993) was to create a parliamentary chamber visually open to the outside world, letting the public see the debate and members see the Rhine. In the history of German architecture, this concept of a glass palace reaches back to the Expressionist period and to the dreams of a glass architecture flaunted in the drawings of Bruno Taut and the poems of Paul Scheerbart, sources acknowledged by Behnisch and Durth.*

In the case of the Akademie, the contained site and dense programme necessitated the elimination of as many solid walls as possible, and the building's public role required not only that the foyer seem open and inviting, but that the main functions appear behind an open facade. Other architect members submitting designs to the competition had also envisaged heavily glazed facades, so it came as a shock when this assumed freedom to exploit the unrestricted face of the site was refused. Following a town-planning concept of the early 1990s, a law had been passed in 1993 compelling all facades on Pariser Platz to be clad in yellow or grey stone with window holes showing the same ratio of solid to void as the Brandenburg Gate. The Akademie assumed that this law would be negotiable, and the glass facade was adjusted in detail to satisfy the authorities. After much discussion, permission was granted in December 1995, but it was rapidly rescinded after local elections, for a new conservative politician had taken over building policy.

Although Behnisch has always tended to make the most of contingencies, he considered the facade rule ill-founded and threatening to the whole social identity of his project. He argued that stone facades with vertical window holes had been an inevitable part of nineteenth-century technology, but that in a framed building they make no sense. With the full backing of the Akademie he challenged the law, working with the German historian Werner Durth to produce further revised facade versions. These correctly restated the divisions and proportions of the Akademie's old front to strengthen the historical argument, but remained predominantly glazed.

Eventually Behnisch won his case, but building was delayed three years, and the financial situation became in consequence more difficult. Fearing that it would run out of money, the Berlin Senate decided to sell off the part of the site intended for the archive block, moving the archives instead to a deep basement under the front. This policy backfired, for difficult ground conditions meant cost increases, reducing the value of the sale. Further delays and cost increases were caused when the general contractor appointed by the Senate went bust. The intended archive block has been built to Behnisch's general plan, but by other architects and for other uses, compromising the Behrenstrasse facade and removing the main justification of the pier-like link. Also lost is the continuity through layers from street to street and the intended contrast between the ordinary back and more dramatic front.

Fortunately little sense of the delays and struggles persists into the completed building. As the only public building in the square and as a primary representative institution for the arts in Berlin, it seems apt that the Akademie be open and inviting. Its penetrability, declared in the through-street and friendly top-lit cafe, give new life to a rather po-faced square that desperately needs it. Events taking place within can be witnessed from without, especially at night, binding the life of the square to the life of the institution. All would have been hopelessly constrained by a stone mask. The feeling in the plenary chamber or in the member's bar of being 'on the square' would also have disappeared.

The constraint of the facades only teaches us, once again, that aesthetic quality cannot be assured by decree and is not achieved through materials and regulating lines, even if plot lines and height restrictions are essential. Memory--of cities, institutions, and buildings--matters, but is always subject to selection and interpretation, and a good architect is needed for a creative dialogue. Behnisch's choice to concentrate on the old exhibition halls as the heart of the institution was a more profound act of memory than facade rules read into historical evidence by modern bureaucrats.

*The story of the struggle over the building's style is recorded in the book Berlin Pariser Platz by Gunter Behnisch and Werner Durth, published for the Akademie by Jovis, Berlin 2005 (German with English summaries).
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Author:Jones, Peter Blundell
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:1942
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