The International Architectural Exhibition Interbau 1957
In the summer of 1957, the largest exhibition event held in 1950s Germany took place with the International Architectural Exhibition Interbau in West Berlin. Organized by the Senate of West Berlin and promoted by the German federal government, the exhibition was under the aegis of Federal President Theodor Heuss. Besides its immediate importance for the reconstruction of the Hansaviertel and Berlin, Interbau is also relevant in the wider discussion concerning the reconstruction of West German cities destroyed in the war. Moreover, the exhibition can be considered a model of westward-looking democratic urban design when seen within the context of West Germany’s ideological clash with the other German state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The architectural exhibition was a show of superlatives. At its center stood the reconstruction of a whole district. Never before had there been an architectural exhibition on such a grand scale. On an area of 25 hectares in the extensively war-damaged Hansaviertel, around 1,300 residential units, a library, two churches, a pre-school, an elementary school and a shopping mall were built, designed by more than 50 prominent architects from 14 countries, some working jointly. This urban landscape consisted of a loose ensemble of buildings set amidst generously-sized green spaces planned by ten national and international landscape architects. A wide variety of national pavilions and supporting events explored different topics relating to urban planning, housing and contemporary public life, drawing 1.3 million visitors, of whom 36% came from East Berlin and other parts of the GDR, as well as from Eastern Europe
Why did the Senate plan such a big exhibition in the 1950s?
The architectural exhibition Interbau was a response by the West Berlin Senate to various problems the city was experiencing. One problem in particular was the very high degree of damage after the Second World War, resulting in a massive housing shortage. While the rebuilding of cities in West Germany was progressing with the help of money from the Marshall Plan, the reconstruction of West Berlin was stalling because of the delicate political situation. West Berlin had lost its role as capital to Bonn and was falling behind through its “island position” in the territory of the GDR. The city was cut off from its suppliers and sales markets, and because of the uncertain political situation many companies left West Berlin for West Germany. The Senate feared the economic, political and cultural marginalization of the city.
In 1951, the Senate came up with the idea of focusing attention on West Berlin by staging a large exhibition event. In an initial announcement of a “large German architectural exhibition” in Berlin, the Senate’s Director of Building Ludwig Lemmer said that the exhibition would “even surpass Constructa in Hannover” (1), an exhibition held in 1951, which received great public attention with its focus on reconstruction and home building in post-war Germany. The Interbau exhibition in Berlin was also linked with the “capital city issue” in an early exposé: “An outpost of Europe, Berlin shows its construction as a western capital in the international architectural exhibition of 1955.” (2) In the German Parliamentary Committee for All-German Affairs, the Berlin Senate repeatedly proposed the idea of combining the architectural exhibition with a capital city competition, which eventually came to pass in 1957. For the duration of the exhibition, the documents for Berlin’s bid to be Germany’s capital were presented in the Berlin Pavilion. What is more, Berlin’s largely idle economy was to be boosted through the development of the project. As early as 1950, the Federal Minister of Economics Ludwig Erhard had arranged for the organization of an annual German Industrial Exhibition in Berlin as a “showcase for the economy” (3), which also included a high number of foreign exhibitors, bringing the city national and international prestige, as well as an economic upturn. In September 1957, the Senate synchronized Interbau with a large-scale industrial fair held on the exhibition grounds, focusing on the construction industry to great public appeal.
Interbau was also intended as a response to the construction projects in the eastern part of the city. East Berlin had become capital of the new GDR, and its rebuilding had been declared part of the state’s national development programme. 1951 had seen the start of a large-scale housing programme on Stalinallee, regarded as an aesthetic and political symbolic representation of the capabilities of the political system. In his very first public statement on Interbau, the West Berlin Minister for Construction Karl Mahler made a direct reference to Stalinallee: Interbau is “a clear commitment to the western world. It should show what we understand to be modern urban development and decent housing in contrast to the false ostentation of Stalinallee”. (4) Thus, Interbau became a prime example of the reconstruction of the western world and a symbolically-charged “showcase of the west”.
Planning in East Berlin: the first phase of Stalinallee 1951–1954
After the founding of the GDR in October 1949, the political leadership visibly sought to anchor the new state in the so-called Eastern Bloc. The politburo of the GDR therefore oriented itself towards the urban planning and architectural guidelines advocated in the Soviet Union. These Sixteen Principles of Urban Design, released in 1951 by the GDR Minister for Construction Lothar Bol, stated that architecture henceforth should be “democratic in substance and national in form”. Moreover, on “the question of whether a city should be compact or decentralized”, it was now made clear that the “compact city” was favoured (5) , signifying a clear departure from the previously advocated guiding principle of the more spacious, ordered city. The architecture of international modernism was now described as cosmopolitan, “nationally uprooting” and inhumane.
The development of East Berlin into the capital of the GDR was advanced by means of a large-scale housing project. As part of the GDR’s National Reconstruction Programme, the municipal authorities announced an urban development competition for Stalinallee in the summer of 1951. Egon Hartmann’s winning design was clearly influenced by the requirements for a “compact city”, as laid down in the Sixteen Principles of Urban Design. His plan showed a streetscape composed of multistorey residential buildings with projections and recesses, and with a sequence of squares. After a number of minor revisions with a planning collective, Stalinallee was developed into a wide main road, like a boulevard, which could also be used for parades and large gatherings, with Strausberger Platz and Frankfurter Tor forming two wide prestigious ornamental squares, accentuated by high-rise buildings and busy with traffic. The buildings with their projections, pillared doorways, entablature and cornices clearly displayed the historicist classical architecture of socialist realism. Its first example in Berlin was by the architect Hermann Henselmann, who designed a prototype of GDR architecture with the high-rise building ‘Hochhaus an der Weberwiese’ in 1951, fulfilling the requirement to follow national building traditions by primarily chosing the architecture of Friedrich Schinkel. On Stalinallee the residential buildings were designed for multipurpose use, with shops on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. As a “compact city” and with its use of historical forms, the reconstruction of Stalinallee was dismissed in the west as backward looking, and the architecture was disparagingly labelled as gingerbread style.
The path towards a new Hansaviertel: the planning of Interbau
The plans for the architectural exhibition became more concrete in November 1952 when Karl Mahler commissioned the famous exhibition organizer Albert Wischek to develop a concept. The commission had already stipulated that the subject matter was to be the redevelopment of the Hansaviertel, chosen because it was one of the most badly damaged areas in the Second World War. Moreover, the quarter was very well placed for such a large event, due to its central location in Tiergarten and its convenient public transport connections with the city train nearby.
In June 1953, the Senate finally announced an Ideas Competition for the Reconstruction of the Hansaviertel. The designs submitted were to present examples of a modern metropolis, completely renouncing the planning principles of the imperial age. This meant that the competition participants did not need to take into consideration the partly remaining, damaged buildings of the old Hansaviertel. (6) Out of the 98 entries the jury finally chose the design by Gerhard Jobst and Willy Kreuer, who had developed the design along with Wilhelm Schließer. The architects dispensed with the imperial era block arrangement, the cordoning off of the quarter from Tiergarten and the previous street alignment with its central star-shaped junction. Ten-storey slab high-rise buildings formed two “bays”, which opened up onto Tiergarten, one north and one south of Altonaer Straße. According to Gerhard Jobst, the residential buildings stood “quite naturally…just like people who turn to each other while having a chat”. (7) The jury particularly praised the design for its “spatial relationships”, “which draw the green spaces of Tiergarten into the residential area”. (8) Moreover, the architects introduced a hierarchical arrangement for the streets. Klopstockstraße was divided up into curved sections to serve as an access road, and the north-south running Lessingstraße was closed off. Following the specifications of the Ideas Competition, Altonaer Straße remained unchanged where it was, dividing the area into two.
Neither in the announcement of the competition nor in the deliberations of the jury was the proposal to hold an architectural exhibition on this site taken into account. Nevertheless, it had already been established by the Senate that many different architects should construct different types of housing. This plan, however, was difficult to realize with the two identical slab buildings of the winning design and their positioning in the two “bays”. A long phase of adapting the winning design then began, which proceeded only with considerable disagreement amongst the parties involved. The Senate finally turned to the prominent architect and president of the Federation of German Architects, Otto Bartning, who was asked to take over the chair of the Steering Committee for the Preparation of the Architectural Exhibition. Bartning subsequently chaired further planning changes to the Hansaviertel site layout and successfully pushed forward with the exhibition. In December 1954, the Senate formed a stock company to help with the difficult and lengthy task of revising the landownership. The new urban development necessitated the merging of the previous 159 plots of land into 20 plots for the large buildings and 50 plots for the single-family homes. Indeed, the city and the stock company managed to buy up almost all the plots of land, though 14 owners were expropriated in the process. (9)
Eventually in July 1955, the final layout was approved, largely corresponding with the Hansaviertel that came to be constructed. The quarter ended up being home to many different building types. High-rise buildings and four-storey linear buildings line the tracks of the city train. Opposite them, square-like areas are formed by the eight- to nine-storey slab-type buildings designed by Walter Gropius, Pierre Vago, Alvar Aalto, Oskar Niemeyer and Egon Eiermann. In the middle of the area – crossed by Altonaer Straße – is Hansaplatz, which has on its west side a loose arrangement of residential buildings by Eiermann and Niemeyer. The north side of the square is bordered by the shopping mall and a movie theater, with the Catholic church of St Ansgar opposite. On the south side of Hansaplatz there is the library by Werner Düttmann, along with the high-rise slab blocks by Sten Samuelson, Fritz Jaenecke and Alvar Aalto. Low atrium and L-shaped buildings form a carpet settlement marking the transition to Tiergarten.
The urban development concept of the Hansaviertel clearly aligns itself with the model of the subdivided and loosely-arranged city, understood as the embodiment of advanced urban planning in the post-war era (10) , though these planning principles were in fact much older. During the interwar period and the Third Reich they were considered to be the antithesis of the dense city of the 19th century. (11) However, it was only after 1945 that many town planners and architects saw the chance to rectify the deficiencies of the imperial-style “stone cities” through a more loosely arranged urban structure set through with green. Hans Scharoun, who in May 1945 was appointed Head of the Department for Building and Housing in Berlin, explained it as follows, in 1946: “What remains, after the loosening-up achieved by bombing raids and the final battle, gives us the chance to shape an urban landscape.” (12) As a result, urban activities – living, working, transportation, recreation – were separated, following an idea which had been laid down in 1933 in the Athens Charter. This urban planning charter was used as a basis for development plans in Scandinavia, London and Germany.
When Interbau was opened with great festivities on a sunny day on 6th July 1957, only a third of the buildings had been completed, with the work continuing until the beginning of the sixties. Information stands explained the design concepts; show apartments were furnished with contemporary furniture and could be visited; a viewing crane and a chairlift allowed the visitors exceptional views over the exhibition grounds; a multitude of accompanying exhibitions and special shows from abroad informed visitors about both international and national urban development, as well as interior design. There were even underground events: in the subway tunnel between Hansaplatz and Zoo station, the public could see prize-winning cartoons on the subject of “traffic sins”, while sitting in a small VW train. Along with the buildings of the architectural exhibition, the temporary pavilion with the special exhibition die stadt von morgen (the city of tomorrow) turned out to be a particular magnet for visitors, too.
Dr. Sandra Wagner-Conzelmann