Sunday, July 22, 2018

Junk Space or Space Jumk: A Visit to Berlin's Free University

Main f acaede, corten steel replaced with bronze in Norman Foster retoration.Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015. Source: web magaine Uncube (reference below)

Freie Universität Berlin
1962 (competition); 1967-72 (Phase 1)
Georgis Candilis, Alexis Josic & Shadrach Woods, architects.

I have wanted to see this legendary building for years - an entire university in a single sprawling structure, with a maze of interior streets and courtyards - an indoor city, like a souk, projected to extend over 350,000 m2 of space -3.5 million square feet- when complete. Though its pedigree is Team X -Candilis and Woods were founders of the group- I imagined it as a physical incarnation of concepts such as Constant's New Babylon or Yona Friedman's Spatial City, a fully-realized adolescent male fantasy of endless, random exploration and encounter - which, apparently, in its salad days of leaking facades and student strikes in the 1970s, it came close to being.

 Original plan. Source: web magazine Socks (full reference below)

But this is not the building my friends and I found. Perhaps we simply didn't wander far enough into the nether reaches of numerical-alphabetically-named passageways. But I wonder too if Norman Foster's restoration of 1997-2004, while saving the building for posterity, perhaps gentrified it as well. Or was it always, with its carpeted hallways and artificial air, its dropped ceilings and fluorescent lights, more akin to a 1960s airport concourse, shopping center, hotel convention center, or other forms of modern junk space? Too soberly German and institutional to be really avant-garde, despite the jazzy facades, the maze-like plan and the endless possibilities of its vastness. Our friend Michael Neil found it simply difficult to breathe. A real city turns out to be much more interesting.

Unless noted, all photos by DC

Strangely, like Hans Scharoun's Philharmonic and other monuments of West Berlin's Cold War period, the Freie Universität is unmistakably suburban in character, rather than urban, despite its enormous size: in its low, two- and three-story profile, in its disregard for street lines, in those grassy borders that separate it from the street like a suburban church. The only thing missing is a parking lot.

Rear facade in aluminum, from Phase II, 1973.79

Our friend Emily Pütter sees the anti-hierarchical character of the design, its bid for "free form" and all that, and its suburban American ethos, as clearly ideological. Of course. And it was built in the heart of the American sector, in suburban Zehlendorf. Similarly, Scharoun's Philharmonic, together with Mies' National Gallery and Scharoun's State Library, are haphazardly scattered in a park-like setting, right beside what was then the ravaged border of the wall, and now is steps away from a re-incarnated Potsdammer Platz, though the vibe is closer to Westchester or Shaker Heights.

Aerial view, 1974. Gabriel Feld and Peter Smithson, Free University, Berlin: Candilis, Josic, Woods, Schiedhelm. Exemplary Projects, 3 (London: Architectural Association, 1999), 16. Source: Socks.

But the vastness of the Freie Universität is ultimately impressive, at least from the inside - junk space of such a scale that it comes to feel like a Star Wars mothership or an artificial planet. Walking down the endless central corridor, with ramps sliding up and down to other levels and corridors peeling off at regular intervals, you feel as if the whole thing is cruising through interstellar space as you walk.

Next time in Berlin I must explore the building alone, like a spelunker, venturing deeper and deeper into its recondite byways, and try again to find the magic. Though the very fact that we were not tempted to do so seems telling.

We came close to such an epiphany in a little bookshop hidden off one of the garden courts. As we walked by some windows, a primitive sign outside caught our eye in a corner of the garden. We found a little door into the garden, followed a meandering, sloping path down into a sunken service road, which tunnels under several wings of the building, and entered a claustrophobic, windowless little basement space packed with books.

Two interesting web sites on the project:

Florian Heilmeyer
"Radically Modern in 60s Berlin (3): The Radically Modular Free University of West Berlin"
Uncube Magazine, Blog Berlin, June 15, 2015

Mariabruna Fabrizi
"The Free University of Berlin (Candilis, Josic, Woods and Schiedhelm - 1963)"
Socks, 10.29.2015

From the latter, edited:

"The project proposed to transform the campus into a deeply interconnected city with internal streets, squares, courtyards and multiple walkways on the model of an Arabic Medina."

"The main concept was a radical rethinking of the educational system with an accent on the flexibility and evolution of space, as well as a literal spatial incarnation of the idea of horizontal communication among students and teachers."

"Classrooms, departments and facilities were to be decentralized and distributed on the grid without any hierarchical organization."

Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015 (Uncube)
Phase 1 construction: 1967-73

Original architects with local project architect Manfred Schiedhelm

Phase II: 1973-79 by Manfred Schiedhelm

Restoration: 1997-2005, Foster & Partners

Phase IV: 2004-2015, Florian Nagler Architects

Phas IV, 2004-2015, with terrain remaining for development
Massing plan, Phase IV outlined in dark. Source: Uncube

In the first phase the lightweight facade panels, designed by Jean Prouvé, were intended to be dismounted and re-arranged by two people with a screwdriver. They were finished in corten-steel. Unfortunately, they rusted out and leaked even before construction was completed, earning the building the nickname of "Die Rostlaube" or "Rusty Shed".

Full-scale mock-up of Foster's bronze facade panel, replacing the corten-steel originals.© Foster + Partners. Source: Uncube (visible by clicking through photos).

In his restoration, Foster replaced the corten steel with bronze panels that otherwise match the originals remarkably.

Candilis, Josic & Woods dissolved their partnership in 1968. The second phase was carried out by the local project architect, who remained true to the original concept, but replaced the corten-steel with aluminum. It was called "Die Silberlaube".

Foster library. Photo: Freie Universität

Foster also added a glass-domed library to the complex, somewhat in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller - Foster is a fervent fan and collector of both Fuller and Prouvé. The complex takes on the addition remarkably well - it could use a few more such couplings or plug-ins. But Foster's glass dome leaks when it rains.

Foster's Library breaks with the open carpet plan of the original. Photo:

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