Posts Tagged ‘IBA’

Berlin’s 1987 IBA

October 13, 2009

Comment piece for October 2009 issue of Blueprint magazine (not published online), on how there’s much to learn from the former West Berlin’s IBA housing projects of the 1980s:

By the 1980s, Britain was in the process of withdrawal from state funded housing, atomizing the design of domestic architecture and leaving no real models, good or bad, for housing design on a large scale.  But while we were busy disposing of our public housing stock, over in West Berlin they’d gone back to the drawing board. The city had had its fair share of grim sub-Corbusian housing projects, which finally ran out of funding and public patience in the (then) backwater of Kreuzberg – a poor district, but also the heart of the city’s alternative and squatter scenes.   Luckily, the situation coincided with the planning of an international housing exhibition – the IBA (International Bauaustellung) 1987, which  morphed at an early stage from the planned ‘International Expo’ approach (put some new buildings in a park, photograph them, forget them) into something more ambitious.  The IBA became an attempt to repair an entire failing city quarter.

From the beginning of the 1980s up to the point when the Berlin Wall fell, the exhibition was responsible for over 5,000 new residential units, largely integrated into Berlin’s 19th century urban form of five-storey high density buildings around a network of internal courtyards and communal spaces.  A high proportion of the designs were procured through international competitions, resulting in work by Álvaro Siza, Mario Botta, Peter Cook, John Hejduk, Aldo Rossi, Frei Otto, Arato Isozaki, James Stirling and many others.  Zaha Hadid did her first building here; blocks by Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenmann face each other across a street.  The use of so many apparently disparate architects leads to some interesting contrasts not found elsewhere on this scale, and not at all in the monolithic planning which preceded it.  The Altbau (old building) element of the exhibition became a case study in sensitive urban renewal, rescuing and refurbishing around 7,000 apartments as well as providing schools, community centres and extensive landscaping, with projects often resident-led.

Curious then that the IBA is so rarely studied, or heard of, at least in the UK.  Perhaps it’s an issue of style; many of the designs are just too postmodern – that unacceptable face of the 80s – for contemporary tastes.  The IBA includes masterplans and several buildings by Rob Krier, brother of Poundbury designer Léon Krier, both of whom were known as postmodernists at the time, but have more recently been rebranded as ‘new traditionalists’.  Both are strongly linked to the New Urbanism movement, whose concerns about the urban environment and often appear sound, but is let down by an insistence on taking historicism to a slightly creepy level; visions of new towns dominated oddly Roman and other neoclassicist buildings, often designed by Rob Krier himself.

IBA buildings present a curious medley of postmodernism and other emerging styles such as deconstructivism (the Hadid block being one of the more recognizable).  Some buildings feature wholly unremarkable, almost bland, street facades.  But take a wander through the entrances to some of these blocks and you find yourself in communal gardens or overgrown Italianate courtyards, with some incorporating cafes, playgrounds and schools.  There are genuine elements of sustainability, from before a time when the pointless strapping of wind turbines and photovoltaics onto buildings became fashionable; in one large courtyard space you find yourself on a series of bridges over fields of reedbeds – the surrounding blocks recycle all their waste water.

Although a majority of the housing is public, there’s a complex mix of tenure, with the IBA stretching from the wealthy embassy district, eastwards toward the poorer areas of predominantly social housing.  Most of the housing seems to be genuinely liked by its residents, who are sometimes bemused by visiting architecture students and critics questioning them on matters of theory or style.  It helps that the buildings on the whole seem have weathered well, despite Berlin’s tradition of graffiti on every surface (Álvaro Siza’s pristine white walls were the most notable early casualty).

The wall that divided Berlin for over 28 years was gone by the time the final IBA projects were being completed.  Much has been written about how many of the key players in the IBA took the policies forward into what became known as the ‘Critical Reconstruction’ of the scarred city.  Yet curiously, looking back it appears that the reconstruction of the 1990s fell  mainly into the traps of either bland corporate towers (Potzdamerplatz) or obsessive historicist restrictions (Pariserplatz).  Lessons from Berlin’s IBA have been learnt elsewhere in Germany (a new IBA is currently underway in Hamburg), but the real legacy is perhaps proof that urban regeneration can be achieved on this scale, with architecture in a leading role.  It is ironic that back in Kreuzberg itself, the work of rescuing of failed neighbourhoods by the IBA laid the foundations for their increasing gentrification.