Kultur concrète

People often seem to have something against concrete. I’ve had a number of conversations recently where someone’s pointed at a building (the Barbican centre in east London for example) and said ‘oh, look at all that concrete, isn’t it ugly?’ My reply would be: ‘That’s exactly the point.’ This is brutalist architecture. It’s designed to be disquieting. In the case of the Barbican, it’s designed to remind people that it was built during a period of post-war national turmoil.

There’s no better example of provocative ugliness in the form of concrete than Berlin’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Designed by Peter Eisenman, it consists of 2711 large concrete blocks each of varying sizes, and occupies a prominent square near the Brandenburg Gate.

In the bleak drizzle of a January late-afternoon the place is eery and empty. Long, directionless corridors of concrete yawn into the distance, as if channelling a collective psyche. The sensory experience is heightened by the weird echo effect produced by the proximity of the rectangles.

Counterintuitively, this is architecture – sculpture – at its most functional. Its very purpose is to make the passer-by stop and realise something momentous has occurred. You can look at the Reichstag from a distance, with its new roof by Norman Foster, and get away with thinking ‘wow, this is a suitably impressive building for the government of Europe’s biggest economic power’ rather than ‘this is the place that was set on fire by the Nazis, allowing Hitler to seize emergency powers.’ You can’t do that with the holocaust memorial. It requires the visitor to ask why the hell someone has gone to the effort of sticking so many enormous hunks of concrete in the centre of Berlin. Even the oblivious English tourists behind me, who at first shouted ‘Ooh look, it’s a maze!’ were shocked into silence.

One of my favourite architects is Basil Spence, who’s been in the news recently thanks to the Mortonhall crematorium scandal. He had an uncanny talent for creating brutalist architecture that prevents people from forgetting. This is for another post/ article, but a few of the buildings he designed include Coventry Cathedral and the University of Edinburgh’s library (I will fight to the death over this one – it’s not to be called ugly…)

Wandering round this memorial was a reminder that things don’t have to be beautiful to have aesthetic value. We live in a world that’s utterly focused on the perfection of form as it is – bodily form, intellectual form, sporting form, whatever (how about makeup adverts, for example, constantly telling women how they need to improve themselves?) Architectural forms such as Brutalism and Functionalism allow a certain release. They remind us of our limitations. If skyscrapers like the Empire State Building or The Shard are constructed to make people look up in awe at the possibility of money and ideas, we should also celebrate structures that refuse to capitulate to the beauty of form.

What I’m reading in Berlin

1) The Innocent – Ian McEwan

This is an early, easily overlooked McEwan novel. It may not have the polish of his later books (the beginning’s a bit slow, and there are chunks of unconvincing dialogue), but If you’re into cold war espionage literature then you’ll be hard-pressed to find another author who combines cold war narrative with sepia 1950’s existence so effectively.

Many of McEwan’s novels deal with sclerotic post-war British identity and the accompanying sexual hiatus. This is no exception. Twenty-five year old electrical engineer Leonard Marnham is sent out to Berlin to work on a top secret project tapping Soviet lines, when he has his first sexual liaison with a young German girl. Dysfunction ensues.

2) Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood 

This delicious set of fragments gives a real flavour of 30’s Berlin, depicting the sudden fall from prosperity experienced by everyone in Germany after the Wall Street Crash. The narrator takes up the namesake of the author, and despite protestations in the introduction, the account has a strong autobiographical streak.

The six sections tell the tale of 1930’s Berlin from different standpoints, exploring the lives of characters the fictional Isherwood encounters; from the aristocratic family he works for as an English teacher, to an aspiring British actress treading the boards of the German dance halls.

Originally intended as part of a grand social project charting the rise of Nazism, this book is quite simply delightful to read. Isherwood flirts his way through the pages, never taking himself and his Englishness – or indeed anything at all – too seriously, even when presented with decidedly unusual moral dilemmas.

Lots of the characters are salacious and gossipy in a kind of flawed-but-ultimately-loveable way. This just makes it all the weirder when Isherwood suddenly mentions the political and social context: ‘She was, of course, a member of the Nazi party.’