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The Monumental City: The Monument in Berlin, 1797-1943, in relation to a modern monumentality

Part 2 Dissertation 2009
James Church
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) | UK
Can Albert Speer’s 1941 plan for Berlin be seen to be the greatest manifestation of this tarnished city’s desire for monumentality? In other words, can permanence and ostentatious display be used to assess what merits being called ‘monumental’ in Berlin? The sublime watercolour drawings of Freidrich Gilly’s Monument to Fredrick the Great of 1797 suggest otherwise. The clear light and a sky where clouds suggest the presence of burning incense assert that it is the most fleeting and ephemeral qualities that animate Gilly’s proposed architecture. The most transient moment is, perhaps, what allows architecture to be monumental in Berlin?
Is it possible, therefore, to restrict a study of the monument in Berlin to architecture alone? The architecture of K.F.Schinkel and Mies van der Rohe strongly suggests that this is not only unwise but impossible. From the Schloss Tegel, depicted as just one element in an expansive Italianate scene, to the vines and Sicillian vernacular features of the Court Gardner’s House, Schinkel reinforced his architectural effect by subtle modification of the landscape. However, the cool light of northern Europe ensures that no doubts are held that this is very much an architecture for Berlin.
Is this monumental impulse, dependent seemingly on an Arcadian idyll, applicable to Berlin in the twentieth century? Mies van der Rohe’s use of context by way of reflections or, more importantly, the immersive landscape seen through a window was made possible through the medium of plate glass. This use of a monumental tradition tempered by a new technology suggests a highly industrial element in Berlin’s architecture. Schinkel too demonstrates this when commissioned to erect monuments to the overthrow of Napoleon. Although utilising gothic imagery, most notably in the Kreuzberg Monument, this style was translated through the use of cast iron into a modern architecture. The publication in 1943 of the Nine Points on Monumentality by José Luis Sert, Fernand Leger and Siegfried Giedion was intended to be principally a manifesto for a new Modern monumentality. This thesis illustrates how a Modern monumentality was already defining Berlin’s urban landscape many years prior to 1943.

James Church

As we near the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, James Church’s thesis deals with two complex and controversial topics: modern monumentality and the architecture of Berlin.

To do so, he tackles some classic texts by Riegl and Sert, and he takes a hard unblinking look at the architecture of Berlin without averting his gaze from one Albert Speer.

James faces fundamental historiographical issues such as the difference between “l’histoire événementielle” and “la longue dureé” to which he gracefully responds by using one in order to answer the other: a long sequence of changing events indicates the logic of historical continuity.

James’s argumentation moves elegantly between, on the one hand, historical facts and chronological events as contextualising elements and, on the other, visual observations of art, sculpture and architecture as historical evidence. When visual observation does not square with accepted knowledge, he courageously jettisons it to reach his own original conclusion. With an admirable breadth of knowledge, James understands how to critically counterpoint visual and textual evidence.

Over the course of James’s thesis, the reader is led to rethink the very notion of monumentality as being quite different in Berlin. Thus, the very notion of ‘monument’ is revealed to be intensely regional in its historical specificity. As we know, history is of use because the present defines itself in relation to the past; all good history is driven by an ethical dynamic. James’s thesis strikes a blow for those who are interested in regionalism and modernism.

But, also, the thesis nails the lid on those who want us to believe that modernism is inherently ‘other’ than the past. James’s thesis shows the ability to recover lost meanings and to enlarge our respect for the past as a way towards the future.

There are here practical implications for architectural design too: to design a modern monumentality, critical knowledge about regional issues becomes necessary.

Jan Birksted
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