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Hands Off Hejduk
Rapid response stops plans to alter architect's Berlin tower
John Hejduk's Kreuzberg Tower in Berlin, photographed in 1988, a year after the housing complex's completion.
Helene Binet

The Berlin developer probably didn’t know what was in store when he decided to remove a few balconies and repaint his building pink. But once word got out, within two weeks 3,000 protesters from around the world, including some of the brightest stars in architecture, had signed a petition against defacing John Hejduk’s Kreuzberg Tower.

The housing project, after vigorous debate, will be restored much the way it is.

Then on April 19, after the Berlin Senate and the city’s building department weighed in against the alterations, developer BerlinHaus Verwaltung (which bought the building in a foreclosure) changed course and is now proceeding with a complete restoration of one of the very few structures built by the poet of architecture and revered dean of Cooper Union from 1972 to 2000. “It’s a sweet little grassroots triumph, a little bit of David and Goliath, and very May ‘68,” Renata Hejduk, an architectural historian and the architect’s daughter, said from Phoenix where she is a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

The happy ending is thanks not so much to a grassroots movement as to the lightning-speed dismay that had emails flying, bloggers buzzing, and Daniel Libeskind decrying the building’s fate in the local newspaper Berliner Morgenpost.

The senate’s decision has repercussions that go well beyond the rescue of one building. The Kreuzberg Tower was constructed as part of the citywide International BauAufstellung (IBA) program of 1987 that invited notable architects the world over to design low- and middle-income housing and infrastructure in Berlin’s neediest neighborhoods. (The Kreuzberg Tower was close to the notorious border station for the then-divided city, Checkpoint Charlie.)

A rendering of the proposed changes.

Many IBA buildings by the likes of James Stirling, Alvaro Siza, Frei Otto, Aldo Rossi, and Peter Eisenman— to name but a few of the dozens participating—are much in need of repair and, located in gentrifying neighborhoods, a constant temptation to developers. Just short of designating all of them landmarks, the Senate pronounced that plans to alter any IBA 1987 buildings must undergo close scrutiny by the city’s building department and appropriate historians before proceeding. The Kreuzberg Tower is to be not only restored, but the landscape completed as Hejduk originally envisioned.

The 14-story tower and two five-story wings with their eyelid sun shades and nose-ish balconies capture not only the architect’s explorations into the mythic resonance of anthropomorphic geometries but also represent, along with many other IBA buildings, postmodernism at its inglorious height in the 1980s. “The senate understood that this wasn’t just about my father’s building, but the entire heritage of a movement that needs to be preserved,” Hejduk said.

Julie V. Iovine