Ghost in the Machine

Ghost in the Machine

When creating publicity materials supporting its recent architectural survey, Radically Modern: Urban Planning and Building in 1960s Berlin, the Berlinische Galerie had dozens of visual options. Curiously, the museum chose to prominently feature a photomontage of a building neither planned nor built—only imagined. And when the show opened this spring, its creator, the Berlin architect Engelbert Kremser, was not in attendance, preferring not to cut short his Italian holiday.

This is entirely fitting given Kremser’s professional history. Much like his featured work, one in a series he made in 1970 critiquing the box mentality of Berlin architecture, he is nothing if not a kind of Berlin ghost. Over a photo of West Berlin’s Europa Center, Kremser collaged a painted image of the mall as he would have built it. His version is an amorphous, organic fantasy, historically wedged between the theoretical drawings of Hermann Finsterlin and the actual buildings of Frank Gehry, via Hans Scharoun.

Finsterlin and Scharoun had been members of the influential Glass Chain group in the 1920s, which also counted the brothers Bruno and Max Taut as members, along with Wasilli Luckhardt, Walter Gropius and others. It was, more or less, the expressionist yin to the Bauhaus’s industrial yang. But it was Scharoun who got things going after the war and actually got things built, including Berlin’s renowned Philharmonic Hall, on which Kremser worked as a student.

“I drew windows—and toilets!” he says with a hearty laugh.

It’s the sort of self-deprecating appreciation that would come in handy in a world that could otherwise make one bitter. Now 76, he’s a striking man in appearance, with a bounty of silver hair, and deliberate, sometimes defiant eyes. (Full disclosure: I came to know Kremser when I rented a flat from him and still do.) As a student, he challenged even what might have seemed radical at the time: “Scharoun always had corners,” he said. He wanted to remove them, to go further, imperfectly.

When Kremser sees a circle, he sees a fiction: “Round is exactly round,” he told me, “ellipse is not exact. In nature, it is never exact. I wanted to deform the round. When everything is the same, there is no choice involved, but when one has a choice, one must take in everything, really look at it.”

He details the historic parallels: Gothic window, each different; Roman columns, all unique; and the varied Baroque shapes and forms.

“My principle is that you can drive by one of these modern boxes and see it all very quickly, with one glance. But with these forms you don’t forget them, they stay longer in your head.”

To say that Kremser was leaning, if not tilting, into the wind is to say the least. You might think otherwise if you saw the bookshelf in his Potsdam home, where he and his wife Sieglinde live among Kremser-designed-and-built wooden furniture. On that shelf in his office are dozens of international publications in which he is featured, yet he has built only three projects, and none of those were completed as planned.

A not insignificant problem was the Berlin Senate and its political NIMBYs, who actively opposed Kremser and his earth architecture, despite favorable attention in the press. The more he was written about, the more he was attacked. But Kremser dug in; he believed he was onto a significant innovation. He had read about the way the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium was built in 1957 by adding dirt to an existing mound, pouring concrete over it, then digging out the mound to leave only the form—the technique Paolo Soleri later used at Arcosanti in Arizona.

“As a kid, I used to build sand castles. And I thought, one could also build several forms out of sand. And pour the concrete over it, then dig out the sand. That is much cheaper and you have absolute freedom with the form—so many possibilities.”

In 1980 Kremser would get his chance with an international competition for the design of Britzer Garten, a large new park in south Berlin, not far from the Bruno Taut’s famed horseshoe apartments. His proposal included a grand hall with a Buckminster Fuller–style cupola, as well as a lakeside cafe, and some offices. Against considerable odds, he was awarded the architectural aspects of the park’s design, but the Senate insisted that only the cafe and the office balconies would be earth architecture, the rest conventional. (The grand hall was deemed too expensive to include.)

Though modestly realized, in terms of scale, the completed Cafe am See is a grand gesture. Appearing from certain angles like the head of a dragon, it does not, one must admit, suggest Berlin in any way, shape or form. But this is also its beauty, and coming upon it in this city is like moving through a museum among all the familiar names and paintings, then suddenly seeing this one astounding outlier. Full stop.

Equally remarkable were the methods employed building it: Concrete forms were poured over construction rubbish and earth dug from the future lake, then topped with molded sand; the interior walls and ceiling are thus as much a part of the design as the exterior surfaces. Several large triangular wood-framed windows provide a surprising gemütlichkeit.

Sadly, given its remote location in Britz, a park entrance fee, and only moderately acceptable gastronomic fare, few beyond the typical weekend crowds of retirees experience the Cafe am See, and fewer still know who designed and built it, let alone how it was done. Far fewer know the background of the small children’s playground in Berlin-Wittenau, and although many more visitors to Berlin’s renowned Botanical Gardens no doubt appreciate the greenhouses designed and built under Kremser’s direction in the 80s, it’s unlikely that any of them can name their architect.

Three projects built with minimal return, then, only two of them earth architecture. So Kremser may well be best remembered by a building only imagined, one thrown out into the world with thumb pressed firmly against nose, fingers flayed, and which, in a grand irony, has come to represent a place and a time and its architecture—planning and building and dreaming in 1960s Berlin. The Berlinische Galerie had little choice but to use Kremser’s Europa Center; it was clearly the most radical.