A Battleship of Brutalism – Forschungseinrichtung für experimentelle Medizin

by James Unsworth

There are a number of reasons why the Research Institute for Experimental Medicine is my choice of building for this critique, but primarily because it is perhaps the most striking building that I have come across in Berlin; this was exaggerated by the fact that when I first discovered it, I was not at all expecting to find such a structure. The institute is located between the districts of Steglitz and Lichterfelde, just south of Schloßpark Lichterfelde and with the Teltowkanal directly to the east. To give an idea of the context in which I first received the building, I had effectively been cycling southwest along the canal from Tempelhof and this area, although still relatively central, has a distinctly suburban feel to it; I came through many green spaces, for example parks, cemeteries and sports grounds before noticing a very large and texturally peculiar building to the right of the canal, this was the ‘Benjamin Franklin Building’ and it was this which initially attracted my attention and led me into the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin Campus. It quickly became clear that this space was deliberately green, airy and slightly out of the city as many university Campuses are, therefore as I continued south through the park I was quite amazed to see what looked like a battleship emerging through the trees.

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My reason for describing these circumstances is to emphasise the fact that there have been very few instances in my life when a building, not the history or the function of the building or even the people inside it, but the building alone has in some way intimidated or threatened my presence there; as if it were forbidden for me to be there. Up until this point I felt I was quite obviously in a Campus, in and around open and secure facilities for education and research, however I was now confronted by a structure which looked like it needed to be defended, my first guesses as to what it was were an ex-military building, a war museum or a protected government facility. It is interesting to note that these initial impressions were nothing to do with size, relative to the rest of the Charité Campus, the Research Institute is in fact quite modest in its dimensions; therefore it must have been the lines, the angles, the peculiar details, the colours and the fact that I did not know its purpose which caused such an effect. I also noticed that the base of this particular building was raised from ground level, requiring a ramp to get to the entrance in the way that you might do when boarding an boat or aircraft.

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The institute is the work of German architect Gerd Hänska, who is responsible for seven different buildings all located in the various districts of the city of Berlin; this particular project was originally conceived in 1969 as part of the Freie Universität, however it took over ten years to complete. I was curious to later discover that this building was originally called ‘Zentrale Tierlaboratorien’ which really does change the connotations of the word ‘experimental’ that we find in the current title. One internet source also exposes a large problem with funding for the building of this project, with initial cost estimations of 4 million Deutschmarks stretching to 126 million by the end of the construction. [1]

I try, if I can, not to be so categorical with any piece of Art or Design as I believe that it is not always so useful or even possible to separate different categories and styles, however I think it is safe to say that the FEM is a good example of the Brutalist style, particularly when we consider the time at which it was designed. So much of the technological and cultural developments throughout the 1960s and 70s put radical and futuristic ideas into the minds of many creative people, in the case of Brutalist Architects it is my understanding that much influence came from fields such as warfare, space technologies, futurism and dystopianism. Therefore my first doubt about the FEM was how appropriate is this style for what is basically an animal testing laboratory and what is the need for such an imposing structure in a University Campus? Perhaps it was directly inspired by the various examples of Brutalism in 1950s and 60s American Universities, but even in comparison to these, such as the works of Paul Rudolph, the FEM still looks more evil; more similar to the top three decks of a battleship than any building that I know of. However, at the same time I have also attempted to view the building from the perspective of 1970s Berlin, before the concrete discoloured and brown drip marks appeared on the sloped walls, perhaps this truly was an attractive building for the people and the university community to be proud of.

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Another more difficult question of suitability is to consider the juxtaposition of the FEM with its neighbourhood, the various other buildings on the Charité Campus are similarly peculiar and expressive in style, and because concrete is the main material this creates a sense of consistency both in terms of texture and colour. However, the surrounding area in general largely consists of relatively traditional red or orange brick buildings, most noticably the picturesque Pauluskirche which was rebuilt in the 1950s in a somewhat Neo-Gothic style. Therefore, the construction of the Campus in the following decades created a dramatic and absolute contrast with the surrounding neighbourhood; considering materials, proportions, geometry, colour and function, the FEM is outstanding to say the least. Such a stark contrast would usually be considered aesthetically detrimental to a suburb such as Lichterfelde, however in my opinion this particular case is not such a failure because, as I mentioned earlier, the green spaces directly surrounding the FEM serve a sort of separative function and with the canal on the east side, the boat-like building begins to look less bizarre. The functional contrast also becomes less problematic when viewed from above where we can see plenty of other educational facilities for example schools and sports grounds, my point being that if the FEM were directly surrounded by family homes, it would be much more of an obvious threat to desirability of the area.

The first of many unusual features of the FEM are the sloped angles of the outer walls which was initially what made me think I had discovered a WWII bunker, the local nickname for the building was infact the ‘Mouse Bunker’ (in reference to the animal testing), therefore I am not alone in this comparison. I find this feature actually very refreshing, it is not often I see geometry such as this and it really gives the structure some strength and stability; if one were to view the silhouette of the building and therefore just the outline, the shape alone (perhaps a rhombus) could even be described as vaguely reminiscent of an ancient temple or half-pyramid from Inka or Egyptian civilization. However this basic shape is interrupted by various features, most notably the large cylindrical blue-grey ventilation pipes which protrude at three different levels, this is an unmistakable reference to canon-like guns, it can be no coincidence that they are organised in this way with the exact same colour of gunmetal. This can be interpreted in a number of ways, of course these pipes serve a function, that is to provide and control the air supply to each individual laboratory on the inside; however this must also have been a deliberate decision by Hänska and I can only speculate as to why. If there is a connection between the military presence of the place and the actual function of it, then it must be that this building might well have been the future of great medical and scientific discoveries, therefore the exterior must be a proud and superior facade, a strong and impenetrable hub of expertise.

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However, it is also true that there does not always necessarily need to be a direct connection between the aesthetics and the function of a building, many of Hänska’s other buildings have also been given the brand of Brutalist and having lived through the war himself, it is entirely possible that he simply developed an admiration for the military and naval approach to design. This influence is also evident in the small trianglular-based pyramid shaped three dimensional windows, which are again reminiscent of a closable latch for guns or other ammunition. However the most peculiar thing about these windows is that two thirds of each individual pyramid is in fact covered with concrete, minimising the amount of natural light which is allowed to enter and therefore contradicting the very purpose of a window. I can only assume then that the technicians and researchers inside prefer the environment to be more accurately controlled internally and with artificial light, which raises a whole different question of energy usage and the sustainability of the facility.

I was very surprised to find out about the huge underestimation of the construction costs, if the figures are true, then the difference between the estimation and the actual cost is 122 million Deutschmarks over the ten year construction period which converts into over 62 million Euros. It is difficult to believe that the project was not abandoned or at least heavily altered to minimise expenses. At the very least, the primary material is concrete which is widely regarded as a cost effective and sustainable substance, therefore the large expenses must be in the technologies required for such a facility and perhaps the awkwardness of so many small details. It is easy to dismiss a building such as this as ‘ugly’ or ‘vulgar’ in the conventional sense of these words; the concrete has been worn and stained by acid rain, it no longer has its futuristic charm and it is also true to say that people’s moral attitudes towards animal testing may have changed drastically. However I can really appreciate a radical design such as this, the diagonal geometry is easy on my eyes, the millitary details are truly unique and even the dirty stains on the concrete walls reaching from beige to brown therefore accidentally creating a rich texture and diverse spectrum of colour.

Above all else I am a fan of originality, innovation and function; therefore words such as beauty, vulgarity and also trying to categorise things do not interest me so much. I struggle with these phrases because it is not often so advantageous to use them, in modern and contemporary Art and Design, different movements and styles constantly merge together and every person has a different idea of what ‘beauty’ or ‘vulgarity’ actually are. Therefore when I say I appreciate this building it is more my curiosity about its story, my admiration for its boldness and perhaps even some sympathy for it, especially since there are now rumours of plans to demolish it, however I am not sure when.

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One comment

  1. Wow , ich war lange auf der Recherche nach Informationen rund um das
    Thema . Allerdings bin ich eher ausversehen hier gelandet.
    Aber nicht so schlimm, denn hin und wieder sind es Zufälle die einen exakt das finden lassen was man sucht.
    Danke für deinen Beitrag an der Stelle. Werde deine Website definitiv in meine Liste
    aufnehmen und regelmäßig ab sofort vorbeischauen. Gruß aus Koeln Jorg .

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