by Grace Etherington
(Text was written in June 2015)
all Images by Wladyslaw Sojka
Affectionately labelled Berlin’s love letter to Battlestar Galactica, the International Congress Centre (ICC) has been standing empty for over a year. It was the most expensive building ever to be built in West Berlin, and is still one of the largest congress centres in the world today. The Senate of Berlin promised a verdict concerning the aging giant’s future before the end of the month, and with required restoration costs estimated at €500m, a lingering sense of inevitable demolition remains.
The mammoth steelclad structure, often referred to as spaceshiplike, had been used to host conferences and events since its opening in 1979, and had welcomed guests continually until its closure last year. The discovery of asbestos in its internal structure brought the fate of the ICC into question, a frequently heard story featuring many other post war buildings in Berlin, including the former Palast der Republik. Without the money or the will to fund renovation works, the Berlin Congress Group moved to a newly purpose built home adjacent to the ICC, and a future tenant has yet to have been found. The sheer scale of this project requires a dedicated investor with special appreciation for the building, otherwise the silver giant may face drastic reconfiguration or complete demolition.
Suggestions of turning the ICC into a shopping mall or a new home for the regional library have been met with fierce criticism, namely from campaigners championing the exceptional scale of spaces in the building’s original configuration, and the beauty of the futuristic and cosmonautic auditoriums. Another strong argument in favour of restoration is the success the ICC had in its original purpose, and the continuing demand for a larger conference centre. As with numerous other examples of such controversies, renovation would never have been questioned if it were not for the issue of cost.
During the past year the debate surrounding the ICC has boiled down to the fundamental issue of whether the building is worth saving. Ugly, oafish and unrefined are criticisms commonly attributed to brutalist architecture, and it is easy to imagine them used with the ICC in mind. Its size leads to a feeling of awkwardness; the building’s squashed location between a major road and the SBahn ring results in unwelcoming immediate surroundings. Accessibility issues and a lack of outside public space create a sense of isolation. It is not a building that sells itself as something to be celebrated.
Not difficult, just misunderstood; the value of this building however lies in what it achieves despite its size. Gargantuan, yet not monumental, its low lying profile still implies approachability and evokes curiosity. Its fragmented structure and a variety of texture break down the solid mass of silver facade. It manages to counteract the ongoing trend for fixating on height as the key to iconic architectural status. It succeeds in remaining exciting and awe inspiring, even in today’s age of increasing hype around experimental city structures.
Hope clings on in the form of a proposed partial renovation, with the Senate promising a minimised budget of €200m if approved. The undesirable location of the plot on the city outskirts may save the ICC from the threat of private developers. Similarly the likelihood of any accountant recommending taking on such an enormous project seems low. Ultimately, the future of this unique and remarkable building is likely to lie with the proposal deemed least controversial.