by Carole Poisson
Just a few days ago, and after already four months living in Berlin, I eventually fulfilled one of the touristic “must-sees” –if not the first one- : pay a visit to the glass dome of the Bundestag. West of it, a white bird-shaped building caught my attention as I was contemplating the city fading away in the last rays of day light. Among the other easily recognizable city landmarks, it took me a few seconds to realize what it actually was.
But according to the Berliners, who rather live on the ground than in the air, this building is nicknamed the pregnant oyster in reference to its shape as seen from the garden. Indeed, back on firm grounds it is hard to picture the wing shape that the architect intended to give to the building. From the garden at the rear, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt reveals its surprising curves, its large white sloping roof built on a solid brick structure. The eye of the visitor is so attracted by the flying white lines surrounding the building that the brick walls with their narrow ranges of glass are hardly noticed at first sight. However, taking a closer look from the café terrace overhanging the pond, these thick windowless walls contrast with the architect’s wish to build a place “with no restriction on the freedom of intellectual work”.
I happened to visit the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in November, for an event difficult to categorize. A dwelling for refugees in Moabit had worked together with some Middle East academics to create an interactive map offering to the newcomers a better understanding of the city. This event consisted in a noticeable patchwork of people (associations, activists, academics, geeks) and disciplines (critical geography, sociology, performative arts etc.). Indoors, the imposing volume of the hall is home to all sorts of events. Completed by a wide range of rooms and exhibition spaces, including a one thousand-seat conference room, the house plan speaks for itself. It seems the Haus der Kulturen der Welt was erected for its current purpose and eclectic cultural programming on “global cultures and non-European avant-garde art”.
But the venue we can enjoy today hasn’t always served as such. Indeed, the Schwangere Auster (pregnant oyster) has experienced multiple lives and functions since its construction in 1957. It has been initially conceived by the American skyscraper architect Hugh Stubbin for the second INTERBAU building competition that took place in the Hansaviertel, a West-Berlin area in disrepair since the Second World War. As Stubbing was the assistant of Gropius in Harvard before the war, he was therefore highly familiar with
German architecture. This building served as the American Pavilion during the INTERBAU and was then offered by the Benjamin Franklin Foundation to the city of West Berlin to become its new Congress Hall.
It was built on an artificial mound overlooking the Wall separating East- and West-Berlin from 1961 onwards. As it was erected just a few hundred meters away, it could easily be seen from the East side. Therefore, I would call it a Cold War one-upmanship token. Following the cultural and political bloom of 1989, the Congress was then converted to be the cultural venue we know today, still disseminating the ideas of the former West.
But its location is best suited for political mainstream and non-polemical events. This most probably explains why the Haus der Kulturen der Welt offers today a tidy but still avant-garde and challenging opening-up to the world. And if the pregnant oyster nickname is surely derisive, it is also affectionate. And I am looking forward to enjoying its jazz outdoor concerts next summer.