In his 1987 film "Wings of Desire," German director Wim Wenders selected the main reading room of the Berlin State Library as the place where angels preferred to hang out. Looking like ordinary middle-aged people, the angels--invisible to everyone else in the film--prowled around the vast room, listening to the thoughts of human readers at the tables and chairs.
It was an extraordinary cinematic tribute to architecture. When you visit this library and do your own strolling around the enormous room, you find yourself feeling pleased and privileged, as those movie angels clearly did. This is one of the great public reading rooms of the world. Its tiered, flowing spaces are subtly elevating and surprising in a low-key way.
The library was designed for a competition in 1964 by Hans Scharoun. Construction didn't begin until shortly before he died at age 79 in 1972, and was completed in 1978 under the supervision of his longtime associate Edgar Wisniewski. Scharoun is well known in Germany, where all but one of his buildings are located, but he is scarcely more than a footnote in the architectural discourse of the rest of the world. This lack of recognition is ill deserved, for through his buildings Scharoun still has lots to say.
Scharoun's presence in Berlin is still strongly felt. Three of his masterful late designs--for the library, the Berlin Philharmonic Hall and (with Wisniewski) the city's Chamber Music Hall--are well used and highly visible. Along with several other important institutions, Scharoun's trio is part of the Culture Forum, a loosely knit cluster of large buildings close to the center of the city.
In addition to its prominence, the Culture Forum site is important for historical reasons. It is very close to where the Berlin Wall used to be--for West Berlin planners in the '50s, including Scharoun, the location of such an important group of institutions next to the border was symbolic of a hoped-for future unity.
Furthermore, this was where Hitler's chief architect, Albert Speer, began demolition to prepare for the primary north-south axis of Germania, the Fuerher's crazed idea of a capital on a gigantic scale he thought appropriate to the Thousand-Year Reich. The Culture Forum was intended to reclaim this land symbolically as well as literally. (Allied bombs had destroyed almost everything that Speer didn't get to.) Scharoun's buildings, in particular, were conceived as a deeply serious riposte to the grandiosity and authoritarianism of fascist architecture.
Even so, as a whole, the Culture Forum remains a strange, discomfiting place. Rather, it is a sort of non-place. The buildings are quite distant from one another, and the site is slashed by a wide through street. Drivers in fast-moving cars seem to be aiming at you as you cross.
Scharoun probably deserves some of the blame for this--he helped with the overall planning and, as enticing as his buildings are in their ways, they were not designed as urban space-shapers. Scharoun's weakness as a large-scale urban planner was widely shared among modern architects of his generation, of course. At the time, practically anyone with an architecture degree wanted to do away with the traditional city.
On the other hand, Scharoun's buildings can be deeply satisfying. Although he is often called an expressionist, a good argument can be made that Scharoun was a true form-follows-function kind of guy. When commencing a design he would analyze what was important inside the buildings and move outward from there.
The highly informal, non-monumental exteriors of his three Culture Forum buildings reflect this. Their odd-seeming shapes and long, angled planes sheathed with golden-colored, perforated sheet-metal panels are, in a sense, simply what was left over when the insides were done to the architect's satisfaction.
That is oversimplifying, but not by much. It is from the inside that one can begin truly to appreciate the subtlety and conviction of these buildings. Afterward, the relaxed exteriors are likely to make a great deal more sense. In this, Scharoun's buildings here are almost precisely the reverse of another Culture Forum building--the New National Gallery by one of the 20th century's great masters, Mies van der Rohe, completed in 1968.
The raised pavilion by Mies, with its pillars of black steel and enormous plates of transparent glass, is an extremely beautiful object, an impressive minimalist jewel. But it is a terrible museum. The permanent collection can be shown only in underground galleries, and the huge ground-floor room with the glass walls might make a dreamy (if over-large) dance floor. By contrast, Scharoun's buildings may not be so beautiful in a conventional sense, but they are exceedingly satisfying and useful.
With its tentlike roof profile, the Philharmonic Hall was dubbed "Zirkus Karajani" by Berliners shortly after its completion in 1963--combining the name of famous conductor Herbert von Karajan with that of a popular circus. Yet the charm and innovation of the architecture is due mainly to the interior of the auditorium--the orchestra is in the approximate middle, and irregularly shaped seating platforms spiral and whirl around it. The space is like a "hillside vineyard," the architect said.
Breaking the mold of the traditional concert hall box, this is a wonderfully rich and dynamic arrangement, though with a few minor acoustical problems, it is said. The amphitheater also is an intimate space--no seat in the 2,220-capacity house is more than about 100 feet from the orchestra. (The smaller Chamber Music Hall, completed in 1987, with Wisniewski developing Scharoun's initial concept, is similarly centered on the stage.)
It is not just stylistic whim, then, that makes Scharoun's buildings look so different from classical temples, Hitlerian fantasies or modernist boxes. He believed the "universal principle of democracy" to be the ethical basis for every design, and thought his public buildings, by their example, would help foster "natural, organically formed communities."
For me, the library reading room is Exhibit A in the case for Hans Scharoun. Like the concert halls, it, too, breaks a mold--the long line of reading rooms in the classical tradition. The stupendous domed centerpiece of the Library of Congress is one example of the type. The splendid reading room of the New York Public Library is another.
I have nothing against these great buildings. To the contrary, they are among my favorite places in their respective cities. Architecturally, they were finely conceived, superbly realized. They demonstrate America's time-honored tendency to transform ancient cultural norms--in this case, those of classical architecture--to democratic purposes.
But Scharoun throughout his professional life had a different take. He believed that the architecture of a 20th-century democracy required new methods and goals, and in the great reading room of this library you get a sense of what that means.
The space is non-hierarchical. There is no obvious center. No particular table or chair seems that much better than another. There are many changes of level--I counted 11--and many different views and surprises. In one place, you look out over a sea of book stacks. In another, you have a framed window view of the Mies building across the street. Freedom of choice is omnipresent--there is never just one single way to get from here to there. It is a dynamic space, but restful. You can understand why it is much liked by both angels and humans.