Can you imagine that the top planner of a big city isn’t a harassed bureaucrat
who spends his time in competition juries and endless meetings, frustratedly
munching on the dry biscuits with a sticky blob of jam on top from the bowl
in the conference room whilst his colleagues wear themselves out over tender
texts and award procedures and the curbing of commercial interests?

Can you imagine that the
top planner of a big city isn’t a harassed bureaucrat who spends his time in competition juries and endless meetings, frustratedly munching on the dry biscuits with a sticky blob of jam on top from the bowl in the conference room whilst his colleagues wear themselves out over tender texts and award procedures and the curbing of commercial interests?

© Images Akademie der Künste Baukunstarchiv, Rudolf Kessler, Ingeborg Lommatzsch, Jorge Castillo, private archive

Imagine that he does all that, but also designs museums, cinemas, residential districts, kindergartens, churches, libraries and squares for his city; that he almost single-handedly rebuilds and redefines the city and is praised for it; that writers give almost affectionate speeches about him, that artists drink whisky with him until four in the morning whilst redesigning the city centre; that this plan- ner is not just an inventory manager, a tinkerer, a coordinator who has the pallor of the documents he is immersed in, but rather a utopian thinker whose architecture is a comprehensive blueprint for a society and a way of life? Berlin had such an architect. Werner Düttmann, born in 1921, was the city’s director of urban development from 1960 to 1966 – which didn’t stop him from designing even the public spaces that the city needed. Düttmann shaped Berlin as practically no other Berliner did before or has done since. His first building was erected there in 1952 – an old people’s home for 363 people in Wedding. Not a glamorous task, but an attempt to house as many people as possible with the scant resources available in the post-war period. Back then, many million cubic metres of rubble still covered the city and five hundred thousand dwellings had been destroyed – and what was astonishing was what Düttmann, only just thirty at the time, made out of this first assignment: the little that was possible did not look penny-pinching, but light, airy and elegant. The broad staircase, the fine handle on the glazed entrance door, the hallway to the dining room, somehow akin to an Italian loggia. None of this looked parsimonious but liberated from the material-heavy bombast of the Nazi period and not oppressive with the gloomy solemnity and unpleasantly coffin-like character of many other old people’s homes.

© Images Akademie der Künste Baukunstarchiv, Rudolf Kessler, Ingeborg Lommatzsch, Jorge Castillo, private archive

At the centre of the old people’s home there was a hall for 200 people and there was a stage; even then, Düttmann’s buildings were small towns where the question was always what people would do when they weren’t sleeping – in which rooms they would meet, what these rooms should encourage them to do, that is to say what public spaces might still exist or be reclaimed from the wastelands of deployment, intimidation and humiliation up to 1945. With the light, open and casual way in which they staged encoun- ters, Düttmann’s first buildings provided a template for the nascent society of the young federal republic. Form and ideology, economy and aesthetics mutually defined each other. Düttmann, an admirer of simple forms, knew how dangerous it was to cut corners when it came to what would make a space generous, light-filled, inviting and warm. Even as a young architect he was very critical of what was being built after 1945: in a speech about Schinkel he explained that “little of what was built was really ground-breaking” and that “thrift was not always proof of public spirit”; architecture should “make the nature and content of an urban community visible and thus come alive”. That was his guiding principle as the architect of major cultural buildings in Berlin including the Akademie der Künste, the Brücke Museum, the TU refectory, the church St. Agnes, but also as an urban planner.

The International Building Exhibition of 1957 has a lot to thank him for. For one thing, he was the executive architect for the Hugh Stubbins Congress Hall, a light winged structure from a transat- lantic future built in front of the bleak ruins of the Reichstag on the Spree. He also designed one of the most beautiful buildings of Berlin’s post-war period, the public library at Hansaplatz, which was the new centre of the district back then. There was a shopping centre and a cinema that now is the Grips Theater by the northern exit of the underground station and on the southern side a library for the inhabitants of the new towers and apartment blocks with a reading and newspaper room as well as 12 000 freely accessible books, which was to triple in size in later years. And this architec- ture was really a comprehensive design for a society, a prototype of how life, work, recreation and education could interact in the new cities.

Düttmann’s library is remarkable for its scale. This building is more domestic than public; the four 33 metre-long, one-storey, reinforced-concrete frame wings are arranged around a central atrium and the “reading garden” that they surround – in which Hardoy chairs stand around in old photographs – could also be the inner courtyard of a luxurious Californian case study house in Los Angeles or Palm Springs. Düttmann transforms an exclu- sive type of private building, the bungalow, into a public space, open to everyone and yet still possessing the intimacy of a private refuge. This book bungalow represented the democratisation of an exclusive building form and the Americanisation of Berlin – Palm Springs for everyone.

In a way Düttmann was thus very close to the forerunner of col- lective building in the modern age, Charles Fourier, who at the beginning of industrialisation in the early 19th century strongly criticised the new houses for workers – pitiful structures, offering the barest of necessities – and instead called for the construction of a “phalanstery”, a reproduction of Versailles palace with ball- rooms for thousands of workers, so that they too could sample the pleasures previously reserved for the aristocracy. There, as now, it was about democratising education, joie de vivre and hedonism instead of preparing citizens for challenging times with an ideology of self-denial, gritted teeth and austerity.

© Images Akademie der Künste Baukunstarchiv, Rudolf Kessler, Ingeborg Lommatzsch, Jorge Castillo, private archive

Düttmann was a pioneer of the collective and a great creator of positivity. Every resident of a small social housing apartment could feel like the owner of a modern American villa in the garden of his library. Düttmann’s hand-drawn sketches also depict, in stylistic form, this relaxed, sensually appreciative attitude to life. The pen wanders across the page of the sketchbook and throws in an occasional joke; here there’s a watering can, there there’s a dog lying the wrong way round in the grass. Düttmann drew like he was. Determined, but surprisingly laid-back, as seen on photographs of him at building visits, one hand in his pocket, smoking, making sweeping gestures, possessed by an “irrepressible directness”, as his friends put it in the monographic work “Werner Düttmann – In Love With Building” from 1990. His uncomplicated way withauthority is evident in old photographs; the federal president Theodor Heuss, his trousers drawn up to just below his chest in the fashion of the times with a short tie no longer than his neck, wanders in amazement through the new building complex with the relaxed and gesticulating Düttmann at his side and seems to be enjoying himself.

Düttmann’s work comes at a time where the state did not see urban- ism as a catalyst for commercial forces, but as an all-encompassing design. Düttmann demonstrated how spaces can react to the diverse needs either of community or isolation and what role culture can play in public space with his building of the Berlin Akademie der Künste at Tiergarten. Art historian Elisabeth Kelly describes it as an “inspiring alternation between architectural stages, the wide inviting staircase that leads the gaze outwards from the garden to the sky, the warm embrace of the low-ceilinged foyer, the theatre with its many secrets, the unconfined animation of the club rooms with their multifunctional inner staircase, then into the small square meeting room that is like a garden pavilion surrounded by water and roses, the dense stillness of the library, the enclosed sculpture courtyard in whose ponds the tall grasses blowing in the wind and the clouds are reflected. After such a tour, feeling illuminated, warm and (almost) reconciled with everything, you can once again endure the absurdities of the cultural scene for a while longer”.

Düttmann was a central figure of this scene and his buildings were the result and expression of a cultural climate in which art, architecture, literature, science and philosophy were closely linked. His friendship with the sculptor Henry Moore, with whom he made plans for Berlin, left its mark as did long evenings with architects such as Mies van der Rohe who Düttmann persuaded to design his only post-war building in Germany, the Nationalgalerie, in long and, according to Killy, whisky-filled nights. Düttmann’s close friendship with Uwe Johson also might have prompted him to rethink the city as a story, with the tension between and con- vergence of the literary and architectural narratives.

For those who didn’t know him personally, the old pictures give a vivid impression of Düttmann. Everything you see – the way his hair is whipped into a rock-n-roll quiff by the wind of a building site, his unevenly buttoned up trench coat, the bouquet of flowers hastily plucked in the front garden with the motor of the car already running – gives an impression of turbulence, improvisation, sprezzatura and speed, laced with a good dose of Berlin humour, like, for example, when he translates the elegantly lowering “mystère triste” (a mysterious sadness) of life as “tristen Mist” (a sad mess). An elegiac existentialist he was not. Düttmann’s generosity, however, writes Elisabeth Killy, “was boundless – he gave unstin- tingly. He was always ready to lend people money and didn’t like to ask for it back and if they waited for a while he’d just forget about it”. If a building had to be finished he would also arrive at the building site at four in the morning and you saw “how he encoura- ged the builders and handed out handfuls of hundred Mark bills to motivate them to stick it out. Although they would have done it for him anyway”.

His renowned generosity was a personal attribute that clearly fed through into his designs. Not a hint of stinginess, small-mindedness or blinkered Calvinism can be found in them; they fling open rooms like a double door and, where the spaces are smaller, they are intimate and warm.

© Images Akademie der Künste Baukunstarchiv, Rudolf Kessler, Ingeborg Lommatzsch, Jorge Castillo, private archive

The church and community centre of St Agnes in Berlin Kreuzberg, whose construction was in the period where he was the chief planning official, marks a stylistic break in Düttmann’s work. Founded in 1925, the Catholic community had four thousand members before the war, but had only four hundred left after it. It was only when a housing scheme with loosely grouped eight to ten-storey flats designed by Wils Ebert was initiated that the com- munity centre project with clergy house, church and kindergarten was launched. Düttmann also grouped these buildings around a courtyard, as he did with the library in the Hansa district, which was unusual for the unremitting trend towards dispersion of the post-war period and maybe an echo from Berlin’s courtyards that the architect knew from his own childhood. “Düttmann”, wrote Uwe Johnson, “the son of the sculptor Herrmann Düttmann led his life in the space, language and neighbourhoods of this city, thanking it with work”, and maybe also by writing its next chapters.

The formal language of St Agnes is heavily informed by the trade of Düttmann’s father. The church appears to be an extraordina- rily plastic yet abstract rock, the tower a stubby shaft upon which floats a cube as if supernatural forces had temporarily suspended gravity, the interior drawing on the traditional basilica layout. Admittedly, it appears bleak, reduced, strict, austere, like a castle on the outside and a gorge on the inside, but this is offset by the liveliness, the richness and the opulence of the materials. Bru- talism always sounds like a moral judgement in German, hailing from the term brutality, but if you step close enough Düttmann’s structure is much more akin to the French root of the word béton brut recalling champagne. Here, plastered and unfinished con- crete surfaces assume the role played by gold, marble, cherubs and fresco paintings in baroque churches. Düttmann was suspicious of everything that was anecdotally religious, or figures of Mary or Christ. “I have absolutely nothing against God, but his ground staff...”, he was once said to have grumbled according to Killy. The architecture, the space and the light effects are designed to create a direct atmospheric effect that could otherwise only be represented by Christian symbolism: with their raw materials and rough bricks, the dark corners of the building of Düttmann’s church recall early Christian catacombs; the great shaft of light that illuminates the area behind the altar is reminiscent of the beam of light in classical annunciation scenes and connects to a Christian aesthetic more structurally than formally.

That might have been the reason why the building quickly become so popular. The churchgoers found something here that they missed in modern architecture. The sense of space and the mystical atmosphere of old Roman churches. What Abbé Ferry said about Le Corbusier’s chapel of Ronchamp conceived a decade before also applies to Düttmann’s work: “It is no surprise to feel moved by an atmosphere harking back to earlier years in this building, like in the ancient catacombs and basilicas”.

© Images Akademie der Künste Baukunstarchiv, Rudolf Kessler, Ingeborg Lommatzsch, Jorge Castillo, private archive

St Agnes was also a decided departure from the white cubes of the post-war period, floating on thin reinforced concrete legs, which invariably exuded a sense of sterile and athletic modernity. A post-war church recalling mysterious grottoes, early Christian catacombs and archaic cave rituals, Indian dwellings and Arabi- an streets had so far been virtually unthinkable. The ultramodern made the next big step and landed in the archaic; in a small chapel hangs a picture of the Virgin Mary drawn by Düttmann himself, what you see is a very modern young woman of the sixties with her child.

The church is an interesting mix of history and modernity. Düttmann, a great collector of souvenirs and flea market finds, stages recent history in his apparently minimalist and abstract building in almost sentimental fashion. “Much of our love for Berlin is completely pointless”, he declared once in a speech, “but very meaningful, for example the Brandenburg Gate”. In many projects, he tried to revive the old city’s layout, at Mehringplatz for instance, which sought to revitalise the classic round plaza on a larger scale. In St Agnes, the walls of the aisles are made of rubble, from the bricks of bombed houses that stood here a gene- ration earlier. The histories and tragedies of the city, the life that once was here is thus alluded to as an abstract memory, as a mural depiction of the passion of Christ and as a wailing wall.

The floor of the church is covered with “end grain” flooring which recalls an old village square. The interior thus resembles an exterior, like an old marketplace, as in Gottfried Böhm’s later pilgrimage church in Neviges.

The way in which the church’s spaces are slotted together in cubes and bars is reminiscent of minimalist art – shaped as much by the austere formal language of post-war architecture as it in turn affected it – yet it also exhibits Japanese influences; the tower of Düttmann’s building, in particular, vividly recalls Japanese archi- tecture and the sculptural quality of Junzo Sarakura or Isozaki, with the top of the church tower hovering above its support like the one at Toyko’s San-Ai-Dream-Centre built in 1962. It was these echoes of Asia and America that made Berlin appear so interna- tional, like a filter of what came from abroad after a time in which the identity of the city was supposed to be built solely from the Germanic, the stuffy local culture and the monumentalism of the Nazi regime.

Düttmann was at his most decisive when it came to opening Berlin up to the outside, partly, too, because the tasks he faced were enormous. It was almost inevitable for things to be done on a grand scale. The six years in which he was the chief urban planner was a time when the state was building on a massive scale; every year two billion Marks were spent on building works of all kind in Berlin, 20 000 apartments were built, and emergency housing and improvised post-war shelters without running water torn down. Düttmann also wanted to build new cities instead of green slums, as we see, for example, in his plans for the Märkische district with over 16 000 apartments and a shopping centre, an indoor swim- ming pool, a cultural building, kindergartens, schools and plen- ty of green space, which was built for the most part by the local GESOBAU and is still seen as relatively successful today. “The Mär- kische district is 50 years old and we can say that it has been a great success”, said Reinickendorf’s district mayor Frank Balzer (CDU) three years ago. The gross rent for a renovated apartment is under eight euros per square metre. The negative image of the “test-tu- be” city was mostly due to the lack of shops, restaurants and bars for the masses of new residents – the infrastructure didn’t grow as fast as the residential population. Today about 36 000 people live in the high-rise buildings, the occupancy time is unusually long, an average of 21 years, and many have even been living there for two or three generations. And the fact that the Berlin musician Sido describes the district as a ghetto inhabited by junkies and criminals in his song “Mein Block” probably has more to do with German rappers’ longing for the tough conditions in America than actual reality. In places where there are no gangsters, gangster rap quickly starts to sound silly too.

The new buildings of Dahlem’s Technische Universität were also opened during Düttmann’s time in office. They were visited by Willy Brandt, the then mayor of Berlin, and John F. Kennedy in July 1963 on the same day of the latter’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Düttmann stayed true to the transatlantic archi- tectural style throughout all his formal experiments. His Schiepe house in Grunewald from the seventies still clearly shows Frank Llloyd Wright’s influence. Not everything that Düttmann planned was equally successful. His shopping centre, the Ku’damm-Eck, designed in 1972 was a complex that functioned like a city, but sucked the urban energies from the street inwards and reduced the intersection in front of the door to a mere hallway. And yet Düttmann, who passed away in 1983, is now more of a role model than ever before now that urban planning is once again called upon to become more than just area management, with the state having to act as a developer, instead of delegating the fate of public space to general contractors, who pack it full of properties built to the same cheerless designs for fear of costly and time-consuming experiments. And Berlin could do with a little more of the pizzazz and spark of Düttmann’s designs.

© Courtesy of the author and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung